Sonja Davies 1923-2005

Sonja Davies 1923-2005
by Gaylene Preston
NZ Listener 1999, June 2005

Sonja Davies died last Sunday. Although she had been fragile for some time, her death was sudden. She left us in the same way she lived – in a hurry and down to business. To say that she was 'one of a kind' is an understatement. Sonja Davies was a force of nature.

To us younger women of the 70s women's movement, she was a beacon. I first met her when she was working for the Shop Employees Union and promoting the Working Women's Charter – a document as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. At that time she already had her feet under the table at the Federation of Labour as the first woman member of the Executive. That's the thing you notice about Sonja – the firsts. First president of the New Zealand Child Care Association, first female Vice President of the FOL.

Born out of wedlock, she never knew her father and defiantly, I suppose, came to relish the position of outsider. Her life was triumph and tragedy in equal measure. Both her children and their fathers died before her and she lived for her last 50 years on roughly half one lung. Having survived tuberculosis and faced death on more than one occasion, once she gained her health there was no stopping her. When we were making the mini-series based on her autobiography, Bread & Roses, we used to say, 'She had a chin and she knew how to use it.'

Communities, like individuals, are not always immediately grateful to the ones who help. Working on behalf of others can be a thankless task. Being a politician is a brutalising occupation, but somehow Sonja managed to survive it all.

She was part of a generation who put this country on its feet. They knew from personal experience the price of war. Sonja tirelessly campaigned for peace. She came to national prominence in 1955 as part of a women's protest sit-in on an obscure railway line in a tiny place called Kiwi. If they'd won, there could now be a railway line linking Nelson to the West Coast. That would have been one of the most stunning train rides in the world. ('We were right,' I can hear her saying – chin out.)

They may have lost the battle then (the line was pulled up), but, sitting on that railway line, Sonja discovered the community of womens' activism that was to become central to helping win much larger fights for universal principles. Principles that would eventually achieve greater equality and a nuclear-free New Zealand.

None of it was easy. They lived in a conformist monocultural country where difference was hardly celebrated. She suffered the slings and arrows for her strongly held beliefs on many occasions. The most recent was probably Robert Muldoon calling her 'Granny' when she came to take her place in the House of Representatives for the first time. She was quick on the uptake. 'I'm proud of that,' she said. 'And it's something you will never achieve.' She battled on in the circular corridors of power. Even in the middle of the Douglas years and the pulling down of the post offices, the selling of the railway, she battened down the hatches and worked tirelessly for her constituents. If everyone did as much on behalf of their fellow human kind as Sonja Davies did, we all would surely be living in a better world.

She was a persuasive and passionate public speaker and though she was always associated with womens' issues she was a great unionist and friend to mens' causes. I was always amazed at how she seemed to be able to travel the length and breadth of New Zealand on the train without being able to get anyone to accept payment for her ticket. When we were filming the Kiwi sequence on the railway line past Lower Hutt, Sonja arrived with hot muffins that she'd baked for our crew. At the end of the day, we offered her a ride home to Masterton. 'Don't worry, I'm fine,' she assured us as she whipped out her red jersey and held it out over the tracks. The regular train came along, stopped, picked her up and off she went. The guards, the driver – they all knew they were in the presence of greatness. She had the common touch.

I learnt to allow extra time if I went anywhere with Sonja. Even a quick walk to a taxi could be interrupted by a stranger wanting to thank her or, more usually, to ask her for help. I went to Nelson with her in 1993. It was Suffrage Year and Robin Laing and I had just completed the mini-series we made with Graeme Tetley based on her autobiography. It was Sunday. Nelson was deserted. I was walking with Sonja down a suburban street when a car came along, passed us, slowed down, did a U-turn and stopped. A door was flung open and a man approached us. 'Are you Sonja Davies?' Out came the chin. 'Yes,' she replied. 'I've always wanted to thank you for helping my father keep his job at the hospital. I was 10 at the time, you were on the hospital board …' Sonja nodded and smiled. She had no idea who he was, but she was happy to have helped them out, whoever they were. Later that night at the Suter Gallery Cinema, a packed house sat in silence as the credits rolled at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour screening. No one clapped. The lights came up. To my amazement, no one moved. They all sat there, wanting to be in her presence a little longer. Then from somewhere a man's voice rang out strongly,

'Three cheers for Sonja! Hip hip…' and the place erupted.

A mighty tree has fallen. A warrior is lying down.
Ka hinga te totara o te wao nui a Tane.
Haere ra. Te Rakatira.