In macho New Zealand, women rule public life

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The Independent Online

New Zealand, macho bastion of rugby players and sheep shearers, has a woman in every key constitutional position after a former high court judge was named as the country's Governor General yesterday.

New Zealand, macho bastion of rugby players and sheep shearers, has a woman in every key constitutional position after a former high court judge was named as the country's Governor General yesterday.

Dame Silvia Cartwright, 56, completes the clean sweep of women who now dominate public life in New Zealand. She joins the Prime Minister Helen Clark, the leader of the opposition Jenny Shipley, the Attorney General Margaret Wilson and the chief justice Dame Sian Elias. The country's head of state is another woman, Queen Elizabeth II.

As well as holding all the top political and judicial jobs, women have also risen to the pinnacle of the business world. The chief executive of Telecom, the country's biggest listed corporation, is a woman, Theresa Gattung.

New Zealand's caveman image is not without foundation. Homosexuality was legalised only a decade ago and the country was plunged into national mourning last year after the All Blacks were defeated by France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup.

But New Zealand has also, less famously, been in the vanguard of sexual egalitarianism. It was the first nation to give women the vote, in 1893, and New Zealanders claim that, when it comes to sexual equality, they are far more enlightened than their neighbours across the Tasman Sea in Australia.

Among the theories put forward for the phenomenal advance of women in recent years is that they find it easier to achieve success in a small country of just under three million people. It is noteworthy that the number of women and Maori politicians in the Wellington parliament is an almost exact reflection of their relative population profiles.

Dame Silvia, who will be the Queen's representative in New Zealand, was the first female chief justice of New Zealand's District Courts. In 1993 she became the first female high court judge. She will take up her new job next March, replacing another former judge, Sir Michael Hardie Boys.

New Zealand has already had one female governor general: the popular and charismatic Dame Cath Tizard, who held the post from 1990 to 1996, when there was a male prime minister at the helm.

Last November's general election was the first in the Western world to pit two female party leaders against each other for the highest political office. Mrs Shipley, once known as the "perfumed bulldozer", became the first woman to be New Zealand's prime minister in 1997 after deposing Jim Bolger. Ms Clark is the country's first elected female Prime Minister.

Dame Silvia achieved prominence after presiding over an inquiry in 1987 into a scandal in which hospital doctors deliberately withheld treatment to cervical cancer patients in order to observe the progression of the disease. The inquiry led to patients' rights being strengthened. She is also a member of a United Nations committee that monitors women's rights.

Announcing the appointment yesterday, after it was confirmed by the Queen, Ms Clark said: "Dame Silvia has made an impressive contribution to New Zealand at home and abroad as a lawyer and a jurist and as an advocate for women and women's rights."

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