4 Sep 2016

Dame Silvia Cartwright - Life and Influences

From Sunday Morning, 11:06 am on 4 September 2016
Dame Silvia Cartwright

Dame Silvia Cartwright Photo: RNZ/Dru Faulkner

Former Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright was New Zealand's first female district court judge, first female high court judge and one of three international judges on the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal.

She discusses the individuals, books, writers and events that have influenced her ideas.

Dame Cartwright describes her time at Otago Girls' High School in the 1950s as the first significant influence of her life.

In the 1950s when girls education usually led to careers in nursing, teaching or typing, the remarkable teachers at Otago Girls' taught their pupils that “nothing was beyond us”.

It was in the fourth form that she first became interested in the law, picking up a library book about Roman law. Yet she kept the interest to herself as she didn’t feel "intelligent enough" to pursue it.

When she broke it to her parents, her father was delighted and could see her being a judge immediately. Her mother – a fan of Charles Dickens – was disappointed that she’d chosen such a ‘dusty’ profession.

Dame Cartwright finds many professional women still suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ in 2016, and says she feels sorry for women still holding themselves back.

“I think women today have a much harder job than I had, because it’s really difficult to put your finger on it and say ‘that’s discrimination’.

Over all, New Zealand is still "not very progressive" socially, Dame Cartwright observes.

“We’re not observing human rights to the degree that we did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s not that fizz of excitement and ‘We can do this, we can make life better for people’.

Looking further afield, Dame Cartwright describes the entertainment value of the US presidential debate as "hog heaven".

"If you need to watch anything to see how propaganda is purveyed [Fox News] is the channel to watch. No-one – no-one – will criticise. And anyone who tries to do a subjective analysis gets shouted down, usually by a rather beautiful young woman with their skirt above their knees and their legs on full display and their hair done within an inch of their lives. It’s fabulous."

Nina Simone in 1965

Nina Simone in 1965 Photo: Public Domain

Dame Sylvia Cartwright recommends: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi.

She played: Maria Callas performing 'Un bel di' (One Fine Day) from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and 'Strange Fruit' by Nina Simone.

“As you can tell I’m a sucker for sad things.”


This is the latest episode of the occasional series Influential Kiwis Talk about the Influences. Check out the others below: