Sonja Margaret Loveday Vile was born on 11 November 1923 in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt. Her mother, Gwladys Ilma Vile, was a state-registered nurse; her father was Gerald Dempsey, an army major from Cork, Ireland. Sonja did not learn his identity until she was 20, and never contacted him. As a baby, she had four foster homes before her mother took her to her grandparents, Margaret and Arthur Vile. They cared for her in Ōamaru, then in Woodville, until she was seven, when she was sent to Wellington to live ‘on sufferance’ with her mother, her new sister, Beverley, and her stepfather, Douglas Mackersey, a divorced photographer. A move to Dunedin enabled her to meet her maternal great-grandmother, Maria Mouat, but she did not discover her Ngāi Tahu links (through Maria) until later in life.
Sonja’s secondary schooling ended after two years, when her stepfather moved the family, including a new brother, David, to Auckland, then back to Wellington. In 1939, as she was forming her opinions about violence as a solution to problems, war was declared. Her ardent response to speeches by pacifists Ormond Burton and Arch Barrington resulted in a family quarrel, and she left home at 16 to support herself by working in bookshops.
Sonja had felt the ‘first stirrings of a social conscience’ when she saw her mother disparaging the unemployed during the 1930s depression. Now she became part of a left-wing group of socialists centred on Victoria University College. In 1940 she met Charles Edward Mercer (also known as Charlie) Davies. They found they had a lot in common and soon had an understanding that they would marry after the war.
On 14 November 1941, however, Sonja married Lindsay Nathan at Wellington. At the same time she joined an intake of nursing trainees, where she made lifelong friends, and attempted to start a union for nursing staff.
Sonja fell in love with Don (‘Red’) Brinsen, a Marine corporal from Nebraska, and discovered she was pregnant after he had been posted to the Pacific. By the time their daughter, Penelope (Penny), was born in Te Kūiti in 1944, Sonja had already shown the first signs of tuberculosis contracted from patients. The diagnosis was not confirmed until 1945. One of 11 nurses in her class to be affected by the disease, she had to leave Penny and enter hospital. She was at her lowest ebb when she learned that Red was missing in action.
Having divorced Lindsay Nathan, Sonja married Charlie Davies (who by then was working as a landscape gardener) at Wellington on Christmas Eve, 1946; but it was late 1947 before she was able to leave hospital and sanatorium care and reclaim her daughter. On medical advice the couple moved to Nelson province. The struggle to build a home and orchard from 14 hectares of scrub at Mariri gave her great happiness, but her health again collapsed. Her life was saved only by the introduction of new antibiotics. The couple sold their land and moved into town in 1953.
In Nelson, Sonja Davies rapidly became active – often as the first or sole woman – in all the linked fields which were to define her public life. She became involved in community concerns, local government, the union movement and the Labour Party, always with a focus on the rights and needs of women and children, and the cause of peace.
In September 1955 there was a public outcry when the National government announced its decision to close the Nelson railway. Davies responded to a call by Ruth Page, a former teacher from Golden Bay, for local women to take action. Their decision to sit on the tracks at Kiwi for six days, culminating in defying an oncoming locomotive, caused outrage. Davies was among the nine women arrested and fined. This led to a seven-year breach with her parents, but made her a local heroine.
In 1956 Davies was the only woman elected to the Nelson Hospital Board, and in 1961 she won a seat on the city council. As a Justice of the Peace, she fought against women JPs being informally blocked from sitting on the magistrates’ bench.
Both Sonja and Charlie had become involved in the Labour Party through their membership of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. By 1955 she was secretary of the regional Labour Representation Committee. Their son Mark, born on 20 July 1957 at Nelson, was six weeks old when she became secretary of the successful campaign to elect Nelson’s first Labour MP, Stan Whitehead.
Davies’s own need for childcare led to her presidency of the Nelson Day Nursery Committee. In 1963 she founded the New Zealand Association for Child Care Centres (later the New Zealand Childcare Association), serving as its president for 13 years. The Early Childhood Workers Union that she began working towards in 1979 was registered in March 1982.
Sonja Davies’s own experience of the conflicts and contradictions women faced formed the basis of her deep understanding and commitment to change. She found it difficult to get male politicians who lacked any such experience to understand the importance of childcare, or of many other issues vital to women’s equality, especially their status in the Labour Party itself. Her high profile angered some older women in the party: as the second woman elected to Labour’s national executive in 1965 she heard one say she had won only because she had slept with all of the MPs.
Passed over in the 1966 selection for Rotorua or Taupō, Davies was relegated to the unwinnable seat of Hastings, where she dealt with warring factions. On top of that, she had to deal with her mother’s serious illness and charges of neglecting her family – and 10 days' worth of laundry handed over by party leader Norman Kirk.
Davies and Kirk had much in common politically, and he took her into his confidence. In 1969, however, he responded angrily to her attempt to warn him of gossip that he had been having affairs with various women. His reaction ended any prospect of her becoming an MP under his leadership.
Davies included the concept of a wage for women at home caring for children in the 1971 Labour Party Women’s Report. This sparked the first of many accusations that she was trying to destroy family life. The party’s continued sidelining of women’s issues and participation led to an angry picket at the 1974 party conference.
