Standing on the shoulders Influential hero image


These persuasive women have not all been in formal positions of power, but they have all made a profound difference.

Dame Sian Elias


Dame Sian Elias was New Zealand's first female Chief Justice (the highest judicial position in the country) and held the role for 20 years, from 1999 until March 2019.

Born in London she emigrated to Auckland as a child and in 1966 was one of a handful of female students at Auckland University's Law School. She was admitted to the bar in 1970, and studied further in the United States before entering legal practice in Auckland.

She specialised in company law, but became known for her work on Treaty of Waitangi claims. She was appointed as one of the first two female Queen's Counsels in 1988 and then as a judge of the High Court in 1995. 

Dame Sian became Chief Justice in 1999. In 2009, she caused controversy in a speech in which she called for new thinking around the problem of prison overcrowding, including possible early release of low-risk prisoners. She also suggested more funding for early childhood intervention could prevent 'blameless babes' eventually becoming some of our worst criminals.

In 1996, she was interviewed by RNZ's Brian Edwards and in this excerpt she talks about not realising law was an unusual career choice for a young woman, until she enrolled at Auckland University in 1966.

Find out more about Dame Sian Elias:

Listen to the full 1996 interview with Dame Sian Elias.

See this interview with Dame Sian about the Treaty of Waitangi.

Collection reference 36856
Year 1996
Credits Interviewer: Brian Edwards, Top o' the Morning, RNZ National

Jeanette Fitzsimons


Jeanette Fitzsimons was the co-leader of the Green Party from 1995 to 2009, and a Member of Parliament from 1996 to 2010. However, she was involved in the environmental movement and Green politics in New Zealand for many years before entering Parliament.

In a radio interview on her retirement, she talked about the people and books which influenced her life. In this excerpt, Fitzsimons explains that in 1972 she read the newly-released report Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome, which predicted that over-exploitation of Earth's finite resources would lead to environmental collapse in the first half of the 21st century. She says reading works like this were a powerful influence in her thinking and future political career.

As a young mother and university lecturer she joined the Values Party – a forerunner of the Greens – in the mid-1970s, and began standing as a candidate for election in 1978. Fitzsimons and her husband farm near Thames. In the 1996 election she entered Parliament as a list MP and in 1999 she was elected by the Coromandel electorate.

Throughout her political career she campaigned for Parliament to take action on the issues of climate change, anti-nuclear policy and mining of fossil fuels and in her valedictory speech chided MPs for being in-denial about "the mirage of GDP". Fitzsimons has remained active in these fields since her retirement from Parliament in 2010. In that year she was also made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to public life.

Find out more about Jeanette Fitzsimons:

Listen to the full 2010 interview with Jeanette Fitzsimons. 

Listen to a report on Fitzsimons' valedictory speech from Parliament.

Read an article about Jeanette Fitzsimons in North & South

Read more about Fitzsimons' work and record in Parliament.

Collection reference 147686
Year 2010
Credits Interviewer: Chris Laidlaw, Ideas, RNZ National

Dr Hinemoa Elder

MNZM, Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāpuhi

As a practising Māori child psychiatrist, specialising in traumatic brain injury, Dr Hinemoa Elder made a profound difference when she designed a cultural needs assessment tool for medical staff to use when working with Māori patients.

After graduating as a doctor in 1998, Elder was soon confronted by the many barriers Māori face when trying to access good health care. She also saw that many Māori were stuck in a Western approach to health, which often fragmented and compartmentalised them, and which does not align with their cultural needs. Rather than becoming part of the problem, this influential woman designed a framework that incorporates mātauranga Māori and takes a more holistic approach to care.

As well as maintaining her own clinical practice, Elder also sits on the Mental Health Review Tribunal, writes forensic court reports for intellectually disabled offenders, is the Māori strategic advisor for Brain Research New Zealand and is Professor Indigenous Health Research at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

Elder is an advocate for te reo Māori, in this interview broadcast on Te Karere in 2013, she talks in te reo, about the cultural needs assessment framework she helped develop.

Dr Elder was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honour's List for her services to psychiatry and Māori. 

Find out more about Dr Hinemoa Elder:

Read about Elder on the 100 māori leaders website.

Check out this Stuff online article about 'The reincarnation of Hinemoa Elder', by Michelle Duff, 16/9/18

Collection reference TZP436663
Year 2013
Credits Reporter: Peata Melbourne

Joan Wiffen

Affectionately known as the 'Dinosaur Lady of New Zealand', Joan Wiffen rewrote New Zealand’s natural history when she discovered a fossilised bone in the Mangahouanga Stream in Hawke’s Bay in 1973. Formal identification of the theropod bone (in 1979) debunked the commonly held belief that dinosaurs had never inhabited Aotearoa.

