Shirley Smith was one of the most remarkable New Zealanders of the 20th century, a woman whose lifelong commitment to social justice, legal reform, gender equality and community service left a profound legacy.
Shirley Smith was born in 1916, and her privileged childhood was clouded by loss – her mother died when she was three months old and her beloved father, lawyer and later Supreme Court Judge David Smith, served overseas during the war. On her 19th birthday Shirley went up Oxford University, where she threw herself into social, cultural and political activities, travelled in Europe, took lovers, joined the Communist Party and lived life at full tilt. Despite contracting TB and spending months in a Swiss clinic, she graduated with a good Second and an intellectual and moral education that would guide her through the rest of her life.
Returning to New Zealand when war broke out, Shirley taught Classics at Victoria and Auckland University Colleges, before marrying eminent economist and public servant Dr W.B. Sutch in 1944, and giving birth to a daughter in 1945. Shirley Smith qualifed as a lawyer at the age of 44 and in a career of 40 years broke down many barriers. In 1974, Bill Sutch was arrested and charged with espionage. There was a sensational trial and he was acquitted by a jury, but the question of his guilt has never been settled in the court of public opinion. Shirley had reached her own political turning point in 1956, when Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the Hungarian crisis shocked her to the core and she realised she had been deluded in her political allegiance, albeit for sincere reasons. She remained loyal to her husband, and the ongoing controversy weighed heavily on her later years.
Sarah Gaitanos is the author of Te Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor; Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life; and with Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, of the bestseller Crisis: One Central Bank Governor and the Global Financial Collapse. Sarah is an independent writer, researcher and oral historian.