Thursday, 19 September 2013

120 years of NZ Women's Suffrage 19 September 1893-2013

Today marks 120 years since New Zealand became the first nation to win the vote for women.

This year also marks 100 years since Norwegian women gained the vote. In June I visited an exhibition in Oslo celebrating Norway's suffrage campaign-a campaign which had focused of maternal health, domestic violence, poverty and unfair working conditions. Norway's story echoes  New Zealand's experiences and reminds us of the links across time and space in women's struggles for voice and justice.

From the Norwegian Women's Suffrage exhibition Oslo, 2013

Assc Prof Katie Pickles of the University of Canterbury has written a thoughtful piece in today's Christchurch Press on the historical conditions which contributed to the success of the New Zealand campaign 120 years ago.

How did women in New Zealand achieve the vote a full 35 years before Britain enfranchised women as citizens on equal terms with men?

And how, as my mother proudly remarked to my daughter recently, did women in New Zealand achieve the vote using petitions, argument and strategic politicking, without having to endure hunger strikes, force feeding, or other violence associated with some of the intense struggles elsewhere?

Historians Pickles and Annie Mikaere argue there are complex reasons for the comparatively rapid success of the NZ women's suffrage including an alignment of time, place and the process of colonization. Women's suffrage benefited from a coalition of political, social and cultural aspiration, pressures for land alienation and practical necessity. Each pressure diminished the power of objectors who might have otherwise opposed women's enfranchisement.

'Women voting in Auckland, 1899', 
 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Jun-2013

But the historical circumstances which aided the struggle, do not detract from the skill of the franchise campaign which still had to be fought strategically and fiercely. A fascinating audio interview with a first time "lady" voter of 1893, Mrs Perryman captures some of the spirit of the time.

Mrs Perryman reminds us of a few basic realities- firstly not all women wanted the vote. She also comments on the considerable organisation it took for 600 women across the country to come together to gather signatures for three petitions and many bills. The petitions gathered thousands and thousands of names.

Christchurch, the home of leading NZ suffrage campaigner  Kate Sheppard, is rightly proud of Sheppard's leadership in this campaign, but Perryman reminds us, many women and men supported the effort. No social change benefiting the powerless has ever occurred without significant collective effort.

Kate Sheppard
New Zealand Suffrage Campaigner Kate Sheppard 
Source: Tessa K. Malcolm. 'Sheppard, Katherine Wilson', 
from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 
updated 30-Oct-2012 URL:

Individual actions matter very much, but social transformation also requires education, communication, and co-ordinated action to challenge well resourced vested interests. In the case of NZ suffrage; Temperance unions, church groups and Unions including for example the Tailoresses 'Union of New Zealand (created after the sweat shop 'scandals' of 1888 -1889 exposed ‘appalling working conditions for women in Dunedin) all contributed.

The debt we owe generations of women and men who have quietly stood up for social justice, 'unseen, unheralded', in everyday lives, is worth celebrating.

So tonight, at the end of suffrage day I just want to briefly highlight three remarkable women I've been thinking about today whose lives span three centuries, cultures and places:
Meri Te Tai Mangakahia

Source:  Mareroa Collection, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,
 updated 19-Sep 2013
Licensed by Manatū Taonga for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

In her ground breaking speech to Kotahitanga the  Māori parliament, in 1893, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Te Rarawa called for women to be given voice in parliament. Her call was ahead of its time, because women could not stand for election in New Zealand until 1919. Nevertheless she argued strongly for the right to stand for election, not just vote when she argued:

E whakamoemiti atu ana ahau kinga honore mema e noho nei, kia ora koutou katoa, ko te take i motini atu ai ahan, ki te Tumuaki Honore, me nga mema honore, ka mahia he ture e tenei whare kia whakamana nga wahine ki te pooti mema mo ratou ki te Paremata Maori.

 I exult the honourable members of this gathering. Greetings. The reason I move this motion before the principle member and all honourable members so that a law may emerge from this parliament allowing women to vote and women to be accepted as members of the parliament.

The life of another far sighted thinker I've been reflecting on today is:

Mary Muller

I find it moving that in 1850 Mary Muller fled domestic violence in the UK and began a new life, which included writing (and corresponding with John Stuart Mill) from her home in Nelson. Under the pen name 'Femina', Mary, wrote a series of remarkable pieces for the Nelson Examiner from 1869 also anticipating the NZ suffrage movement.

Finally this week, while working on a piece for UNICEF with colleagues at the University of Oslo, Voices of the Future team, I interviewed a remarkable 14 year old:

 Brianna Freuan

Brianna is Samoan and  she has spoken recently in New Zealand at the climate and youth conference, Powershift.

There are many things that are striking and inspiring about Brianna, but one that stands out across time and space, is the way her campaign for a new climate justice for communities of the Pacific has united large numbers of people, and used powerful principles to resist injustice-principles of collective action, education and hope which also characterized the Suffrage movements of history.

Celebrating Brianna's voice and effort seems a good way to mark today's events. Brianna's remarkable achievements remind us of the power and potential of women and men across time and space who imagine, organise, work and struggle for a more just and sustainable common future.

1 comment:

  1. In all honesty, I was unfamiliar with the women's suffrage movement in New Zealand but this post piqued an interest in reading about the lives of these brave and sagacious women. They came from different generations, different backgrounds and different eras, and yet fight for the common goal of what is good and right for everyone. This is such a rich history, and I thank you for shaaring these with your readers. I'll definitely recommend readings about these wonderful women.

    Christian Pearson @