Shirley Smith: An Examined Life

Shirley Smith was one of the most remarkable New Zealanders of the 20th century, a woman whose lifelong commitment to social justice, legal reform, gender equality and community service left a profound legacy.

She was born in Wellington in 1916. While her childhood was clouded by loss – her mother died when she was three months old and her beloved father, lawyer and later Supreme Court Judge David Smith, served overseas during the war – she had a privileged upbringing. She studied classics at Oxford University, where she threw herself into social, cultural and political activities. Despite contracting TB and spending months in a Swiss clinic, she graduated with a good Second and an intellectual and moral education that would guide her through the rest of her life.

She returned to New Zealand when war broke out, and taught classics at Victoria and Auckland University Colleges, before marrying eminent economist and public servant Dr W.B. Sutch in 1944, and giving birth to a daughter in 1945. She kept her surname – unusual at the time – and poured her energy into issues of human rights and social causes. She qualified as a lawyer at the age of 40, and in her career of 40 years broke down many barriers, her relationship with the Mongrel Mob epitomising her role as a champion of the marginalised and vulnerable.

In 1974, Bill Sutch was arrested and charged with espionage. After a sensational trial he was acquitted by a jury, but the question of his guilt has never been settled in the court of public opinion. Shirley had reached her own political turning point in 1956, with Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the Hungarian crisis, but she remained loyal to her husband, and the ongoing controversy weighed on her later years.

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life tells the story of a remarkably warm and generous woman, one with a rare gift for frankness, an implacable sense of principle, and a personality of complexity and formidable energy. Her life was shaped by some of the most turbulent currents of the 20th century, and she, in turn, helped shape her country for the better.

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life is available at any good bookshops and online at Victoria University Press.

It is available as an e-book on meBooks

2020 Awards Shortlist, New Zealand Book Awards

‘Sarah Gaitanos champions the life of Shirley Smith, whose achievements working for human rights and social causes are often overshadowed by the notoriety of her husband, Bill Sutch. Drawn from voluminous archives and the recollections of family and colleagues, a clear picture is presented of a frank, principled woman who swam against the current of her time. Written with clarity, insightful interpretation of sources and a steady tone, a remarkable story is expertly revealed.’

Ian Wards Prize 2020

This annual prize recognises a published work which makes substantial, imaginative and exemplary use of New Zealand archives and records. The publication must appropriately and fully reference the archives and records used.


‘a model of what a biography should be. … built of well-sourced facts, and those facts tell a ripping yarn.’ – Bill Hastings, New Zealand Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, 26 August 2009

‘a fine and thorough biography’ – David Herkt, ‘Shirley Smith: An Examined Life: New book neatly captures her world and ideals’Sunday Star-Times, 12 May 2019.

‘An unusual life, skilfully narrated’

‘… a fascinating biography … an important contribution to aspects of New Zealand’s social history in the mid-20th century.’

‘Sarah Gaitanos has done a great job ensuring that Shirley’s legacy is remembered.’ – Simon Nathan, Woman in LawScoop Review of Books, 24 April, 2019.

‘An extraordinary woman’

‘Very readable … Highly recommended’ – Holly Walker, Radio NZ Nine to Noon book review, 27 May 2019.

‘She wanted to be defined by her achievements as a person, not by her gender. Were she alive now, she may be comforted by the knowledge that she is remembered for both.’  – Yvonne van Dongen, ‘Examining Shirley Smith, the feminist lawyer married to Soviet spy Bill Sutch’, Sunday,  9 June 2019.

‘However, her greatest disadvantage was that she was a woman. The biography is a detailed and arresting account of how a woman born a hundred years ago had to cope with that handicap.’ – Brian Easton, Shirley Smith: In her Own Right, Pundit, 12 June 2019.

‘It’s a book that will be relished by history buffs polsci nerds. But the real beauty in Gaitanos’s biography was the way it acknowledged the grey areas in great people, and the frailness of life with all its contradictions.’ – Meg de Ronde, Book of the Week

‘A fascinating biography’ — Karl du Fresne, Shirley Smith: a strong woman strangely in awe of her ratbag husband,  2 July 2020.

And now more …

Reviews and articles of Bill & Shirley, Keith Ovenden’s memoir of his parents-in-law, has generated further comment about  Shirley Smith: An Examined Life:

‘Gaitanos, one of our sharpest, most respected biographers, succeeded in getting as close as anyone ever has to explaining what Sutch was up to in 1974. Her book, gloriously readable and detailed … in crisp and enthralling detail …  The analysis belongs here … ‘ Redmer Yska, book-of-the-week-aro-valley-confidential

See also, Simon Nathan’s no-ordinary-in-laws

and another by Nicholas Reid 


Interview with Noelle McCarthy, ‘Examining the life of Shirley Smith’,  Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, Radio New Zealand, 8 June 2019.

See also my entry on Shirley Smith for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography