Helen Clark was elected Prime Minister of New Zealand first in 1999 and then twice more in 2002 and 2005.
She left home at age 12 to attend Epsom Girls Grammar School in Auckland. After graduation, she enrolled in the University of Auckland, where she received bachelor’s (1971) and master’s (1974) degrees in political science and taught from 1973 to 1981.
Clark joined the Labour Party in 1971 and during the following decade held a variety of positions within the party. In parliamentary elections in 1975, she was selected as the Labour candidate for a seat that was considered safe for the conservative National Party. Although she lost that election, she was elected to Parliament from a different constituency in 1981 and won ten consecutive elections there.
As Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Select Committee and of the Disarmament and Arms Control Select Committee (1984–87), she played a major role in the country’s adoption of a nuclear-free stance which has been embraced across the political spectrum.
From 1987 to 1990, Clark was a Cabinet Minister, holding at various times the portfolios of housing, conservation, labour, and health. In 1989–90, she also served as Deputy Prime Minister and in 1990 was appointed to the Privy Council, becoming the first woman in New Zealand to hold those offices.
After the National Party returned to power in 1990, Helen Clark served as Deputy Leader of the Opposition from 1990 to 1993, and then as Leader of the Opposition until the Labour Party was able to form a governing coalition following the 1999 elections. She was the first woman to lead a party to electoral victory in New Zealand. As Prime Minister, Clark also held the portfolio of arts and culture and appointed a diverse team of ministers which included eleven women and four Maori.
Helen Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in April 2009 and was the first woman to lead that organisation. She was also the Chair of the UN Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and department working on development issues.
Helen Clark stepped down after eight years and two terms as Administrator in April 2017. She now engages in public advocacy across a range of the issues she has engaged in over decades in public life. For her work on peace and disarmament, she was awarded the Peace Prize from the Danish Peace Foundation in 1986. In 2009 she was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest honour. In 2019, the former Prime Minister became the patron of The Helen Clark Foundation, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank with the stated mission to public research papers that contribute to a “more just, sustainable and peaceful society.”
Image via Helen Klisser During