Born at a time when educational opportunities for girls were slim, Wiffen left school early. She discovered her passion for fossils when she attended a night-school geology class for her husband, Pont. The class sparked a deep curiosity that never left her and over the following 35 years Wiffen’s scientific endeavours covered arduous field work, painstaking fossil preparation, taxonomic description and palaeontological interpretation. In the process, and with no formal training, she revealed evidence of probably five types of dinosaur in New Zealand.

Motivated by the joy of discovery, Wiffen communicated her passion for fossils and palaeontology through popular books and articles, public lectures and school presentations – all of which turned this self-described “rank amateur, a Hawke’s Bay housewife” into one of New Zealand’s best-known scientists.

Witness Wiffen’s enthusiasm for her craft in these excerpts from Joan and the Dragons – a Spectrum documentary broadcast on RNZ in 1996.

Listen to the complete Joan and the Dragons.

Find out more about Joan Wiffen:

See Wiffen's biography at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Joan Wiffen is remembered by the Science Media Centre.

Read about her on the Science Learn website.

You can also read Wiffen's obituary on 

Collection reference 22434
Year 1996
Credits Interviewer: Alistair McAlpine, Spectrum, RNZ National

Maud Basham

"Aunt Daisy", MBE

Maud Basham's long radio career began in 1928 during the first decade of the medium in New Zealand when she started singing on Auckland stations. She then moved to presenting a children's session, under the name "Aunt Daisy" which was to stick for the rest of her career. In the 1930s she joined the Commercial Broadcasting Service and moved to Wellington – presenting a nationwide programme every weekday morning which she did for the next 30 years.

In her characteristic rapid-fire patter, Aunt Daisy would chat informally to her audience, sprinkling 'infomercial-style' endorsements for her sponsors' products with recipes, home hints and letters from listeners.

For over three decades 'Aunt Daisy' was the Queen of Radio in New Zealand and was regarded as the most influential woman in the country when it came to advertising. It was said if she endorsed a product on her morning programme, it would be sold out by lunchtime. Her influence was extended by best-selling cookbooks as well as books of household hints which were compiled from content of her programmes. 

In this excerpt from an interview about her career she explains how she only ever promoted products she believed in – which meant her audience trusted her recommendations.

Find out more about Aunt Daisy:

Watch Aunt Daisy in, Cookery Nook , a humourous promotional film for Edmonds baking products. 

Listen to one of Aunt Daisy's weekday radio programmes from 1950.

Read Maud Basham's profile on the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Collection reference 32957
Year 1955
Credits Radio New Zealand

Taelomu Louisa Crawley

Louisa Crawley was born in Samoa but won a scholarship to study at a boarding school in New Plymouth. She eventually became a teacher at Wellington schools before returning to Samoa. 

On her return to New Zealand in the 1980s she settled in Christchurch and served on the City Council as well as being very involved in many of the city's community and cultural organisations. Crawley worked as a policy advisor in the newly-formed Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs and served two terms as President of the national women's organisation, P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A.

In this 1993 radio interview, Crawley recalls she was the first girl to come to her school from the Pacific and although she was homesick, it had its advantages.

Find out more about Taelomu Louisa Crawley:

Listen to the full 1993 interview with Louisa Crawley.

Read Christchurch City Libraries profile of Louisa Crawley.

Find out more about P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A. in this essay co-written by Crawley

Collection reference 244866
Year 1993
Credits Interviewer: Myra Oh, RNZ International

Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan

ONZ, Ngāi Tahu

A ten-term parliamentarian, The Honourable Tini "Whetū" Mārama Tirikātene-Sullivan had an influential career distinctive for the number of firsts she achieved. 

Elected to parliament in 1967 she was the first Māori woman cabinet member, the first woman to give birth while a sitting MP and the first cabinet member to give birth in Aotearoa and the Commonwealth. A champion for women’s rights, in 1970 Tirikātene-Sullivan took her infant child to Parliament with her when it was not the family-friendly place it has become recently. 

An advocate for Māori, Tirikātene-Sullivan campaigned to promote Māori language, health employment, and education, and fought long and hard for better Māori representation in Parliament.

