Timeline of Women in the RNZN

Learn about the history of women in the Navy from the establishment of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) in 1942 to Lieutenant Lisa Hunn becoming the first Principle Warfare Officer in 2002.



  • The establishment of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) was approved on the by the War Cabinet on 11 April 1942.
  • The first director, Miss Ruth Herrick, was appointed on the 18 May 1942. Officially the WRNZNS was just 13 months younger than the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN).
  • Overall 640 women served, mainly in signalling but also in other occupations including intelligence, watch keeping and driving.
  • One of three women’s services the other being the WAAC (Army), WAAF (RNZAF)


  • WRNZNS was disbanded by the government. However, in April 1947 following the strike a large number of men left the service creating a severe shortage of personnel. It was decided to reform the WRNZS in May 1947. The director was First Officer Lorelle Corbin who stayed until late 1963 and was the longest serving director.

From the RNZN Oral Histories:

Second Officer M.V. Morten joined the RNZN in 1942 as probationary Wren. After three months she was promoted to Leading Wren.  “Elizabeth House. I’ve still got lots of very good memories of Elizabeth House. The Wrens had parties, and Christmas, there were parties and Christmas dinners, dances and all sorts of things. It really was a very happy time.”

Chief Wren C.J. Matthews joined the RNZN in 1942 as probationary Wren. “Colour Sergeant Brecken drilled us in the naval way, taught us to salute, gave us all a chance to drill the squad as well and in his own way I guess taught us quite a bit about the Navy.”

Ruth Herrick first Director of the WRNZNS wrote in 1943 “The introduction of women into sacred masculine preserves may have been accepted as a grim necessity and one of the inconveniences of wartime conditions, but the way the Navy has received the WRNZNS has given each one of us a sense of being wanted as an essential cog in the machine, however small, which if it fails, upsets the working of the whole. This recognition and appreciation goes a long way towards achieving results and gives us a pride in belonging to the service.”


  • In 1977 the RNZN conformed to Defence Policy in the wake of the Human Rights Commission Act by disbanding the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) and commencing the integration of females into the RNZN. The final parade was held on 29 July 1977.
  • New Zealand Navy Orders 64 and 156/77 set out the policy for employment of women in the RNZN.
  • The first contingent of Able Communication Operators was posted to HMNZS Irirangi at Waiouru.


  • Lorna Horan and Charlotte Marsh graduated at the first female Leading Physical Training Instructors


  • September 

The first intake of integrated Basic Common Trainees comprised 18 women and 51 men into the Royal New Zealand Navy. This was the first group of women to train with men under the policy developed in 1979.


  • In October 1981, four years after the integration of women into the RNZN, a paper was written on the employment of women at sea in the RNZN. Recommendations included provision for women to serve about the HMNZS Tui and Monowai.


  • Chief Petty Officer Helen Reader (Master at Arms) became the first woman to be appointed as a Regulator.


  • Defence Council Order 2/86 authorised the CNS to offer “temporary sea-going postings…. in non combatant ships”. In December 13 female ratings and one officer joined the survey ship HMNZS Monowai for ‘Women at Sea Pilot Study’ (WAPS), designed to run for three years. Nine of the ratings had a brief acquaint period in the ship late in October on the ship’s passage from Auckland to Lyttelton. This was to take three years.
  • Lieutenant Suzanne Butcher (now Dean) became the first female officer posted into a compliment billet in a RNZN ship as supply office on HMNZS Monowai. Although some administrative aspects of employing women at sea needed further analysis, the practical aspects of the trial proved successful and the employment of women at sea in non-combatant vessels with suitable facilities continued.
  • The first woman to do Shore Patrol duties was Able Writer Vicki Ryan
  • Lieutenant Commander Sue Taylor became the first woman to complete RNZAF Staff College


  • Warrant Officer Rader Plotter Fay Baker was the first women to appointed as a Senior Rates Mess President


  • Women in the RNZN given the opportunity to elect either sea service or to remain non seagoing Navy Order 35/1989 authorised the permanent employment of women at sea in the RNZN.
  • All women entering the RNZN from January 1989 intake would be required to serve at sea except those in a limited number of shore only trades.
  • Approval was given for women in the RNZNVR to undertake sea experience at the discretion of the RNZNVR Divisional Commanding Officer. A guideline of 10-15% of women within any mixed-gender ship’s company.
  • April CNS approves the policy for the employment of women at sea in the RNZN.  Branches and trades open to sea service by women are Supply and Secretariat Branch consisting of cooks, writers, stewards, stores assistants; Medical Branch, Communications Branch (radio trade); Regulating Branch and PTI Branch.  Officer specialisations included in the policy are Supply and Secretariat, doctors and chaplains.
  • May Navy Order 35/89 – Women at Sea released.


  • Lieutenant Commander Cornelia Beentjes became the first woman promoted to Commander in the RNZN.
  • Reverend Pauline Law became the first female Chaplin within the Navy.
  • Petty Officer Jenny Harris commanded the first all female guard for a gun salute to HMNZS Southland.
  • May Review of practical bars to the employment of women in Leander Class Frigates.


  • February Policy to allow women to seek entry into the Engineering Branches of the RNZN approved
  • May The Radio Fitter Branch was opened to female ratings.


  • June CNS approved the introduction of women into the Seaman and Technical branches of the RNZNVR.
  • December NZ Fleet Temporary Memorandum issued titled “Guidelines on the Employment and Treatment of Women in the RNZN”.


  • April All RNZN branches with the exception of the Diving Sub Branch are opened to women on an as required basis.  HMNZ Ships Southland and Wellington are declared available for mixed gender manning.  HMNZ Ships Canterbury and Waikato are made available for the posting of women for training purposes as required.


  • Commander Cornelia Beentjes became the first female promoted to a Naval Captain.
  • Lieutenant Maxine Lawes is the first RNZN woman to be appointed as Aide de Camp to the Governor General


  • HMNZS Wellington while in the Arabian Gulf was the first RNZN frigate to take women into a combat zone, into the North Arabian (Persian) Gulf as part of the Multi-national Interception Force.


  • Chaplain Pauline Law became the first woman to be appointed as Principle Naval Chaplain
  • Lieutenant Commander Margaret Weller became the first female Officer’s Mess President in the HMNZS Philomel Wardroom.
  • January Approval is given for HMNZ Ships Canterbury and Waikato to be declared available for full mixed gender manning.


  • Lieutenant Bronwyn Jones was the first female Officer in Charge of an Inshore Patrol Craft.


  • Lieutenant Bronwyn Jones becomes the first female Frigate Navigation Officer
  • The first woman to serve as an operational leading hand was Leading Electronic Warfare Rachel Blackby.


  • January Chief of Defence Force announces that restrictions on women serving in combat, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian and many other similar roles are abolished.  Regular and Non-Regular Service Women are to serve on the same basis as Service men with respect to combat roles.  Therefore women can enter the Diving Sub Branch.


  • Lieutenant Commander Beryl Oldham was the first women to command a 100 strong tri-Service guard of honour.


  • Lieutenant Lisa Hunn became the first Principle Warfare Officer.


  • Female stats in 2010
    • RNZN              22%
    • Army               13%
    • RNZAF            18%



Grant Howard, Happy in the Service: An Illustrated History of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service, Auckland: Word Publishers, 1985.

___________, Portrait of the Royal New Zealand Navy: A Fiftieth Anniversary Collection, Wellington: Grantham House, 1980.

NZDF, 25 Years of Women in the New Zealand Armed Forces, Wellington: NZDF, 2002.