Remembering Dame Alison, a pioneer for women in law
4 October 2023
The first female chair of Auckland University College's law students' society, Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter passed away peacefully at home on 30 September 2023 at the age of 93.
Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter, a distinguished public and international lawyer, a graduate of Auckland Law School, the first woman chair of the law students' society, a writer of constitutions, a diplomat, and a law reformer, has died aged 93.
The trailblazer for women in law was a dear friend, mentor, teacher and example to many in Aotearoa New Zealand, including Waipapa Taumata Rau's Professor of Law Janet McLean.
The two wrote and published ‘This Realm of New Zealand: The Sovereign, the Governor-General, the Crown’ together, and McLean says Dame Alison was a remarkable woman, lawyer and New Zealander.
"She broke the glass ceiling for women in many ways, including in her role as head of the legal division for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as New Zealand's representative to the legal committee of the UN General Assembly.
"As was expected at the time, she put her career on hold when she married fellow diplomat Robert Quentin Quentin-Baxter (commonly called Quentin), but they continued to work together on the reform of international law."
In 1970, Quentin was appointed constitutional adviser to the Niue Island Assembly, and the couple worked together to draft a new constitution for the country. In 1974, the Niue Constitution Act was passed, and ten years later, Dame Alison was appointed to the Niue Review Group and the Niue Public Service Commission.
She also advised the Fiji Constitution Review Commission, served as counsel to the Marshall Islands Constitutional Conventions and was an independent constitutional adviser to the members of the Saint Helena Legislative Council.
In addition to these international roles, Dame Alison was the New Zealand Law Commission director from 1987 to 1994.
The making of a trailblazer
Born in 1929, Dame Alison spent her childhood on a farm north of Auckland, and in an interview with Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington last year, she said her family didn't share many traditionally held expectations around gender.
"There were no girls in my father's family, so the boys had to do what girls would have otherwise done," she said.
"I remember being about five and my father picking me up and putting me on a pony to visit my uncle. I didn't think anything of it, it didn't seem strange. But people were shocked—that I, as a girl, wanted to, and was able to, sit happily and ride along."
Dame Alison excelled academically from a young age and attended Epsom Girls Grammar and Nga Tawa Diocesan School.
"There was a man on our street who was a professor at Auckland University, and my father got hold of him and said, 'Could I come talk to you about my daughter?'
"Between the two of them, they decided I would be best at law. So, at the age of 14, my father asked me if I wanted to be a lawyer, and I told him I didn't know the first thing about law! To which he said, 'You will.'"
In the late 1940s, Alison enrolled at Auckland University's Faculty of Law, where she was one of very few women, and in some of her classes, the only woman. In her final year, she became chair of the students' law society - the first woman to hold the position.
After graduating, she declined an offer from a leading Auckland firm. Instead, she applied to the Department of External Affairs, where she landed a role and went on to represent New Zealand in New York on the Legal Committee of the UN General Assembly.
A few years later, she was promoted to head of the department's legal division, a position she held until 1960 when she was posted to Washington DC as the first secretary in the New Zealand Embassy.
After she and Robert were married, they spent two years in Tokyo before moving together to Wellington, where, from 1967 to 1969, Dame Alison taught law and constitutional history at Victoria. The University later awarded her an honorary doctorate of Laws.
Dame Alison’s work has received significant honour and recognition over the years - in 1993 she was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order for public services. Later, in the 2007 Queen's Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the law, and in 2009, she was named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Dame Alison will be dearly missed by all who knew her.
A funeral service will be held at Old Saint Paul's, Mulgrave Street, Wellington, on Monday, 9 October at 1pm, followed by private cremation. Rather than flowers, her family says donations to aid cancer research would be greatly appreciated and can be made at www.cancer.org.nz/donate-now.
Sophie Boladeras | Media adviser
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