Margaret Thorpe is 'tickling the glass ceiling'

Margaret Thorpe talks about her 28 years representing the Gisborne community, the influences that have shaped her life, and the joy of retirement.

Margaret Thorpe talks about her 28 years representing the Gisborne community, the influences that have shaped her life, and the joy of retirement.

STANDING UP FOR WOMEN: Margaret Thorpe beside the Margaret Home Sievewright suffragette memorial she was instrumental in having moved from Peel Street to the Rose Garden.
STEERING THE WAY: At the helm of Margaret and Bill’s 50ft cruiser, Fruition.
Margaret Thorpe

IF MARGARET Thorpe had been around in the late 19th century, she would no doubt have been a suffragette.

The former deputy mayor, district councillor and hospital board member has long been a strong proponent of women’s rights and achieved many ‘female firsts’ during her 28 years representing the Gisborne community.

But she says suffragette Kate Sheppard and her contemporaries would turn in their graves if they only knew how women of the 21st century take for granted their right to vote.

“What would Sheppard and others who fought so hard to gain the vote for women in New Zealand back in 1893 think of the apathy and low voter turn-out these days?” she asks.

“The Trump victory in the US is a stark reminder of what happens when complacency creeps in.”

Now retired from active civic life, Margaret is still as passionate about feminist causes as she was earlier when she likes to think she at least “tickled the glass ceiling”.

In the 1970s, it was still a man’s world and in many ways, the system was stacked against women holding office.

Council meetings were held late in the afternoon, which suited the men but was difficult for Margaret as the mother of three young children, one of whom was diagnosed with type one diabetes and epilepsy at the age of three years.

“At the end of the meeting, the chairman would open his drinks cabinet and the men would settle in for a session,” she says.

“I quickly learned that’s when the real business got done so I extended my baby-sitter’s hours and was able to stay on and participate. I drank lemonade because I still had to drive home and cook dinner for the family.”

Margaret says her husband Bill was always supportive and encouraging of her endeavours but his work demanded “120 percent of his time” and often took him overseas so she was dependent on the services of babysitters to enable her to attend meetings.

“But the meeting fee didn’t even cover the cost of the babysitter back then,” she says.

Having just celebrated her 75th birthday, Margaret looks back on “an incredible life”.

“I’m blessed with very good health and happiness, and Gisborne is such a wonderful place to live, with the surf and beaches, bush walks and tuis building nests in the trees in our garden.”

With her typically positive outlook on life, her motto has always been: “If you are given a lemon in life, make it into lemonade.”

No silver spoon

Born in Wellington on the day Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese, there was no silver spoon in her mouth.

“However I had the advantage of coming from a line of strong, intuitive, intelligent women — they didn’t have the opportunities to get university degrees but they had the brain power nevertheless.

“My mother had to leave school and find work at the age of 14 to help her mother pay the rent after her father died leaving a family of four.

“She was determined I would get the degree that she didn’t — so after attending teachers’ college, I did a BA at Victoria University, the same degree as my brother so I could use his textbooks. That was the only way we could afford it. Luckily ,I won a scholarship on academic merit so that helped. As a rule I always wore hand-me-down clothes as a child and sewed and knitted my own clothes when I was old enough.”

The family suffered business failures during the Depression and WW2 so there were many challenges as she was growing up.

“But I always knew I was part of a loving, caring family,” she says.

After teaching geography, English and PE at high schools in Wellington, Margaret came to Gisborne in 1963 to teach at the recently-opened Lytton High School.

“It was a fantastic place and time to work there with enthusiastic staff and adventurous students.”

In 1966, Margaret married Gisborne man Bill Thorpe whom she had met at university.

“I was very sporty in Wellington and met many high achievers, doers, movers and shakers — the sort of people I like. That’s how my involvement in the Gisborne community began. My participation in sport led to supporting and organising sporting committees.”

The couple lived overseas for two years while Bill did a post-graduate degree in textiles. Margaret taught in the US and UK to support Bill in his studies and when they returned to Gisborne, he took over the management of Columbine Industries.

Three children

Margaret had three children in quick succession and to avoid feeling isolated with Bill often away on business trips, she developed a strong network of friends whom she still sees regularly.

“I had no sisters or mother on hand to help with the children — three under five — and I remember I grew my hair long because I never had time to get to the hairdresser.”

As a young mother, she became very involved with the Parents’ Centre, serving as chairwoman for seven years.

