“The first rule of being a lawyer is that you keep everything. The first rule of being a public servant is that you keep everything. So being both, as you might imagine, I’ve kept everything.”
The papers will be added to our Tapuaka—Heritage and Archive Collections, freely available for students, staff, and external researchers to access and use within the Library’s JC Beaglehole Room.
Dame Alison says that rather than let them waste away in her basement, or as she calls it, “the dungeon”, she felt they’d be of better use at the University where they could continue to contribute to her and her husband’s legacy.
But while theirs is truly a legacy enshrined in law, it’s also one of love, identity, and proving to the world what a woman can do.
Breaking boundaries from the beginning
“I knew from a very young age that women could do everything men could, if not better.”
Born Alison Burns Souter in 1929, Dame Alison spent her early childhood on a farm north of Auckland. She says that her family didn’t share a lot of the traditionally held expectations around gender that other people at the time did.
“There were no girls in my father’s family, so the boys had to do what girls would have otherwise done.
“I remember being about five and my father picking me up and putting me on a pony to go 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.”
A student of Epsom Girls Grammar in Auckland, and later Nga Tawa Diocesan School, Dame Alison says that it quickly became apparent that she was bright—or at least, apparent to her parents, who decided unequivocally they had to do whatever it took to get their daughter to university.
“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 Dame Alison enrolled at Auckland University’s Faculty of Law. One of few women in the class, she says she knew she had to take it seriously and do her best, both for her family, and for herself.
She recalls a tradition in the students’ law society that the exiting club chair would appoint next year’s.
“He said Alison, you ought to be the leader. I was quite shocked, but when a young man piped up and said that he ought to be leader instead he was told by the rest of the group to be quiet, so I knew it was something I had to do.”
She was the first woman to hold the position.
Dame Alison graduated in 1951, and was offered a job almost immediately. But her interest in international affairs led her to the Department of External Affairs, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where she was given an interview.
“The head at the time told me that if I was a first-rate shorthand typist he’d beg me to join, but a woman as a lawyer? He wasn’t so sure.
“He told me he’d speak to the other lawyers and get back to me, and I don’t know what happened but two weeks later I was given another interview, and this time they paid for me to come—which I took as a very good sign.”
Dame Alison got the job, where she very quickly proved herself and says she “never heard another word about being a woman.”
It was in this role that she met the man who would become her husband, Robert Quentin Quentin-Baxter.
“When I arrived the head of the divison was away getting married, so his number two was tasked with getting me settled in.
“Well, he was extremely nice, he wasn’t married, and he managed to fall in love with me immediately.”
The laws of the sea, and of the heart
Dame Alison stayed with the Department of External Affairs, and received her first overseas posting early in her career to Washington D.C. at just 22 in 1952.
“I remember speaking to my father on a Wednesday and, as desperate as I was to go overseas, I told him I didn’t think it would be happening for at least another three years.
“That Friday, I was ringing him back and saying ‘Guess what? I’m going to Washington.
“It was hard work for all of us, but I settled in as best as I could, and it all went very well. I got very good marks from the Ambassador for how I’d performed, and went back several times.”
Dame Alison was promoted to head of the department’s legal division in 1956 at 26 years old, and went on to represent New Zealand in New York on the Legal Committee of the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, her future husband Quentin received his own overseas postings, representing New Zealand in Ottawa, Tokyo, and New York.
It was three years before they had the chance to cross paths once more—this time in Geneva, Switzerland, tasked with collaborating together on international maritime law.
“I don’t know whether I’m embarrased or glad to say, when I picked him up from the station in Geneva we flung ourselves into each other’s arms.”
The issue on the table was to get a two-thirds agreement on the proposed law of the sea. Dame Alison says she remembers staying at a hotel in Geneva with Quentin, working on the proposed documentation until the early hours of the morning.
In the end, their proposal was defeated with a margin of just one vote.
“But there was one success to take away, because Quentin and I left Geneva engaged to be married.”
A few years later in 1967, Dame Alison and Quentin both began teaching at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
“The University had us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They loved us, and loved the work we did.”
Quentin quickly became a professor in the Faculty of Law, but when a position came up for Dame Alison to be promoted into, she says it was because of her marriage to him and status as a woman that she was passed over.
“They told me that I was entirely qualified, the best person for the position. But they felt they had me there safely through Quentin and should give the position to someone they may otherwise lose.
“Well, after that, they lost me anyway.”
Dame Alison recalls considering returning to do further study or research, but not long afterwards the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approached her husband once more, this time to travel to Niue and help draft their constitution.
“He told them he wouldn’t go without me.
“The two of us together, we could do more than a single person would be able to. It was how we got to know each other, working together. Through all of our life married or otherwise we worked together, and we achieved more together. So we went.”
Protecting the identity of the Pacific
“It was all quite silly. All these small countries of the Pacific had been jammed together, colonies of colonies with nothing in common, and now we were realising that this wasn’t going to work.
“Each country has their own identity and culture, and they decided the only way they could keep that was with their own, unique constitution. We couldn’t just copy anything, it had to be tailored.”
Dame Alison and Professor Quentin-Baxter travelled to Niue in 1970, and later to the Marshall Islands in 1977.
“I’ve had a lot of experience now being dropped off on a small island in a small plane, and watching as it flies away leaving you there. You know it’s not coming back, and there’s no way off, so it was time to get to work.
“I remember Quentin turning to me and saying, ‘so, can you do a first draft?’”
In Niue, they had to strike a balance between achieving independence and self-governance without the people losing the support and status on which their livelihoods depended.
“The general feeling was that a mistake had been made in the governing of these islands. So the approach was, let’s make them independent and shove them off. But we couldn’t just do that, these small, small countries needed financial support, trade deals, and links.
“But equally, we couldn’t hang around. If you’ve been involved with a country and it becomes independent, you don’t keep meddling.”
After her husband’s death in 1984, Dame Alison would continue her work in the Pacific for another two decades, developing and adivising on the constitutional law of Fiji, St Helena, and the Cook Islands, as well as returning to Niue several times. Their work on the constitutions of Niue and the Marshall Islands stands unchanged to this day.
“This work that we did in the Pacific, it was all so unique. That’s why I’ve kept these papers, and why I wanted to give them to the University.”
Passing on the torch
Dame Alison was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University in 2003, and in 2007 was made Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Looking back, she ties her success and her legacy back to a simple lesson she learned on the family farm.
“I’ve always known the importance of being self-sufficient. As a woman building your career, or if you’re rolling around the Pacific somewhere—that’s very useful.”
She hopes that in passing on her legacy and work to the University that she can pass on some of those lessons too—that her story, and those lessons, can be useful. And she says she has every faith in the next generation to do it, and even more.
“When you’ve seen young people go off to fight wars, you quickly realise young people can do anything. And if you need them to, if you ask and trust them to, they’ll do it.”