Topic: Suffrage 125: Remembering the Struggle

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Suffrage 125: Remembering the Struggle is a speech given by Debbie McCauley from the Suffrage 125 Tauranga committee on Wednesday 28 November 2018, at the launch of the book 'Western Bay Women' held at The Incubator in Tauranga. “Proud to be a part of the Suffrage 125 national event programme.” #suffrage125 #suffrage125tauranga #whakatūwāhine

Some of the content of this speech is from 'Eliza and the White Camellia: A Story of Suffrage in New Zealand' by Debbie McCauley (author), Helen Casey (illustrator), Tamati Waaka (translator) and Sarah Elworthy (designer). Published 28 November 2018 by Mauao Publishing (Tauranga, New Zealand). ISBN: 9780473449469.

Tēnā koutou katoa,
Nau mai, haere mai,
Ko Debbie McCauley tōku ingoa.

In 1871, New Zealand feminist ‘Polly Plum’ wrote that women should not be subjected to legislation they had no part in making. Due to their perseverance and hard work, New Zealand women won the right to have their say 22 years after ‘Polly Plum’s’ statement was made.

September 19th, 1893 saw the signing into law of the Electoral Act, meaning that we became the first self-governing country in the world where all women who were 'British subjects' and aged 21 years and over, had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The nationhood requirement did exclude some groups, such as Chinese women. In most other democracies – including Britain and the United States – women did not gain the same right until after World War I.

Congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere, with one person writing that New Zealand’s achievement gave ‘new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation’.

During this year’s Suffrage 125 commemorations, we have remembered the suffragists and their long struggle. We have also reflected on women’s rights today and how far we have come. Current legislation protects human rights and in theory eliminates discrimination. However, there is still much to do to achieve full equality and improve societal attitudes towards women.

On July 28, 1893, 13 suffrage petitions with 31,872 signatures were presented to Parliament. The petitions were submitted to the House of Representatives on August 11th. Many more petitions were submitted during the campaign, and represent hundreds of hours of work by women from all walks of life. They talked to many people, had doors slammed in their faces, and were told in no uncertain terms by some, in the words of Henry Wright, to ‘go home, to look after their children, cook their husband’s dinners, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which Nature designed them’. The terrible things envisioned if women were actually allowed to vote included screaming babies, burnt dinners, cats in the milk jug and, horror of horrors, men having to cook their own meals!

Unfortunately, the only surviving example of those petitions is the ‘monster’ petition of 25,521 signatures, which is on display as part of the He Tohu exhibition at National Library. The rest of the petitions, evidence of the thoughts and inclinations of our other female ancestors, were not preserved, and their part in the suffrage story is now lost to both their descendants and future researchers.

So 125 years ago today, and because of that Electoral Act, the women of Aotearoa first had their say. As they exercised their democratic right to vote, the complete breakdown of society did not happen, but was instead, improved. Before this time, politics in New Zealand was what can only be described as dirty.

Polling booths were often located in taverns, with candidates offering free alcohol in return for a vote and drunken scuffles common. Bribery and bullying claims were often made, and electoral rolls overflowed with false entries from people known to have died. Once women had the vote, most candidates cleaned up their act, quickly realising that they now needed women’s vote.

We still have important dates to commemorate. Tomorrow, November 29th, marks 125 years since the vote in local body elections. Elizabeth Yates was voted Mayor of Onehunga, the first woman mayor in the British Empire.

December 20th, 1893 was when women first voted in the Māori electorates, thus completing the election of the 12th New Zealand Parliament. Only those whose descent was exactly half Māori were allowed to choose whether to vote in the European or the four Māori electorates.

It must be remembered that during the reign of Queen Victoria, British women had very little rights. In contrast, Māori women were used to maintaining control over their land and holding powerful positions. That was until their position was eroded by the British patriarchy, and further undermined by the Native Lands Act and following amendments.

Māori and Pākehā suffragists worked together and had similar concerns over alcohol abuse, but Māori women were tackling other issues, such as the effect of colonisation on their people, including land loss, and the disintegration of Māori women’s rights as the owners of land and resources.

New Zealand women only gained the right to stand for Parliament in 1919 and the first female MP was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after the introduction of women’s suffrage. Two years later, the first Māori woman stood as a candidate, and in 1949 the first Māori woman was elected.

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I was reflecting on how my suffragist ancestor, Eliza, might have been feeling after the long years of the suffrage campaign. Was she exhilarated, or was she just numb? As the mother of 12 children, maybe she was just tired, after all, she had been fighting for something that women should have had by right since New Zealand’s first General Election in 1853.


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