Jenny Shipley – New Zealand’s first female prime minister

Jenny Shipley

In 1997, Jenny Shipley became the first woman in the history of New Zealand to hold the prime minister position. In addition to this, she served as the leader of the National Party between 1999 and 2001. Before attaining those top positions, Shipley was an active member of New Zealand Parliament, an institution she devoted 15 years of her life to. She also served in a number of ministerial positions, including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Transport.

Quick Facts: Jenny Shipley

Born: Jennifer Mary Robson

Date and Place of Birth: February 4, 1952; Gore, Southland

Education: Marlborough Girls’ College; Christchurch College of Education

Spouse: Burton Shipley (married in 1973)

Children: 2

Political Party: National

Most known for: First female prime minister of New Zealand

Predecessor: Jim Bolger

Successor: Helen Clark

Offices held: 36th Prime Minister of New Zealand (1997-1999); Minister of Transport (1996-1997); Minister of Social Welfare (1990-1996); Minister for Women’s Affairs (1990-996); Minister of Health (1993-1996); Member of the New Zealand Parliament (for Rakaia – 1990-2002; and for Ashburton – 1987-1990)

Nickname: the Perfumed Steamroller

Jenny Shipley quote

Childhood and Early Life

Jenny Shipley was born on February 4, 1952, in Gore, New Zealand. She grew up with a total of four siblings in rural Canterbury. She pursed her education at Marlborough Girls’ College. Subsequently she enrolled at the Christchurch College of Education in order to become a qualified teacher. After graduating in 1972, she worked as a primary schoolteacher up until 1976.


Shipley entered politics in the mid-1970s by joining the National Party. In 1987, she contested in an election for the parliamentary seat in her constituency Ashburton. As at the time that she entered the New Zealand Parliament, Shipley was considered one of the youngest and energetic upcoming politicians in New Zealand.

Her extensive work in the community, as well as her participation in national events, helped bolster her reputation within the party.  She was appointed spokesperson for the National Party on social issues and welfare.

The 1990 general election saw her get reelected to represent her constituency Ashburton, which had been renamed Rakaia. Her party, under the leadership of Jim Bolger, swept to victory as well.

From 1990 to 1996, Jenny Shipley served in the government as Minister of Women’s Affairs. Her tenure saw several budget cuts in the department, particularly in the area of state benefits. From 1993 to 1996, she was also in charge of the Ministry of Health.

At the 1996 election, her party – National Party – failed to secure a majority. As a result, the party went into a coalition with New Zealand First. In the coalition government, Shipley was appointed to steer the state-owned enterprises and transport ministries.

Jenny Shipley

Jenny Shipley quotes

Contributions as Prime Minister

Her party’s coalition with the New Zealand First did not inspire in her much trust. She aimed her frustration with this at Jim Bolger, accusing him of not doing enough to keep the New Zealand First in line. Her criticism (which some referred to as tantamount to a coup) helped place her in poll position to succeed Bolger, then-head of the National Party and prime minister.

Bolger stepped down after he lost his party’s support. The party then elected Shipley to his position as leader of the government. She was officially sworn in prime minister on December 8, 1997. With this position came her appointment to the Privy Council.

As head of the government, Shipley spent a great deal of time trying to reduce the national debt. She also encouraged the reduction of welfare benefits. Much of the policies she pursued were influenced by her the ideas of MP Ruth Richardson. Owing to this, her policies were sometimes called ‘Ruthanasia’.

In 1999, she became the first woman to chair APEC, which was held in New Zealand.

Unlike her predecessor, she struggled cooperating with New Zealand First. As the relationship between the two parties deteriorated, Shipley went ahead to fire Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who was the leader of the New Zealand First. She won in a vote of confidence that she called in 1998.

Life after politics

At the 1999 election, Shipley and her National Party lost, as they were defeated by the Labor Party under the leadership of Helen Clark. Away from the prime minister’s job, Shipley maintained her position as leader of the National Party until January 2002. She was succeeded to that position by Bill English.

After retiring from Parliament, a place she devoted 15 years of her life to, she relocated to Auckland along with her husband Burton.

Her post-parliament years have been spent in business. She has been appointed chair of a number boards in the country. For example, she chaired the Genesis Energy Limited. She also served on the board of the China Construction Bank branch in New Zealand. In 2019, she was appointed co-chair of New Zealand’s 250th commemoration of Maori and Cook first meeting in 1769 (the Tuia Encounters).

Other Interesting Facts about Jenny Shipley

  • She tied the knot with Burton Shipley in 1973. The couple then made a home at Asburton.
  • She has supported initiatives to change the New Zealand flag. She gave her support to flag alternatives such as the silver fern (on a black background) flag.
  • During her time as minister of health, she backed programs that sought to reduce the abortion rate in New Zealand.
  • She has stated her support for keeping New Zealand a constitutional monarchy.
  • As prime minister, she became the first PM to attend a Hero Parade.
  • Jenny Shipley pushed for the reduction of the alcohol drinking age from 20 to 18.
  • She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders. The council is made up of present and former female leaders from around the world.
  • In 2003, the New Zealand Parliament bestowed upon her the title of Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
  • After her 2000 heart attack, she underwent an emergency angioplasty procedure.
  • To minimize the harms of diabetes, she had a gastric bypass surgery in 2007.
  • Away from politics, she has spent her time working for or supporting a host of charitable causes. For example, she is the chair of New Zealand National Heart Foundation’s campaign titled “Go Red for Women”. She herself suffered a heart attack in 2000.
  • She became Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit on August 14, 2009.

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