Mabel Howard – New Zealand’s first woman Cabinet Minister

It is 70 years since Mabel Howard (1894 – 1972) became New Zealand’s first woman Cabinet Minister.  She first entered Parliament in 1943, after winning the Christchurch East by-election on 6 February. In 1946, she won in the newly-formed electorate of Sydenham. In May 1947, Mabel was voted into Cabinet by the Labour caucus, on the death of Dan Sullivan.

Parliamentary debates 1st session, 28th Parliament vol. 267  June 24 to July 29 1947 lists Mabel like this:
Labour Ministry: Minister of Health, and Minister in Charge of Mental Hospitals – The Hon. Mabel Bowden Howard.

You can see Mabel talk about her new position – and what it meant to the women of New Zealand – here in New Zealand National Film Unit presents Weekly Review No. 306 (1947) published on ArchivesNZ YouTube channel.

A memorable moment in NZ political (and social) history is Mabel holding up bloomers. This was part of a debate in Parliament, to demonstrate variation in clothing sizes.

Member of Parliament, Mabel Howard, demonstrating that oversize bloomers vary in size. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-NZ Obits-Ho to Ht-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22391156
Member of Parliament, Mabel Howard, demonstrating that oversize bloomers vary in size. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-NZ Obits-Ho to Ht-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22391156

Jim McAloon’s biography of Mabel in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography details her interesting life and career. She came into politics via the union movement, and working with her MP father Ted Howard.

Mabel Howard, Minister of Social Security, inspecting a data processing machine [computer?] built by IBM at the Social Security Building, Wellington. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/4269-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23259028
Mabel Howard, Minister of Social Security, inspecting a data processing machine [computer?] built by IBM at the Social Security Building, Wellington. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/4269-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23259028
Mabel was a Christchurch City councillor for a number of terms: 1933-1935, 1938-1941, 1950-1959, 1963-1968.

Green & Hahn (Firm). Dame Mabel Howard jiving with singer Johnny Devlin - Photograph taken by Green and Hahn. Clauson, Lou, 1928-2013:Photographs of singers and other entertainers. Ref: PAColl-5679-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23210753
Green & Hahn (Firm). Dame Mabel Howard jiving with singer Johnny Devlin – Photograph taken by Green and Hahn. Clauson, Lou, 1928-2013:Photographs of singers and other entertainers. Ref: PAColl-5679-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23210753

Mabel was a colourful character. There are fab Mabel photo ops you can see on DigitalNZ. She was bullish, efficient, conscientious, determined, and hard-working. Her life and career demonstrate her ongoing concern with women’s rights, equal pay, consumer protection, and social welfare. She was a fighter. A trail-blazer.

Mrs Mabel Howard, in her new house in Karori, Wellington, showing her making a cup of tea. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1960/0845-1-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30652147
Mrs Mabel Howard, in her new house in Karori, Wellington, showing her making a cup of tea. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1960/0845-1-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30652147

More about Mabel

Listen to:
Mabel Howard Women in the Council Chamber
Christchurch City Council
This brief political biography originally featured in an Our City O-Tautahi exhibition from 19 – 30 September 2006, featuring Christchurch’s own “Women in the Council Chamber”, initiated and co-ordinated by Cr Anna Crighton.

2 thoughts on “Mabel Howard – New Zealand’s first woman Cabinet Minister

  1. Sarndra Lees 13 May 2017 / 5:17 pm

    In 2005 i photographed the HOWARD family grave in Bromley cemetery (prior to the earthquakes of course). I was hunting for graves for my family tree at the time and was looking for the plot of a distant cousin’s wife – Noni. It transpired that she was Mabel’s niece.
    Here is a grave photo. Mabel is buried with her politician father John and sister Elsie.
    HOWARD/LAMONT grave
    In the comments section one the link is opened, there are photographs documenting the grand headstone’s damage after was tossed apart during the earthquakes.
    Mabel at one stage lived in a cottage on a bend in Pages Road near Cowles Stadium
    This is it taken hours of the February 2011 earthquake.
    Pages Rd

  2. Donna 15 May 2017 / 8:18 am

    Thanks Sarndra, that’s fascinating. Great info.

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