Dame Alison Roxburgh: Women's affairs advocate, mentor passes on torch

By Cherie Sivignon, originally published on Stuff

Dame Alison Mary Roxburgh
Women's affairs champion
​b September 6, 1934
d January 25, 2020

Dame Alison Roxburgh travelled extensively in a life her son, Angus (Gus), describes as full and well lived.

Though the tally of countries the women's affairs champion visited topped 87, Roxburgh recently shared details of her best-loved journey with long-time friend and fellow honour recipient, Mary Gavin.

"Alison told me quite recently that her favourite trip in the world had always been the years of driving from Nelson to Wanaka while her husband, Jim, read aloud to her," Gavin says. "To me, that conjures up a lovely oasis of contentment in a very busy life."

Wanaka was special to Roxburgh, who died on January 25 aged 85. Her beloved father, Alec Cameron, installed miners' cottages from Bendigo on a plot of land at the lakeside town more than 80 years ago. The property remains a family treasure.

Born Alison Mary Cameron at Dunedin on September 6, 1934, Roxburgh's life of service had its stirrings in the strong work ethic and heavy community involvement of Alec Cameron.

"Her father was a huge influence on her life," Gus says. "He was very involved in the Dunedin community. She inherited this aptitude to work hard for the community and in the community."

Roxburgh herself in a radio interview several years ago suggested her years of community work may have been the result of "a gene I inherited from my father".

"He was very civic minded and very involved. I always have been, too, and I think I always will be."

And she was.

After graduating from the University of Otago with a Bachelor of Home Science, then teaching at the university and enjoying a bit of travel, Alison Cameron married Dr Jim Roxburgh and the couple moved to Nelson.

From that base at the top of the South Island, Roxburgh turned her keen mind and trademark wry and dry wit to a plethora of organisations at local, national and – at times – international levels. She is likely best known for her extensive work with women's affairs, serving on the National Council of Women of New Zealand at branch and national levels as well key involvement with the International Council of Women.

Education was also a major focus for Roxburgh, who in 1975 was appointed to the then all-male board of the Nelson Polytechnic, which later became NMIT.

Former NMIT chief executive Dr John Cretney says there was some opposition at the time to the need to have a woman on the board though one member conceded: "I expect we could dig up a good woman."

After her first board meeting, Roxburgh responded by saying her fellow members were "a very pleasant group of gentlemen".

From there, Roxburgh became a respected and influential board member and was appointed as the first chairwoman in 1987. During her three-year tenure in the top role, the polytechnic underwent major reforms and expansion, which included the establishment of childcare facilities and campuses in Marlborough, Richmond and Motueka.

Roxburgh was also well regarded at a national level through the Association of Polytechnics in New Zealand. She was actively involved in the "Learning for Life" reforms and also served as national president.

She was also instrumental via the Nelson Federation of Graduate Women Trust in a thriving enterprise hiring out academic regalia to raise money for women's education including scholarships.

Her list of other involvements is vast including the Suter Gallery Trust, the City of Nelson Civic Trust, the Nelson City Luncheon Club and the Consumer Council.

Gus remembers his mother's strong commitment, whatever the organisation. "She was always so busy ... working as fulltime as my father."

In 2003, Roxburgh became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to women's affairs and the community. She later accepted redesignation as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Roxburgh, who was also a JP, was earlier made an Ordinary Commander of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire for services to women's affairs and appointed to the Queen's Service Order for Public Services.

Gavin says she phoned to congratulate Roxburgh on receiving one of her honours and apologised in case she was interrupting celebrations.

"She was in fact cleaning out her deep freeze to make room for some seasonal fruit, which 'could not go to waste'," Gavin says. "Whatever the dignity of the situation, Alison was also very practical and was the embodiment of thrift and sustainability."

However, it was Roxburgh's "insightful and pertinent comments" that Gavin remembers best.

"As well as thinking on her feet very effectively, she was outstanding in her ability to listen carefully to an oral statement and instantly and incisively analyse it and then question any omissions or inconsistencies – always a formidable audience member," Gavin says. "Nevertheless, she was punctilious in observing protocol and her thank-you letters were exemplars in good manners. She was courteous and gracious in both written and spoken presentations, and master of the 'bon mot'."

National Council of Women national president Lisa Lawrence says Roxburgh's leadership was a mainstay of the organisation locally, nationally and internationally for years and her work for women and gender equality overlapped at every stage of her long career.

Gus says his mum was proud to see Jacinda Ardern become Prime Minister of New Zealand at 37.

"How amazing to live long enough to witness the evidence of the work you (and many others) did to progress the cause of equality and women's rights," he wrote shortly after his mother's death.

A filmmaker and producer, Gus says his mum enjoying hearing the success stories of women he met professionally such as Australian surfing great Stephanie Gilmore.

"She loved to see young women picking up the torch and carrying on."

Many women have spoken of the encouragement and mentoring Roxburgh provided including Nelson Marlborough District Health Board chairwoman Jenny Black who met Roxburgh in the 1980s. Roxburgh took Black, then in her early 20s, under her wing and provided some "fantastic opportunities".

"She was caring mentor, a really good Nelsonian who taught a lot of us."

In 2019, Roxburgh backed Nelson City councillor Gaile Noonan's re-election as her first nominator.

"She was a lovely, encouraging person," Noonan says. "She just cared about people; she was one of those real people."

Noonan met Roxburgh at the Rotary Club of Nelson where Roxburgh was made an honorary member.

"She was quite special to us at Rotary," Noonan recalls. "I admired her greatly. I had a personal relationship with her; I was lucky."

Another who learnt much from Roxburgh is former Nelson branch president of the National Council of Women Pip Jamieson.

"Alison was my role model and I often try to conduct myself with the grace and poise she always held," Jamieson says. "We shared many laughs, too."

Jamieson's last visit with Roxburgh was on Christmas morning in the care centre of a Nelson retirement village.

"I went to say Merry Christmas, only to find two of her other friends were sneaking in contraband alcohol, sandwiches and Christmas pies – all hidden in their walkers. We had a delightful wee morning party and, as always, Alison thanked me for visiting with her generous smile."

Gus, who is based in the United States, says he was moved to see so many members of the community rally around his mother. He intends to organise a memorial gathering later in the year as "a real celebration of a long life well lived".

 Roxburgh is survived by Gus and two granddaughters, Cameron and Jamie.

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  • National Council of Women New Zealand
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