“Gisborne was the first place in New Zealand where men were allowed to be present at the birth of their babies, due to the excellent relationship between the Parents’ Centre, midwives and the hospital staff.

“Then I joined playcentre, a great community self-help organisation that educated the parents while educating the child.”

Margaret was also involved with Plunket and was provincial commander of the Girl Guides. She was a member of the Philosophical Society, the Victoria League, the Federation of University Women, the United Council of Women, the Historic Places Trust and the Women’s Electoral Lobby (W.E.L.).

Three W.E.L. members decided in 1978, to make a bid for more women in public office so Judy Allum stood for council, Helen Goodman for the power board and Margaret for the Cook Hospital Board. All were successfully elected.

“Gisborne had been receptive to women in leadership roles from about the 1960s onwards. There was a climate of acceptance — Esme Tombleson was MP in the 1960s and Frances Gregory had become a city councillor in 1962. But it was contraception that finally changed women’s lives and the gender imbalance in the workplace. Women, especially younger women, had a new freedom to be accepted as capable and competent in all walks of life.”

Margaret served on the hospital board from 1977 to 1988, top polling in all the elections.

She also top polled in 1984 when she stood for the Gisborne City Council the first time.

“Everyone said I should have been made deputy mayor at the time,” she says.

In September 1988, the government decided to amalgamate the city and rural hospital boards so two members had to drop out. Names were drawn out of a hat and Margaret’s was one so she lost her position.

“So after 11 years, I was out the door, clutching a silver tray and feeling shocked at the way democracy had treated me. I thought the lowest-polling rather than the highest- polling member should have been dropped.”

Ally on council

During Margaret’s time on council, one of her greatest allies was Ivan Tyerman.

“Ivan was chairman of the Parks and Reserves Committee, which fitted in with my interest in sports, playgrounds, swimming pools and children’s needs.

“I was delighted to serve on that committee and Ivan was a great mentor to me.”

Margaret achieved many firsts as an elected woman councillor. She pioneered new aspects of the changing nature of councils such as the first Youth Council in New Zealand, an acceptance of an arts policy and a Code of Ethics for councils. She also started the region’s rural sports travel fund.

Margaret was the first woman to be deputy mayor, chair a standing Committee of Council and serve on the City Councils’ Finance Committee.

She chaired the Hillary Commission sports grants community committee and the Arts Grants Committee for nine years.

She also served on the Sister Cities Committee, the Arts Council, Tairawhiti Museum and the Council for Social Services in a voluntary capacity.

A highlight was chairing the Keep Gisborne Beautiful Committee for 11 years and winning the Best Town Ward seven times.

“I really enjoyed working with the council staff and communities — people with civic pride and a passion for the wellbeing of their environment.”

The banners for the main street, the annual beach clean-ups and the Graeme Mudge murals — a clever initiative to cover potential graffiti spots — were another part of Margaret’s legacy.

She also chaired several school committees and boards as her children went through the education system in Gisborne.

“I didn’t learn short-hand at school so I could never be the secretary — I invariably ended up as the chairperson. But I relished the role, working with like-minded, enthusiastic, positive people, making a difference for our community. It was people power in action!”

Tairawhiti Ethics Committee

In the 1990s, she was a member and chairwoman of the Tairawhiti Ethics Committee, a national body that was created to make decisions about drug trials in the aftermath of the National Women’s Hospital inquiry.

Margaret was heavily involved in the decision to move the Margaret Home Sievewright suffragette memorial from a shadowy corner at the bottom of Peel Street to the Rose Garden in time for the 1993 centenary of women receiving the right to vote in New Zealand.

In February 2002, Margaret took over as acting mayor when Meng Foon went on holiday for a week.

“I had only been the deputy mayor for a couple of months but thought ‘What could possibly go awry in a week?’

“Well, how wrong I was. On the night of February 6, the Jody F. Millennium log ship ran aground on Waikanae Beach.

“I had also been a councillor during Cyclone Bola in 1988. Both occasions highlighted for me what a wonderful, professional Civil Defence team we have here in Gisborne.”

After 18 years on the council and six years as deputy mayor — during which time she was always a top attender at meetings — Margaret stepped down to make way for new, young blood.

“I believed the council was stagnating and needed the infusion of fresh, new, younger and quicker minds so I decided not to stand again in 2006 as an example. Ironically, I was replaced by a man who was older than me,” she says.

