By Julie Anne Genter, Minister for Women
Not since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s have we seen the activist voice of women rise to a level where citizens and governments around the world are taking notice. The world has watched as the Women’s Marches, #MeToo, #TimesUp and the spotlight on gender pay gaps have swept the globe. It’s a critical moment and it is galvanising women and feminists everywhere to stand up for equality.
But of course, it’s not the first time we’ve done so.
125 years ago women in our small country won a hard-fought battle for suffrage and led the world to change as New Zealand became the first self-governing country to achieve full voting rights for women.
It had been a long struggle. For years, New Zealand women — both Pākehā and Māori — had been challenging government systems and representatives to include women and women’s issues in the decision-making process. Having been relegated to the parlours, pantries and gardens of 19th century society, women were forced to sit by and watch as men — who were often completely out of touch with the concerns and daily strife of women and household affairs — spoke for them, passed legislation on their behalf and enjoyed all of the trappings of power.
Indeed, men were protected by the law while women were often subjected to it. Divorce laws were heavily weighted against women. Divorce laws, property settlements, domestic violence, sexual violence, alcohol laws, and economic independence were just some of the issues that women’s voices were needed on.
Colonisation also created new difficulties for Māori women. Although wāhine Māori had long been landowners — and even chiefs — with independent decision-making power, as British subjects they saw these rights eroded. Under British rule, Māori land was being lost to the Crown and Māori women began to lose their traditional freedoms. While Pākehā women had been used to living in a patriarchy, Māori women were understandably unwilling to give up their power and liberty. It was in this climate of unrest and oppression that New Zealand women’s fight for equality began.
Calling it a ‘fight’ is an important distinction — it was clear to campaigners by this point that no one was going to simply ‘give’ women the vote. And so, early campaigners like Mary Ann Müller (writing under the newspaper columnist pseudonym ‘Femmina’), Mary Colclough (writing under the pseudonym ‘Polly Plum’) and Anna Stout (a temperance advocate and politician’s wife) bravely flew in the face of polite society to draw attention to the plight of women and families who were destitute because of men’s neglect. They seized on the injustice of women being subjected to laws that they had no say in making. They endured scathing ridicule and condescension and some wouldn’t live to see the change they fought for… but they started a conversation that could no longer be ignored.
And with that momentum building, more New Zealand suffrage heroes began to emerge. Increasingly, New Zealand women (and men) from all different classes of society sought to pressure and persuade citizens and lawmakers to empower women with voting parity. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia and Ākenehi Tōmoana challenged Te Kotahitanga (the Māori Parliament) for women’s right to vote as well as stand for parliament. Kate Sheppard, Margaret Bullock, and countless other women, who had been working for years on creating and circulating several petition attempts, finally succeeded in September of 1893. Confronted with the signatures of nearly 32,000 women (about a quarter of the would-be eligible women voters) it became clear to a majority of MPs that the country would have to evolve.
It’s this historic, world-first victory that we celebrate this year with Suffrage125. There are events and activities around the country to mark the anniversary. After launching the celebrations on the eve of International Women’s Day at Government House in Wellington we’ve seen dozens of groups and organisations offer festive and thought-provoking commemorations of Suffrage 125. From academics, playwrights, musicians, scientists, television personalities, business leaders and many others there have been panel discussions, children’s programmes, films, novels, scholarships, technology challenges… and there’s more to come. But even as we relish the opportunity to take pride in our unique accomplishment, it makes sense to ask ourselves what we have to show for our historic success.
Certainly, I and my fellow women MPs can only stand in awe and gratitude for the achievements of our suffrage pioneers. We wouldn’t and couldn’t be where we are today without their hard and visionary work. The same year that we achieved suffrage, women would eclipse men at the polls for their first election — 82 percent of them showing up to vote compared to 70 percent of men. And in Onehunga, Elizabeth Yates would become the first elected female Mayor in the British Empire.
Though it would take some time, we would achieve other firsts: in 1933 Elizabeth McCombs would be the first woman elected to the New Zealand Parliament. In 1947 Mabel Howard became the first woman Cabinet minister in the Commonwealth. Iriaka Rātana would be the first Māori woman MP in 1949. In 1999, Georgina Beyer was elected the world’s first openly transgender MP. And of course, Dame Jenny Shipley became our first woman Prime Minister in 1997. As it stands now, the New Zealand Parliament includes 40 percent women — our highest ever representation of women in Government.
But we’re also lagging in some areas of diversity. We didn’t elect our first Asian woman to Parliament — Pansy Wong — until 1996. And it wasn’t until 1999 that Winnie Laban became the first Pacific woman elected to Parliament. If we follow the principle that you ‘can’t be what you can’t see’, then we need to keep working to ensure that our leaders and governments reflect Aotearoa New Zealand in all of its diversity. When young Kiwis see leaders that mirror their own cultures, genders and backgrounds, they feel represented and empowered.
We can’t just leave it all to the next generation to sort out, though. After 125 years, it’s hard to justify having any more excuses for making progress. The groundbreaking achievements of our suffrage campaigners cracked opened a door to a fairer society. It’s time to fully step through.
We can, and must, make changes to benefit New Zealand women now. I am focused on closing the gender pay gap, and taking action to ensure women are paid fairly. We need to work especially hard to ensure the even greater pay gap for Pacific and Māori women is eliminated. Parenting is still highly gendered in New Zealand. Let’s stop expecting women to do a double shift and let all parents and caregivers enjoy (and endure) raising their children.
Women from the temperance movement in the 1890s were motivated because they wanted to reduce violence in their homes. Today, we still have a long way to go to stop violence against women. But as we look back at the rights we’ve won and the social change made, we can see that we can create a fairer society. These things are achievable in our lifetime and we know that challenging and motivating government, businesses, councils and citizens to pursue policies for equality actually does lead to meaningful change.
We are celebrating Suffrage 125 throughout 2018. It’s an opportunity to recognise and be proud of our special status as world leaders in women’s rights. In this year of celebrations, it’s important to remember that we still have progress to make and remind ourselves — and show the world — that we can continue to lead the march toward gender equality.
He waka eke noa (A waka which we are all in with no exception)
Get your copy of the September issue of MiNDFOOD New Zealand to read the stories of 12 inspiring women who are doing remarkable things in New Zealand.
*This article is the unedited version of the one by the same title found in the September 2018 issue of MiNDFOOD New Zealand.