Catherine Healy was formally recognised with an Order of Merit earlier this week – and effectively become a dame.
She was a primary school teacher before becoming a sex worker – and in 1987 started the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). The Prostitution Reform Act was later drafted in 2003.
“I was startled when this was offered. I’m in shock,” the 62-year-old told the BBC.
“I think even a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought this was possible. It’s indicative of a shift in people’s attitudes and it’s lovely to feel supported.
“We were spoken about as young sex workers in a disrespectful way. We needed to find our voice and we needed to be understood.
“There is still a stigma around sex work. I think other countries should look at New Zealand. We should have a vision, it’s about not ostracising and making [sex work] more dangerous.”
Former prime minister Bill English, meanwhile, received a knighthood for his services to the state during a political career that spanned almost three decades.