“I’m so pleased to see younger women on the council now and many holding positions of leadership and authority. Mind you, they don’t face the same personal challenges I did. There are crèches available and meetings are now held in the daytime, not ‘the purple hour’ which was so hard for young mums.”

Looking ahead, Margaret says the biggest challenge for the council is sorting out the roads in the district and getting the overseas-owned logging companies to pay for the damage they cause.

“The council caves in to foreign owners for fear they won’t build another factory in the region.

“Very soon, tough decisions will have to be faced on issues like roading, wastewater, footpaths and drainage, and the appropriate funding.

Margaret admires the contribution of women such as Judy Campbell, the chief executive of the Gisborne District Council.

“Judy is a strong, dedicated woman who unfortunately appears to have become a convenient scapegoat. She has had to shoulder the fallout for putting into action council policies underpinned by a low-rate increase mantra. The public should remember it is the Mayor and councillors who choose the priorities and make the choices, on the advice of council officers.

In her retirement, Margaret has had more time to pick up her pen and write letters to various editors.

It all started many years ago when Tom Scott wrote a derogatory article in The Listener about Gisborne, describing the town as “a backwater”.

Scott said the town was “so deserted you could fire a gun down the main street and be likely to only hit a tethered horse”.

Margaret was incensed and wrote a strong rebuff, defending her “beloved Gisborne”, which was also published in The Listener.

Thereafter many of her letters praising or defending Gisborne were published in magazines and newspapers.

Locally her opinions and letters draw a strong positive response.

“Many say to me ‘good on you for doing something about drawing attention to an issue and representing the silent majority’.”

While Margaret believes in promoting women, she also believes the best person should be chosen for a job, regardless of race, creed or gender.

“We must make use of all the wonderful talent, skills and experience we have here in Gisborne for the benefit of the community.

“We need a wide range of people on the council and hospital board to represent the make-up of our community. The current double-dipping by candidates reduces the diversity that democracy is expected to deliver.”

Describing herself as a pragmatist, a team player and a community person through-and-through, Margaret says she’s always had the courage to seize an opportunity and make a go of it.

She’s now enjoying life to the full with lots of travel, yachting, biking, croquet and time with her four grandchildren, two in New Zealand and two in the UK.

“Everyone wants me to join committees but I’m enjoying the freedom of not having deadlines, meetings and annual reports to wade through. I’m living for the moment and enjoying every day, grateful for my good health and happiness.”

IF MARGARET Thorpe had been around in the late 19th century, she would no doubt have been a suffragette.

The former deputy mayor, district councillor and hospital board member has long been a strong proponent of women’s rights and achieved many ‘female firsts’ during her 28 years representing the Gisborne community.

But she says suffragette Kate Sheppard and her contemporaries would turn in their graves if they only knew how women of the 21st century take for granted their right to vote.

“What would Sheppard and others who fought so hard to gain the vote for women in New Zealand back in 1893 think of the apathy and low voter turn-out these days?” she asks.

“The Trump victory in the US is a stark reminder of what happens when complacency creeps in.”

Now retired from active civic life, Margaret is still as passionate about feminist causes as she was earlier when she likes to think she at least “tickled the glass ceiling”.

In the 1970s, it was still a man’s world and in many ways, the system was stacked against women holding office.

Council meetings were held late in the afternoon, which suited the men but was difficult for Margaret as the mother of three young children, one of whom was diagnosed with type one diabetes and epilepsy at the age of three years.

“At the end of the meeting, the chairman would open his drinks cabinet and the men would settle in for a session,” she says.

“I quickly learned that’s when the real business got done so I extended my baby-sitter’s hours and was able to stay on and participate. I drank lemonade because I still had to drive home and cook dinner for the family.”

Margaret says her husband Bill was always supportive and encouraging of her endeavours but his work demanded “120 percent of his time” and often took him overseas so she was dependent on the services of babysitters to enable her to attend meetings.

“But the meeting fee didn’t even cover the cost of the babysitter back then,” she says.

Having just celebrated her 75th birthday, Margaret looks back on “an incredible life”.

“I’m blessed with very good health and happiness, and Gisborne is such a wonderful place to live, with the surf and beaches, bush walks and tuis building nests in the trees in our garden.”

With her typically positive outlook on life, her motto has always been: “If you are given a lemon in life, make it into lemonade.”

No silver spoon

Born in Wellington on the day Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese, there was no silver spoon in her mouth.

“However I had the advantage of coming from a line of strong, intuitive, intelligent women — they didn’t have the opportunities to get university degrees but they had the brain power nevertheless.