In this clip from the 1969 Labour Party Conference she speaks, against the proposed, all-white, All Black tour to South Africa which would be an act "accepting the conditions of apartheid law".

Find out more about Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan:

Read the RNZ obituary for Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan.

View the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography profile for Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan.

Collection reference F87682
Year 1969
Credits Production: NZBC

Dame Miriam Dell


Throughout her long career Dame Miriam Dell has been an advocate for women. In the 1970s she was a founder member of the Hutt Valley branch of the National Council for Women and went on to become President of both the New Zealand Council and the International Council. 

During the 1970s – the "Decade for Women" – Miriam Dell was the New Zealand Government’s delegate to the three United Nations’ conferences for women and, in 1975, she was the coordinator for International Women’s Year. 

Dell's career isn’t limited to politics and international councils. She was a botanist and secondary school teacher and, in 2013, the New Zealand Association for Women in Science created the Miriam Dell Award for excellence in science mentoring. Dell’s influence is summed up in the 1993 briefing to the Prime Minister and Cabinet when she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit: "Her focus has been on creating the capacity for and instigating the confidence in women to freely make their own choice, use their talents, and challenge themselves".

Watch a clip from Eyewitness News as Miriam Dell summarises the achievements gained for women in the decade following International Women’s Year in 1975.

Find out more about Dame Miriam Dell: 

Read about her in this NZ Honour Recipient, Order of New Zealand, 1993, Dept of PM and Cabinet briefing.

Check out this article on RNZ about Suffrage 125: Three generations of feminists.

Collection reference TZP130088
Year 1985
Credits Reporter: John Hart

Kim Hill

As one of New Zealand's best-known media personalities, Kim Hill has worked on most of RNZ's flagship programmes, since she joined the broadcaster in the 1980s. From Checkpoint she moved to Morning Report, which she co-presented with Geoff Robinson in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, she hosted the Nine-to-Noon slot and since 2002, she has made Saturday Morning appointment listening for thousands of New Zealanders. 

Famous for her quick wit and take-no-prisoners interview style, in 2012 she won the International Radio Personality of the Year Award from the Association for International Broadcasting.

Judges described Kim as: "an experienced and warm broadcaster exercising full control of her content whilst coaxing her guests to reveal more of themselves; really enjoyable live and sparky content that demonstrates what is great about radio and illustrates how important lightness of touch is in speech content".

For a great example of Kim Hill in her element, listen to this excerpt – the start of her 2007 interview with 81-year-old naturalist and author Sheila Natusch.

Find out more about Kim Hill:

Read Kim Hill's profile page on RNZ's website. 

Listen to the full interview by Kim Hill with Sheila Natusch. 

Collection reference 156692
Year 1993
Credits Interviewer: Kim Hill, Saturday Morning, RNZ National; Interviewee: Sheila Natusch

Penny Jamieson


The Rt Rev Dr Penny Jamieson was the first woman in the world to be appointed as a diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church, when she was named as Bishop of Dunedin in 1989. She had only been ordained into the priesthood seven years earlier and was surprised when the position was offered to her. At a time when some still argued against women taking any leadership roles in the church, she faced opposition from many sides, including within the church itself. The Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, the Rt Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe and the Catholic Bishop of Dunedin, the Most Rev Leonard Boyle, boycotted Penny’s ordination in protest.

In this radio interview from 1989, she talks about what she brings to the new role and the reaction to her appointment.

Read more about Dr Jamieson's appointment on

Collection reference 5290
Year 1989
Credits Interviewer: Geoff Robinson, Morning Report, RNZ National

Lydia Ko


In Auckland in January 2012, 14-year-old Lydia Ko made world headlines by becoming the youngest golfer to ever win a professional tournament. It was just the start of a whirlwind few years, which would see her turn professional in October 2013 and be named the world's No 1 woman golfer in 2015 at the age of just 17, which made her the youngest ever No 1 of either gender. 

The Korean-born golfer credits her mother with much of her success, saying her devotion to helping Ko pursue her career has been a 'huge inspiration'.

Ko was named Young New Zealander of the Year in 2016. And, in the same year, she won a silver medal in women's golf at the Rio Olympics. 

Ko was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to golf in 2019.

In this radio interview from 2012, the 14-year-old talks about how she overcame nerves to win her first professional tournament, after narrowly missing out the year before.

Read more about Lydia Ko.

Collection reference 267544
Year 2012
Credits Interviewer: Simon Mercep, Morning Report, RNZ National

Teresia Teaiwa

The late Dr Teresia Teaiwa (I-Kiribati) was mourned across the Pacific when she passed away in 2017. A leading academic in the field of Pacific Studies, she was Director of Va'aomanū Pasifika, Victoria University's Pacific and Samoan Studies programme. 

