Williams is a New Zealand-born Cook Islander; her mother is from the Marsters family; her father hails from the island of Manihiki with connections to Penrhyn, Rakahanga and Palmerston.
She had seen natural diasters strike the islands where her family came from – so when one struck New Zealand, she wanted to help. She took a position as regional manager of the St John of God Hauora Trust, a disability and youth services provider.
The following year, talking with a work colleague, she was persuaded to run for Parliament. Respected, long-serving local MP Lianne Dalziel had stepped down as an MP to take up the Christchurch mayoralty, leaving a vacancy in the quake-torn Christchurch East electorate.
Williams won and has never looked back. “Sometimes when a door opens, it opens wide enough to step all the way through.”
Williams won nearly two-thirds of the votes in the by-election. Four years later Labour leader Jacinda Ardern led the party into government and, this week, 57-year-old Williams was made a minister – the first Cook Islands woman to serve at that level in New Zealand.
She will be sworn in next week as minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, as well as sssociate minister for Social Development, Immigration and Greater Christchurch Regeneration.
Speaking to Cook Islands News yesterday she said she was humbled. “I feel very amazed, very privileged. I feel a sense of obligation and duty, a sense of responsibility, a huge responsibility.”
As a female minister in a Government led by a young woman, she is a strong supporter of women in leadership. Her first advice to women in the political arena is, “believe in yourself, believe in your ability.”
She adds: “Self-belief is important.”
Her second piece of advice? “Have a good support network, that the kids are taken care of, that family and friends provide good support – having this network, you can achieve anything.”
“It’s important our family and cultural obligations are met. Nobody can do it on their own, even men need their wives/husbands.”
The Cook Islands Parliament has a woman, Speaker Niki Rattle, in charge. But only five of the 23 MPs are women: health minister Rose Brown in government; Tina Browne, Agnes Armstrong, Selina Napa and Tetangi Matapo all in Opposition.
But Williams says Cook Islands women are strong, nonetheless. “It’s interesting,” she says, “there’s been a lot of leadership in the Cook Islands with women.”
She believes the Cook Islands has never really had that problem of women at the top.
“I don’t know any Cook Islands woman who is shy.”
– THE FACTS
• Williams is the youngest of five children; she and her sister Tokerau are the surviving siblings.
• Williams’ brother Aaron Marston was a teacher at Tereora College and worked at University of the South Pacific.
• She was born in Wellington and grew up in Auckland, where she attended Beresford Street School and Auckland Girls’ Grammar; she graduated from Southern Cross University in New South Wales with an MBA; her doctoral topic was Pacific women’s leadership.
• Williams visited Rarotonga for the country’s 50th anniversary and has called in on more than several official visits.