Jane (later known as Jean) McKenzie was New Zealand’s first female diplomat and first female head of mission. Born in Edendale in 1901, she took a commercial course at Southland Technical College before finding employment with the Invercargill Post Office, and subsequently the Public Works Department. When the Prime Minister’s Department was established in 1926, she became secretary to the imperial affairs officer, Carl Berendsen.
Despite her lack of formal educational qualifications, Jean McKenzie’s application and ability saw her make her mark in the new department. She first went overseas with the New Zealand delegation to the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa, afterwards remaining for a period in Toronto as assistant to the New Zealand trade commissioner. In 1936, she was transferred to the League of Nations section of the London High Commission, and attended meetings of the council and assembly of the league.
When in 1941 a New Zealand legation was established in Washington DC, Jean McKenzie was transferred to help with the establishment phase, and while there was promoted to second secretary. In 1943 she was transferred as official secretary (effectively, Deputy High Commissioner) in Canberra. After 3 years in that position she moved on to London as a New Zealand delegate to the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
In 1949, Jean McKenzie was appointed charge d’affaires at the newly opened New Zealand legation in Paris. Six years later she was promoted to the rank of Minister, the first woman to hold a position of such seniority in New Zealand’s overseas service. Jean McKenzie was awarded a CBE in 1953, and in 1956 the government of France appointed her a commandeuse de la Légion d’honneur. Later that year, McKenzie retired and returned to New Zealand to live in Christchurch. She died suddenly in July 1964.
Jean McKenzie was held in high regard by her colleagues both for her formidable efficiency and for her warmth and generosity as a hostess. At the time of her death, the Acting Minister of External Affairs, JR Hanan, recalled her belief that “all work has dignity if it is well done”, and noted that her career had been a remarkable one, “in which her determination, diligence, and a deep sense of pride in her work played a conspicuous part”.
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Siddle, Marie-Louise (2009) “Dear Jean”: Understanding Jean McKenzie, New Zealand Diplomat, 1901-1964, through her Correspondence with Sir Joseph Heenan and Sir Alister McIntosh The European Connection: Essays in European Language Studies at New Zealand Universities, Number 13, 2009, pp 70-80. Retrieved from The University of Auckland website(external link)