“My mother had to leave school and find work at the age of 14 to help her mother pay the rent after her father died leaving a family of four.

“She was determined I would get the degree that she didn’t — so after attending teachers’ college, I did a BA at Victoria University, the same degree as my brother so I could use his textbooks. That was the only way we could afford it. Luckily ,I won a scholarship on academic merit so that helped. As a rule I always wore hand-me-down clothes as a child and sewed and knitted my own clothes when I was old enough.”

The family suffered business failures during the Depression and WW2 so there were many challenges as she was growing up.

“But I always knew I was part of a loving, caring family,” she says.

After teaching geography, English and PE at high schools in Wellington, Margaret came to Gisborne in 1963 to teach at the recently-opened Lytton High School.

“It was a fantastic place and time to work there with enthusiastic staff and adventurous students.”

In 1966, Margaret married Gisborne man Bill Thorpe whom she had met at university.

“I was very sporty in Wellington and met many high achievers, doers, movers and shakers — the sort of people I like. That’s how my involvement in the Gisborne community began. My participation in sport led to supporting and organising sporting committees.”

The couple lived overseas for two years while Bill did a post-graduate degree in textiles. Margaret taught in the US and UK to support Bill in his studies and when they returned to Gisborne, he took over the management of Columbine Industries.

Three children

Margaret had three children in quick succession and to avoid feeling isolated with Bill often away on business trips, she developed a strong network of friends whom she still sees regularly.

“I had no sisters or mother on hand to help with the children — three under five — and I remember I grew my hair long because I never had time to get to the hairdresser.”

As a young mother, she became very involved with the Parents’ Centre, serving as chairwoman for seven years.

“Gisborne was the first place in New Zealand where men were allowed to be present at the birth of their babies, due to the excellent relationship between the Parents’ Centre, midwives and the hospital staff.

“Then I joined playcentre, a great community self-help organisation that educated the parents while educating the child.”

Margaret was also involved with Plunket and was provincial commander of the Girl Guides. She was a member of the Philosophical Society, the Victoria League, the Federation of University Women, the United Council of Women, the Historic Places Trust and the Women’s Electoral Lobby (W.E.L.).

Three W.E.L. members decided in 1978, to make a bid for more women in public office so Judy Allum stood for council, Helen Goodman for the power board and Margaret for the Cook Hospital Board. All were successfully elected.

“Gisborne had been receptive to women in leadership roles from about the 1960s onwards. There was a climate of acceptance — Esme Tombleson was MP in the 1960s and Frances Gregory had become a city councillor in 1962. But it was contraception that finally changed women’s lives and the gender imbalance in the workplace. Women, especially younger women, had a new freedom to be accepted as capable and competent in all walks of life.”

Margaret served on the hospital board from 1977 to 1988, top polling in all the elections.

She also top polled in 1984 when she stood for the Gisborne City Council the first time.

“Everyone said I should have been made deputy mayor at the time,” she says.

In September 1988, the government decided to amalgamate the city and rural hospital boards so two members had to drop out. Names were drawn out of a hat and Margaret’s was one so she lost her position.

“So after 11 years, I was out the door, clutching a silver tray and feeling shocked at the way democracy had treated me. I thought the lowest-polling rather than the highest- polling member should have been dropped.”

Ally on council

During Margaret’s time on council, one of her greatest allies was Ivan Tyerman.

“Ivan was chairman of the Parks and Reserves Committee, which fitted in with my interest in sports, playgrounds, swimming pools and children’s needs.

“I was delighted to serve on that committee and Ivan was a great mentor to me.”

Margaret achieved many firsts as an elected woman councillor. She pioneered new aspects of the changing nature of councils such as the first Youth Council in New Zealand, an acceptance of an arts policy and a Code of Ethics for councils. She also started the region’s rural sports travel fund.

Margaret was the first woman to be deputy mayor, chair a standing Committee of Council and serve on the City Councils’ Finance Committee.

She chaired the Hillary Commission sports grants community committee and the Arts Grants Committee for nine years.

She also served on the Sister Cities Committee, the Arts Council, Tairawhiti Museum and the Council for Social Services in a voluntary capacity.

A highlight was chairing the Keep Gisborne Beautiful Committee for 11 years and winning the Best Town Ward seven times.

“I really enjoyed working with the council staff and communities — people with civic pride and a passion for the wellbeing of their environment.”

