Sonja Davies ONZ Hon.LLD, JP

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Nelson City Councillor  1962 - 1970 
 

Sonja Davies
Sonja Davies, 30 October 1993. Nelson Provincial Museum, Nelson Mail collection

Sonja Davies has been described as one of the most remarkable New Zealand women of her time. In 1987 she was one of the five inaugural recipients of the Order of New Zealand, the nation's highest honour limited, at any one time, to 20 recipients. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1962, she had been elected to the Nelson City Council. Her personal road to 1962 is recounted in her autobiography, Bread and Roses (1984). The 'love' child of the daughter of a newspaper editor and an Irish army officer,

Sonja was born in Upper Hutt in 1923. Hers was a disrupted childhood and she Left school at fourteen. Briefly and unhappily married at 17, she spent years in and out of hospital after contracting TB while working as a trainee nurse in Wellington. In 1946 she married Charlie Davies and the next year they moved to Mariri, near Nelson, in the hope that the region's equable climate would bring an improvement in Sonja's health. They struggled to establish a home and orchard on 14 hectares of scrub until Sonja's continued health problems compelled them to move to Nelson city in 1953. There, as her health allowed, she developed a reputation as a staunch community advocate, feisty defender of workers' rights, champion of women's rights and pacifism. Together these causes formed the core of a socialism born of personal experience that found expression within the Labour Party and the trade union movement. They also shaped a life of community involvement which began in the 1950s.

It was her involvement in the celebrated, if unsuccessful, women's sit-in protest against a government decision to close the Nelson railway in 1955 that inspired Sonja to become more actively involved in community affairs. The following year she was elected to the Nelson Hospital Board and was deputy chairperson in her first term. She was joined on the Board by Laura Ingram, a Motueka councillor who, Sonja later wrote in Bread and Roses, seemed at first to regard her as 'a Labour Party upstart.'1 It was as an Independent that she served as a Nelson City Councillor 1962 - 1970.

As a councillor she worked to further the interests of young mothers, children and the disadvantaged. She was a staunch advocate for the expansion of daycare facilities. As chair of the Library Committee she supported the efforts of Elma Turner  to develop a free and rental public library system. While a Nelson City councillor Sonja was an office-holder within the Labour Party at both national and local levels and maintained her commitment to the peace movement and women's rights.

Sonja's time in Nelson ended when her husband's ill-health meant she needed to become the family's breadwinner. She took up a position in 1970 as Hawkes Bay representative for the Food Processing and Workers' Union. Between 1987 and 1993 she was Labour MP for Pencarrow. Of her Nelson experience, Sonja recalled a region that 'was a curious mix... basically conservative, yet with many pockets of liberal and sometimes quite radical thinking, both within the city and out in the rural areas.2

Sonja died in 2005.  

 This was published in: Women Decision-Makers Nelson and Tasman 1944 -2018, p.44. Compiled by Dr Shelley Richardson, Elaine Henry, Gail Collingwood, Hilary Mitchell.

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Sources used in this story

  1. Davies, Sonja (1984) Bread and Roses. Sonja Davies; Her Story, Australia & New    Zealand Book Co. with Fraser Books, Auckland and Masterton,1984, p.116.
  2.  Davies, Bread and Roses, p. 131; Anne Else, 'Davies, Sonja Margaret Loveday/DNZB, Te Ara, 2010                     

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  • Thank you for a wonderful article on an exceptional woman!

    Some other interesting points or facts.
    1. Sonja's great-grandfather was the Conservative politician Job Vile, MP for the Manawatu and Mayor of Pahiatua, and an opponent of the progressive policies of Dick Seddon's Liberal Government.
    2. Ruth Page was the leader of the sit-in at Kiwi in 1955 to protest the National Government decision to close the Nelson Railway Line. Ruth did not seek the limelight through her lifetime ('Ruth Page: Daring rail protester' The Press, 30 September 1989, p.25) but the event launched the political careers of Sonja and Stan Whitehead (MP for Nelson 1957-1976) though unfortunately they were unable to influence or persuade their Labour colleagues to retain the railway when they were in power (1957-1960 Nash Labour Government).
    3. Sonja put her name forward for the Labour Party nomination for the Nelson seat in the by-election following the death of Sir Stanley (Stan) Whitehead in 1976. She was unsuccessful but was runner up in the contest for the nomination. She had previously tried for selection in the Rotorua and Taupo seats in 1966 but eventually won the nomination for Labour for the Hastings Electorate in the same year.
    4. She was a prominent and leading member of the childcare centre movement nationally well beyond Nelson.
    5. Sonja resigned from the Labour Party's policy committee "on a matter of political principle" in August 1980 ('Sonja Davies resigns from Labour Group' The Press, 7 August 1980, p.4). She never elaborated at the time or later what was the "the matter of political principle."
    6. She was elected to the Federation of Labour (FOL) Executive and became the first woman Vice-President of that organisation in 1985. A significant achievement and breakthrough of the 'glass ceiling' for women in the male dominated trade union movement.
    7. As noted above, Sonja was successful when she stood for Pencarrow in Wellington in the 1987 election. However, the party nomination process was contentious and acrimonious with two 'Independent Labour' candidates standing in the contest against her and local party members taking legal action over her nomination.
    8. When Jim Anderton left the Labour Party (April 1989) and subsequently formed New Labour because of disagreements over direction, de-regulation and 'Rogernomics' it was expected that Sonja and others like the prominent trade unionists: Larry Sutherland (Avon) and Graham Kelly (Porirua) would follow suit because of their stated beliefs. There was surprise from many that Sonja stayed, and she committed to the Government which seemed so at odds with her philosophies "I came into this House as a socialist, a trade unionist... all of which are lifetime commitments." Many people viewed her position and the others like Kelly and Sutherland as a betrayal of working people she was there to represent or had always claimed to represent. There was a sense of sadness from others that this was the end point of a lifetime of activism and fighting for women, unions, and working people.

    Posted by Sonja Davies, 21/11/2023 7:00am (7 months ago)

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Further sources - Sonja Davies ONZ Hon.LLD, JP

Books

  • Richardson, S., Henry, E., Collingwood, G. Mitchell, H. (2018). Women decision-makers Nelson and Tasman 1944-2018. Nelson, New Zealand