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Meet the Kiwis proud to be Stroppy Old Women

"Stroppy” and “old” are terms women usually try and avoid at all costs. In the book Stroppy Old Women, Paul Little and Wendyl Nissen explore what brings out the boisterous sides of well-known New Zealand women.
Stroppy women Rosie Horton

“Stroppy” and “old” are terms women usually try and avoid at all costs. But philanthropist Dame Rosie Horton, actress Elizabeth  McRae and politician Sue Kedgley don’t really mind being labelled as such – all three ladies choose to see their “stroppiness” as a sign of a strong, confident woman.

Along with 49 other well-known Kiwis, the trio make an appearance in Stroppy Old Women, a book compiled by Paul Little and the Weekly’s own Green Goddess Wendyl Nissen, which aims to explore what brings out the boisterous sides of well-known New Zealand women. We caught up with Dame Rosie, Elizabeth and Sue to talk about the things that really get their goat.

Elizabeth McRae, actress

For Elizabeth, it was an unpleasant encounter in the supermarket car park that made her see red for the first time. The actress, who seems to be perpetually known as “Marj from Shortland Street”, recalls an occasion where a man falsely accused her of scratching his car with her trolley. “Actually, that was probably more downright fury,” she considers. “No such thing had happened, and before I knew it, I’d let out this stream of obscenities. I just lost it! Supermarket car parks are a hotbed of emotions!”

Elizabeth can’t quite pinpoint when she became a stroppy old woman, but remembers particular subjects that have always fired her up – inequality and employment issues being the most prevalent. “And also, aged people dissing the younger folk,” she asserts. “I think the youth of today are very admirable. I don’t like it when I hear, ‘Back in my day…’”

Now approaching her eighties, Elizabeth says she’s becoming more forthright with age as “you’re more willing to speak your mind and not care. “I can’t believe I’m going to turn 80 in two years! I did a big play in 2013, and I never thought I’d have a problem learning my lines, but I did. Well, the character was a bit demented, so that didn’t help!”

Dame Rosie Horton, philanthropist

It took the offer of an Italian cooking course for Dame Rosie to first realise just how stroppy she could get.

“That was my first moment of extreme stroppiness,” she muses. “My husband Michael had bought it for me, at great cost. It was because he got sick of my cooking. He was so excited for me to do it. He kept saying

that it was going to transform our gastronomical life. So I used my stroppiness to get out of it. I spent a huge amount of time working out a strategy for not doing it. In the end, I just plain refused and he did the course. He’s really good at Italian cooking now.”

While most who know Rosie wouldn’t label her as stroppy in the slightest, it’s actually a title the dame quite likes.

“I was quite thrilled to be called it,” she laughs. “It means I’m not a pushover. And Michael was thrilled. He was in Paul’s first book, Grumpy Old Men. So we’ve got the set. He’s the intellectual. I call myself Fluffy when I’m around him.”

On a slightly more serious note, there are other things that do get Rosie riled – the biggest is when she sees able-bodied people using disabled car park spaces. “Oh, I find that most awful. It upsets me terribly,” she says, visibly tearful at the thought. It’s so incredibly immoral – so unthinking. When able- bodied people misuse them, they should get double demerit points.”

But when it comes to cooking, Rosie is happy to admit she’s given up trying, and says she has other skills that compensate.

“I’m a dab hand at washing. I hardly ever dye anything pink. But my cooking is a running joke. Every time I see [Kiwi cook] Lauraine Jacobs, I say, ‘Darling, when are we having cooking lessons?’ This has been going on for 36 years. She crosses the street to avoid me now, but I do wish she would come and teach me how not to burn the pots…”

Sue Kedgley, former Green Party MP

Sue’s first memory of stroppiness, or assertiveness, as she prefers to call it, was in primary school. “One day, a teacher threw a wooden blackboard duster at me to shut me up,” she remembers. “Without a second’s hesitation, I instinctively threw it straight back at him. It never occurred to me to do anything different. So,” she laughs, “I haven’t really changed much!”

As a leading figure in New Zealand’s fight for gender equality, women’s liberation and the environment, Sue is used to people calling her all manner of words, the least of which is stroppy. “I don’t see myself in that way,” she shrugs. “I see myself as independent, assertive and strong, and I’m never afraid to stand up for what I believe in.”

It’s the issue of women’s continuing crusade for equality that really angers her.

“Every single culture in the world has viewed women as inferior,” she explains. “Globally, New Zealand is much better off, but we can’t afford to be complacent. It’s been 40 years since women’s liberation, and still 96% of CEOs are male!”

And, of course, her experiences in parliament, which she dubs a “hostile environment” did bug her, she admits. “It’s a male-driven arena,” she explains. “They put up with and tolerate the women. Helen Clark was a game changer in that regard. I made some futile attempts to change the rules! But women still have this fear about standing up for themselves. That needs to change.”

Stroppy Old Women compiled by Paul Little & Wendyl Nissen, Paul Little Books, RRP $34.99.

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