For as long as she can remember, Margaret Wilson never understood why girls and women were treated differently. It didn't seem to make any sense to her that women had fewer opportunities than men, made less money, had fewer rights.
Decades later, having penned a memoir about her pursuit of equality, she says there was often nothing malicious in much of the discrimination she experienced as a young woman.
Nor in the direct sexism she experienced as a teenager when she was told, as the only girl in the upper sixth form, to make herself scarce between lessons.
She saw the fact that there were only seven women out of 200 students in her law year as progression.
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But she knew it was an unequal world she lived in. Things needed to change, and she was going to be the change-maker.
Equality for women became her life's work.
Her memoir, Activism, Feminism, Politics and Parliament , published this month, is a perfectly apt description of what lies within. It is what might be described as an academic bodice-ripper.
Wilson – a former MP, attorney-general, Speaker of the House – is, at 74, an intellectual juggernaut who gives an insight into the machinations of the Labour Party and government specifically, and the brutal world of politics in general.
The former Labour Party president was elected on the Labour list in 1999 and held several portfolios including minister of labour and minister in charge of Treaty negotiations, while also serving as attorney-general. She finished her career in politics as Speaker.
Politics had run in Wilson's family.
Theirs was not a political household, but they were always conscious of politics and the role it played in people's lives – "Whoever was in government was going to determine your wellbeing," she says.
Her great-grandfather was pelted with rotten vegetables electioneering for a role in Parliament as a Liberal.
In today's political pit, the vegetables have been replaced with vitriol on social media, she says.
She was born in Gisborne and raised in Waikato with her younger siblings – a brother and twin sisters. Her father was on the Morrinsville Borough Council.
"It wasn't an easy or natural thing for him to do, but it was the right thing to do. He never sought the limelight. It was about public service, and through that people's needs were addressed."
At 16, her life changed irrevocably after she noticed a painful swelling on her left leg. It was diagnosed as a cancerous tumour and within a week she had an amputation above the knee.
With a prosthesis, and pain a constant companion, a hoped-for career in physical education was off the cards.
Law school had never entered her mind till this point. It was born out of a fear of being unable to support herself financially.
"I worked through it logistically; doing law was about making me financially independent. Being dependent on others when you have a disability really does constrain your life. That was the fundamental reason I got into law."
It seemed to come quite naturally to someone who says she has always had a healthy respect for rules (an anecdote early in her book about leading a raid on the cocoa store at kindergarten notwithstanding).
"I've always thought rules were important. While I don't always like the rules, I tend to think you should change them rather than ignore or break them.
"[Studying] law felt right. Sometimes you just know what to do, and I did."
She was in interesting company at university: Sian Elias, Clare-Marie Beeson, David Lange.
"We were a pretty eclectic lot, really, not coming from similar backgrounds or environments, and all mixing together."
She's kept in touch with Elias and Beeson, among others. The big minds meet for lunch.
She graduated and got a job with a barrister’s office on Queen St in Auckland.
At the same time she volunteered with the Legal Workers' Union. She was labelled a communist for the latter.
She hates labels, but if pushed she'd regard herself as a socialist rather than radical feminist.
"I had always been a feminist. I thought I could use my legal skills to let people know what their rights were, what the remedies might be, what was needed to change in the law."
Her entry into the Labour Party was really the work of Robert Muldoon, she says.
She doubts she would have got seriously involved in politics if it were not for his "regressive policies".
"He was just so incredibly unfair and therefore cut off all possibilities of change at that time. If I wanted to live the life I wanted to live, I knew I had to get involved."
She fell in with a pretty interesting crowd – Helen Clark, Jim Anderton, Ann and John Hercus – all of whom were determined to reform the Labour Party's constitution.
"There was a real sense of mission. A sense that what we were doing was good and hard and important and exhausting, but [we] had a focus. There was a meaning to it," she recalls.
Wilson, who was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009, met Clark at Auckland University in the 1970s.
They have a good friendship, she says.
"We share a lot of values that are the same. We are both full-time aunties. We are both pretty conscious of our families and the importance of that."
In her memoir, she admits to trying Clark's patience on many occasions. From time to time, she writes, it was made clear to her that her job was at risk.
"I think I've tried a lot of people's patience, but sometimes you have to push the envelope a bit too far."
There were some who may have thought ejecting Clark from the House during Wilson's four-year term as Speaker may have been pushing it.
She laughs at that now.
"I fundamentally believe that people should follow the rules, and they don't in Parliament, and you get to a stage where they don't follow them once too often and that's what happened. I shocked everybody, I'm afraid."
In her book she says it took some time to restore a good relationship with the PM's office.
"It was made clear to me by some members that I should not get above myself in thinking the Speaker had a special status," she writes.
In a perfect world, Wilson would have spent her career in academia.
But she learned early on that if you want to make change you have to be part of the system that makes the rules.
So when Clark called and asked her to stand on the Labour list, she saw it as an opportunity to continue her work for women's equality from a place where change could be legislated.
Over the following six years she achieved success with the Employment Relations Act, Property (Relationships) Act, Human Rights Act, as well as juggling the notoriously difficult Treaty of Waitangi negotiations portfolio among others.
She was also the minister responsible for introducing the Supreme Court after many had tried and failed.
Wilson's credentials are voluminous: she was director of the Reserve Bank, the founding dean of Waikato Law School, first female president of the Labour Party and the first female Speaker. She helped establish the Labour Women's Council.
Despite her achievements, she wrestled with a sometimes unsympathetic public profile.
Too difficult, too academic, too clever, too politically correct, too demanding, too unsmiling. The latter was often a result of the constant pain she felt in her leg. She rarely took painkillers because they clouded her sharp mind.
She says the only one she really talked to about her constant pain was her cat.
"I wasn't there for a public image, I was there to try and get things done.
"I didn't see being difficult as being a problem unless it got in the way of what I wanted to do. That was just being a woman. Of course, you were being seen to be difficult because you were acting outside the norm."
To the charge of being labelled "the minister from hell" by her own colleagues, she says she was aware of her high expectations of herself and others.
"I'd always felt time was important. We knew we were there to do a job, and you had three years to do it in. I wanted things turned around quickly. Sometimes that was a fair expectation, sometimes it probably wasn't."
After quitting parliament in 2008 she returned to academic life and continues her work as an emeritus professor at Waikato University, where she had established the country's fifth law school in 1990.
She lives in a townhouse with her adopted cat, Madam, in Hamilton. Her twin sisters are her neighbours.
Women have come a long way in terms of legal equality during the past 40 years, but there is still a long way to go. "Wherever we are and whatever we do, women still need to struggle to have our voices heard," she says.
However difficult that might be.
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