In 1975, the first United Nations International Women’s Year, the women’s advisory committee Davies had pushed for finally got funding and became the Labour Women’s Council. The first women’s co-ordinator, lobbied for by Davies since 1967, was finally appointed in 1979. The party, the country and the world were beginning to catch up with her.
Charlie’s serious heart attack in 1969 had meant that at age 45, Sonja Davies needed to re-enter full-time paid work. Unable to find a job in Nelson, she became the first Hawke’s Bay organiser for the Food Processing Union and Clerical Workers Union. By then women made up around 30% of the labour force, but at her first Federation of Labour conference that year, Davies was one of only seven women delegates.
After Charlie’s death in Napier on 2 November 1971, Sonja moved with her son Mark to work for the Public Service Association in Wellington. She then helped Graham Kelly rebuild the moribund Wellington Shop Employees’ Union. Despite a mainly female membership, it had only one woman on its executive. A strike by women meatpackers in support of the Equal Pay Act 1972 proved that women could be strong in industrial conflict.
Mark Davies was working on the Tūrangi hydroelectric tunnel project. Sonja Davies endured the worst blow of her life when he died in an accident there on 18 February 1978, aged 20. Finding the courage to carry on, she became the first woman to win a seat on the Federation of Labour executive, but she was ‘fed up with being the token woman on so many bodies’.1
That year, Davies’s union introduced the 16-point Working Women’s Charter, instigated by Davies and finalised at the 1977 Working Women’s Convention she had convened. After a nationwide round of discussions, both the Federation of Labour and the Labour Party adopted the charter in 1980, despite attacks and threats by conservatives and anti-abortionists.
Davies also convened a network of union committees to advance and promote the charter’s ideals. However, the fledgling Working Women’s Council, having lost its promised funding when National won the 1975 election, proved unable to survive.
Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in 1945, Davies had been concerned over the issue of nuclear arms. She had almost left Labour at her first party conference in 1961, when F. P. Walsh engineered the reversal of a vote against compulsory military training. But after she had spent five years of apparently fruitless speaking, writing and working on nuclear arms and testing, the Vietnam war took priority. At the 1968 Peace, Power and Politics conference in Wellington, she made the first of many connections with international peace movement figures that were later to make her recognised and respected around the world.
Davies’s involvement in anti-apartheid protests had begun with the 1960 ‘No Maoris, no tour’ petition to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. In 1981 she returned to Wellington from an International Labour Organisation conference just in time to witness the police attack on a peaceful protest in Molesworth Street, Wellington, against the Springbok rugby team tour. She gave her whole-hearted support to the protests, although she experienced difficulties with male dominance of meetings.
In 1983 Davies became the Federation of Labour’s first female vice-president. She gave up her union positions to chair the National Committee for the first United Nations International Year of Peace in 1986, which had strong government support. In 1987, she officially retired and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Victoria University of Wellington. Davies’s lifetime of service to her country was recognised in 1988, when she became one of the inaugural recipients of the Order of New Zealand.
Far from retiring, in November 1987 Sonja Davies entered Parliament as member for Pencarrow. She had owned a home in the electorate since 1985, due to a gift from former nurse Con Foot (née Thomson), who died in 1986. Another close friend, Mary Sinclair, became her parliamentary secretary. Davies greatly enjoyed her electorate work and worked with other women MPs to achieve her 25-year goal of better funding, staffing and training for early childhood education. She also made a useful contribution through international meetings in promoting peace.
Davies found it frustrating being an MP at a time when the party was split by division between the free-marketeers, led by Roger Douglas, and their opponents. Her attempts to join forces with Prime Minister David Lange were unsuccessful. In 1989, Davies was one of several Labour MPs who rushed back from overseas just in time to prevent his being deposed, but six weeks later he resigned.
In the anti-Labour landslide of 1990, Davies narrowly held her seat. She was horrified when the National government’s first act was to rescind the hard-won Employment Equity Act. This act, passed in July 1990, was designed to ensure women received equal pay for work of equal value, and equal employment opportunities.
Davies became even better known when Bread and roses, a film by Gaylene Preston, based on Davies’s 1984 autobiography, was launched in 1992. The stream of invitations to speak at Labour Party and other meetings opposing the new government’s policies became a flood in 1993, the centenary of women’s suffrage, but the pressure brought on serious bouts of illness.
In 1994 her daughter, Penny, diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1990, died.
By then Davies was living permanently at Rangiiti, a property near Masterton. Her health was rapidly failing, and in 2003 she moved back to Wellington, where her friend Charles Chauvel and his partner, Dave Hollander, played a major part in caring for her. One of her last public appearances was at the presentation of the first Sonja Davies Peace Award, set up by friends and supporters on her 80th birthday as a memorial to her life and work. She died in the Alexandra Rest Home, Wellington, on 12 June 2005.
Together with what she accomplished for women and children, unions, and the peace movement, Sonja Davies had enormous significance as a trailblazer for women in public life. Her outspokenness may have hampered her political career, but her warmth and courage won her support and affection from a very broad range of New Zealanders. In 2006 she was honoured by the planting of a kōwhai tree and placing of a plaque in Parliament grounds, and the Labour Caucus Room bears her name.