The banners for the main street, the annual beach clean-ups and the Graeme Mudge murals — a clever initiative to cover potential graffiti spots — were another part of Margaret’s legacy.

She also chaired several school committees and boards as her children went through the education system in Gisborne.

“I didn’t learn short-hand at school so I could never be the secretary — I invariably ended up as the chairperson. But I relished the role, working with like-minded, enthusiastic, positive people, making a difference for our community. It was people power in action!”

Tairawhiti Ethics Committee

In the 1990s, she was a member and chairwoman of the Tairawhiti Ethics Committee, a national body that was created to make decisions about drug trials in the aftermath of the National Women’s Hospital inquiry.

Margaret was heavily involved in the decision to move the Margaret Home Sievewright suffragette memorial from a shadowy corner at the bottom of Peel Street to the Rose Garden in time for the 1993 centenary of women receiving the right to vote in New Zealand.

In February 2002, Margaret took over as acting mayor when Meng Foon went on holiday for a week.

“I had only been the deputy mayor for a couple of months but thought ‘What could possibly go awry in a week?’

“Well, how wrong I was. On the night of February 6, the Jody F. Millennium log ship ran aground on Waikanae Beach.

“I had also been a councillor during Cyclone Bola in 1988. Both occasions highlighted for me what a wonderful, professional Civil Defence team we have here in Gisborne.”

After 18 years on the council and six years as deputy mayor — during which time she was always a top attender at meetings — Margaret stepped down to make way for new, young blood.

“I believed the council was stagnating and needed the infusion of fresh, new, younger and quicker minds so I decided not to stand again in 2006 as an example. Ironically, I was replaced by a man who was older than me,” she says.

“I’m so pleased to see younger women on the council now and many holding positions of leadership and authority. Mind you, they don’t face the same personal challenges I did. There are crèches available and meetings are now held in the daytime, not ‘the purple hour’ which was so hard for young mums.”

Looking ahead, Margaret says the biggest challenge for the council is sorting out the roads in the district and getting the overseas-owned logging companies to pay for the damage they cause.

“The council caves in to foreign owners for fear they won’t build another factory in the region.

“Very soon, tough decisions will have to be faced on issues like roading, wastewater, footpaths and drainage, and the appropriate funding.

Margaret admires the contribution of women such as Judy Campbell, the chief executive of the Gisborne District Council.

“Judy is a strong, dedicated woman who unfortunately appears to have become a convenient scapegoat. She has had to shoulder the fallout for putting into action council policies underpinned by a low-rate increase mantra. The public should remember it is the Mayor and councillors who choose the priorities and make the choices, on the advice of council officers.

In her retirement, Margaret has had more time to pick up her pen and write letters to various editors.

It all started many years ago when Tom Scott wrote a derogatory article in The Listener about Gisborne, describing the town as “a backwater”.

Scott said the town was “so deserted you could fire a gun down the main street and be likely to only hit a tethered horse”.

Margaret was incensed and wrote a strong rebuff, defending her “beloved Gisborne”, which was also published in The Listener.

Thereafter many of her letters praising or defending Gisborne were published in magazines and newspapers.

Locally her opinions and letters draw a strong positive response.

“Many say to me ‘good on you for doing something about drawing attention to an issue and representing the silent majority’.”

While Margaret believes in promoting women, she also believes the best person should be chosen for a job, regardless of race, creed or gender.

“We must make use of all the wonderful talent, skills and experience we have here in Gisborne for the benefit of the community.

“We need a wide range of people on the council and hospital board to represent the make-up of our community. The current double-dipping by candidates reduces the diversity that democracy is expected to deliver.”

Describing herself as a pragmatist, a team player and a community person through-and-through, Margaret says she’s always had the courage to seize an opportunity and make a go of it.

She’s now enjoying life to the full with lots of travel, yachting, biking, croquet and time with her four grandchildren, two in New Zealand and two in the UK.

“Everyone wants me to join committees but I’m enjoying the freedom of not having deadlines, meetings and annual reports to wade through. I’m living for the moment and enjoying every day, grateful for my good health and happiness.”

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Alain Jorion - 3 months ago
This story about Margaret Thorpe's life really brings tears to my eyes. What a beautiful woman who has achieved so much. How can any of us be as good, caring and dedicated to a community? Also from Wellington I know this is the nicest destination to live in and spend your time. You have been a silent achiever and blown us all away with your ability and doing things right Margaret. Thank you.

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