Teaiwa was also a published poet and activist who campaigned for many social justice issues across multiple platforms.

In this excerpt from a radio interview in 2014, she talks about a recent conference she had attended in West Papua and how it was a chance for Pacific people to work together on the fight for Papuan self-determination, as well as issues in their own homelands.

Find out more about Dr Teresia Teaiwa: 

Listen to Dr Teaiwa talking about the roles of Pacific women in independence struggles

Read more about Dr Teaiwa's life and work. 

Collection reference 272239
Year 2014
Credits Interviewer: Maraea Rakuraku, Te Ahi Kaa, RNZ National

Cathy Moana Dewes

ONZM, Ngāti Rangitihi, Te Arawa, Ngāti Porou

Dr Cathy Dewes has been at the forefront of the revitalisation of te reo Māori all her adult life. She is principal of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata, in Rotorua and has been a leader in Māori education for more than 40 years. She says part of her motivation was being told she could not study Māori at her Wellington high school, “It was then I realised that society needed to change in order that Māori might live". 

Dewes was a member of the Te Reo Māori Society, that began Māori Language Day in 1975, which became Māori Language Week and she was instrumental in setting up Kura Kaupapa Māori throughout Aotearoa. 

In 1995, Dewes overcame sexism to be the first woman appointed to Te Arawa Māori Trust Board.

In this radio interview from the 1990s, she speaks about the need for the education system to provide bilingual schooling for Māori-speaking children who were graduating from kōhanga reo.

Watch a news item about Dr Dewes' work with Te Reo Māori Society

Listen to a radio interview with Dr Dewes after her election to Te Arawa Trust Board in 1995. 

Collection reference 43923
Year 1995
Credits: Interviewer: Piripi Walker

Theresa Gattung


Theresa Gattung made headlines in 1999, when at 37 she was appointed Chief Executive of Telecom New Zealand. Not only a woman, but a leader from a younger generation, Theresa Gattung was heralded for breaking a business glass ceiling. 

Stepping down from Telecom (now Spark) in 2007, this influential woman has championed a number of causes – including co-founding My Food Bag and world women. She is a strong advocate for pay equity for Kiwi women and in October 2017 helped introduce sheEO, a “disruptive economic model” to Aotearoa – “the future of finance is female – and its generosity is radical”.

In this excerpt, broadcast just after her appointment as Telecom’s Chief Executive, Theresa Gattung is One News’ Person of the Week. Watch as she talks about growing up, her leadership style and life philosophies.

Check out Theresa Gattung’s website. 

Collection reference TZP216830
Year 1999
Credits Reporter: Mike Jaspers

Mavis Mullins

MNZM, Rangitāne, Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Ranginui

Mavis Mullins’ LinkedIn profile lists some 18 jobs – for many this would be too many, but for Mullins it seems about right! 

The second Māori woman (the first was Te Puea Hērangi) to be inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame, Mullins has an impressive list of accolades and has used her influence to increase self-esteem and pride in the shearing industry. 

Beginning in the whānau company as a wool classer, Mullins’ shearing business became the first in the world to achieve ISO 9002 accreditation – a global quality management system. "People said we were dumb doing that for shearers, but we thought: No. We’re worth it."

Watch the above extract from I know a Sheila Like That as Mavis Mullins talks about the evolution of the shearing industry.

Find out more about Mullins’ achievements.

Collection reference F212509
Year 2010
Credits Velvet Stone Media

Eleitino Paddy Walker


An advocate for Pacific women in Aotearoa, Eleitino Paddy Walker (known to many as Paddy) had a lifelong commitment to education, Pacific women and peace within the Pacific. She was one of the founders, and the first president of P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A (Pacific Allied [Women’s] Council Inspires Faith in Ideals Concerning All) in 1976. 

This influential woman was the first Auckland City Councillor of Pacific descent and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

In this excerpt from a Tagata Pasifika profile, Paddy Walker talks about the Pacific Island Youth Leadership Trust she helped establish which gives scholarships enabling Pasifika students to go to university.

Find out more about Eleitino Paddy Walker: 

Listen to an RNZ tribute to Paddy Walker.

Read a tribute about Paddy Walker from the Auckland University, Education and Social Work Department.

Collection reference TZP348869
Year 2008
Credits Director: Lisa Taouma