Recent policy and academic writing on women in the Pacific has focused on the barriers women in the region experience when seeking to participate in formal politics. This paper contributes to the small body of work that seeks to explain why some women defy these barriers and get elected to parliament. We also extend it by focusing specifically on three women (President Hilda Heine from the Marshall Islands; Honorable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa from Samoa and Dame Carol Kidu from Papua New Guinea) who have won senior leadership positions in their respective governments. As the ‘first’ women to reach the apex of parliamentary politics in the Pacific, their stories offer valuable insights for donors and other reformers seeking to address gender imbalance both in the Pacific and beyond. To draw out these lessons we parse out 7 ‘rules of thumb’ that these women identify as being important to their political success. They are: 1) Use your family resources wisely; 2) An education involves both skills and profile; 3) Keep your community close; 4) Develop a reputation as an expert in a substantive policy area; 5) Develop strategies for working in a male dominated environment; 6) Know how and when to take a stand and 7) Build strategic networks with the international community. Our exploration of these insights is followed by a discussion of the critical reflections these leaders offer in relation to donor interventions. Their critiques offer a firm basis for assessing the best use of donor funding to support gender equity goals in the Pacific.