Sonja Davies ONZ Hon.LLD, JP
Nelson City Councillor 1962 - 1970
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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Further sources - Sonja Davies ONZ Hon.LLD, JP
- Richardson, S., Henry, E., Collingwood, G. Mitchell, H. (2018). Women decision-makers Nelson and Tasman 1944-2018. Nelson, New Zealand