A boring debate in Parliament over the Merchandising Marks Bill on 22 September 1954 took a sudden turn when New Zealand’s first woman cabinet minister Mabel Howard took out two oversized pair of women's knickers and began waving them around.
It’s not likely that women’s bloomers were seen in public all that much, let alone in the seat of power. It must have been a shocking moment for the era, and in fact, the response from the mostly male MPs was to burst out in peels of incredibly immature laughter and giggles.
Miss Howard, who wanted to ensure that women's undergarments would be labelled in inches in future, was trying to make a point about the lack of standardised sizing by showing that the bloomers, which were both labelled OS, were actually quite different in size.
"I have two articles of underclothing here, both marked OS and both of good quality, and now that I am holding them up, I would remind Members who are laughing that this is not a joke. Let them ask their womenfolk, if they are big women, if they think it is a joke when they go into a shop and buy a garment marked OS and find that it will not fit them. Of course it is not a joke; it is a very serious thing for women."
Mabel Howard was no stranger to getting her point across.
Born on April 18, 1984, near Bowden, Australia, she moved to New Zealand in 1903 with her father Edwin (Ted) Howard and sisters Adelaide and Elsie after her mother Harriet Garard Goring died of tuberculosis. Her father had originally been a sailor who had deserted his ship to marry Harriet.
Howard joined the Christchurch Socialist Party while attending the Christchurch Technical Institute before starting work as the secretary for Canterbury General Labourers’ Union.
Howard was a Christchurch City councillor for some years and when her father, Ted - himself a Member of Parliament - died in 1939, she hoped to take his place. That didn’t happen, the Labour Party chose another candidate.
Howard was elected to Parliament in the Christchurch East electorate in a by-election in February 1943. In 1946 she won the then new electorate seat of Sydenham with over 75 percent of the vote. Even when Labour was in opposition in 1963 and 1966, Howard was re-elected with large majorities. She held the seat until she stood down in 1969 after a mandatory retirement age was introduced.
In 1947 she was appointed the Minister of Health and Minister in charge of child welfare and in 1957 became Minister for Social Security, Child Welfare and Women and Children.
A staunch trade unionist, she often spoke on topics like social welfare, the rehabilitation of service men and women and the needs of women generally.
Howard went on to introduce important legislation which led to better treatment of tuberculosis, the regulation of physiotherapists and occupational therapists, the teaching of obstetrics and gynaecology and improving facilities for the mentally ill.
A topic she was passionate about was consumer protection, which led to her infamous stunt with the knickers.
It also led to her throwing a stone on the House floor warning that people buying coal might end up with more stones than coal.
With her four-foot 11-inch (1.5m) height and penchant for speaking her mind, she was a great character, a proponent of equal pay, an animal lover who adored her cats and was President of the Christchurch SPCA for many years.
She was such an animal lover that when she found two mice in her office and decided to keep them as pets, naming them Sid and Keith after former National Prime Ministers Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake.
In 1961 she pulled another stunt, saying she would be seeking re-election in slippers, since it was impossible for women to buy shoes other than those with stiletto heels and pointed toes.
By 1969, her health was in decline and she was in the early stages of dementia. Sadly, a court order saw her committed to Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch, where she died in June 1972. She never married (although she said she had plenty of offers) and had no children. She is buried at Bromley Cemetery in Christchurch.