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Remembering the sacrifice of decades

On this day 130 years ago, New Zealand Governor Lord Glasgow signed a new electoral act into law that allowed women to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time.

As a result, New Zealand took the title of the first self-governing country in the world in which women had this right – something we’ve been dining out on as evidence that we’re a trailblazing progressive nation pretty much ever since.

It is worth noting, though, that other territories did beat us to it, including [somewhat ironically] the Isle of Man enfranchising women property owners in 1881, while the Cook Islands [then a British protectorate] also allowed women to participate in elections for island councils and a federal parliament in 1893 [although that law was enacted a few days after New Zealand’s new electoral act, Cook Islands women got to cast their votes for the first time on October 14, while NZ women had to wait until November 28].

Women winning the vote in NZ certainly didn’t happen overnight, with the issue on the bubble for more than two decades. The first pamphlet advocating for the issue was published [under a pseudonym] by Mary Muller in 1869, for example, while proposed legislation that unsuccessfully sought to extend the franchise to women was introduced to Parliament in 1878, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1890, and 1892.

Actually getting the legislation across the line in 1893 was largely down to the hard yards put in by Kate Sheppard [immortalised on our $10 bill – well, while we still have cash, in any case] and other suffragette campaigners [including members of the highly influential, anti-alcohol Women’s Christian Temperance Union] who organised several, increasingly massive petitions that finally forced Parliament to heed the call.

The final petition, which had nearly 32,000 signatures – almost 25 per cent of New Zealand’s adult female Pākehā population – included 607 Wairarapa women, among them Elisabeth Holms [Gladstone], Elizabeth Boys [Clareville], Beatrice Hughan [East Taratahi], Ingrid Johnson, Henrietta Chester, and Barbara McLeod [Carterton].

You won’t be surprised to learn the risible concern trolling of the anti-suffrage camp that delicate “lady voters” would be jostled and harassed in polling booths by “boorish and half-drunken men” if they were given the vote was proven to be unfounded, with the 1893 election described as the “best-conducted and most orderly” ever held in New Zealand.

Then again, one might also note that the suffrage movement’s claim that giving women the right to vote would result in a kinder form of politics and a better world overall, thanks to women’s innate morality and “maternal instincts”, doesn’t appear to have survived the test of time and reality, either.

Granted, in the intervening years there have been far more male MPs than female, but the gap has steadily closed, and last year the majority [50.8 per cent] of parliamentarians were women for the first time, after Soraya Peke-Mason replaced Trevor Mallard [although since Jacinda Ardern vacated her Mount Albert electorate, the ratio’s back to 50/50].

As such, one might legitimately wonder whether it’s not the sex of politicians, but the personalities of those people who aspire to the role, that ultimately [mis]shapes our political system and all that flows from it.

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