This month, New Zealand marks the 125th anniversary of the granting of women’s suffrage, with events and seminars across the country.
On the North Shore, Lake House Arts marked the occasion with its Power Jackets exhibition, Graduate Women North Shore held a seminar at Takapuna Library, Soroptimist International North Shore hosts a High Tea, and at the end of the month Kaipatiki Community Facilities Trust ‘Look[s] Back and Look[s] Forward’ in a youth-oriented seminar at Birkenhead Library.
The women’s suffrage movement spread from Britain to New Zealand during the 1880s. Led by Kate Sheppard, Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigners and others organised a series of huge petitions to Parliament: in 1891, in 1892, and finally, in 1893, with nearly 32,000 signatures – almost a quarter of the adult European female population as women. After several failed attempts, an electoral bill that enfranchised all adult women was passed on 8 September 1893, and signed into law on 19 September 1883 by the governor, Lord Glasgow. Six weeks later, on 28th November, women in New Zealand were the first in the world to vote in parliamentary elections.
Newly enfranchised they may have been, but New Zealand women still had a long way to go to achieve political equality, the www.nzhistory.govt.nz website notes. They did not gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first female MP, Elizabeth McCombs, was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after the introduction of women’s suffrage. The number of female MPs did not reach double figures until the mid-1980s and women remain under-represented in Parliament.
At the Power Jackets exhibition launch, Lake House Arts Board trustee Lyn Potter, a self-described second wave feminist, spoke not only about how far women have to go, but also about how far they have come towards achieving equality. When Channel Magazine caught up with her later, she acknowledged the work of the early suffragists, and that the waves of pressure for equality since then has been done on the back of the work they did for equality, aided and abetted by societal changes that have encouraged and enabled women to play a more equal part in all aspects of society.
The advent of the contraceptive pill was possibly the impetus for rise of the women’s liberation movement and increased pressure from women for equality in the late 1960s and 1970s; women could consider planning their families, go back to work and have careers in a way that had not previously been possible. Powerful women politicians and activists led the vocal and very visible “women’s lib” movement that fought for equal rights. The 1970 New Zealand Working Women’s Charter asking for “the elimination of all discrimination on the basis of sex, race, marital or parental status, sexuality or age”, or “wide availability of quality child care with Government and/or community support for all who need it…” alongside 14 other aspirational points, came out of that movement. It remains a work in progress.
We’re still a way off the day when it is incumbent on companies, as it is in Iceland, to pay equally for the same occupation, notes Lyn. “Gaps need to be fixed and we shouldn’t let it slide,” she says. As she said at the exhibition opening, women need to refocus. But they also need to acknowledge how far they’ve come, and that women in New Zealand are in a relatively good position compared with many other countries. There really are no barriers to women entering the profession of their choice. Women are much more visible in roles previously only open to men: a generation ago it would have been almost unheard of to find women electricians, plumbers, fire fighters, or in senior roles in the police or the SAS, for example. “We have a lot of freedom here, and a relatively tolerant and fair society,” she says.
She cites business initiatives like the adoption of Women’s Empowerment Principles (originally developed at UN Women’s Headquarters in New York) by a number of New Zealand corporates as a sign that companies are more aware than ever of the need for fair and equal workplaces. More recently, Women in Urbanism Aotearoa (www.womeninurbanism.org.nz) was established by women, “fed up with the glaring lack of women decision-makers” in urban industries – planning, architecture, engineering, for example – and in local and national government. It aims to shift attitudes to urban design and encourage moves to shape cities into places that work for women as much as for men.
Lyn also points out that issues are so much more complex now than when she was in the midst of the 1970s movement for equality. (She dislikes the term feminism for its overtones of strident, man-hating attitudes. “We were mostly mums in marriages, with kids, and we considered ourselves feminists because it was about equality,” she says.) The fourth wave of feminism, she says, is also looking at environmental issues, the LGBTI community, accessibility…. We’re so much more aware of wider societal issues, and we now expect to go further.”
But back to her remarks at the Power Jackets opening. “I suggested we needed to refocus,” she says. “We have achieved a lot but we haven’t taken care of the people who are most vulnerable. Our rates of domestic violence are appalling, and women often cop the violence.”
Power Jackets (the exhibition title taken from the idea of a power suit, a symbol of second-wave feminism) offered women artists the opportunity to appropriate the idea of insignia, often associated with gang patches, to make a feminist or celebratory statement to mark Suffrage 125. At a time when many groups may be online, their ideas resonating with their peer group but not exposed to a broader societal spectrum, Power Jackets was an opportunity for women of all ages and ethnicities to do the equivalent of 1970s banner-carrying, as well as to honour the suffragists – and raise funds for Women’s Refuge.
The artist statements accompanying each jacket offer a thoughtful and comprehensive, sometimes defiant, sometimes wistful, sometimes affirmative survey of issues facing women now. Auckland poet and artist Jenny Palmer’s celebratory jacket Koti took inspiration from her mother: “I pictured the home my own inspirational, powerful, loving mother created in our historical house.”
More confrontational is Natasha Vermeulen’s F*** You Pay Me jacket, inspired by an article on closing the gender pay gap (which sits at around 9%). “Women are constantly walking this fine line to be taken seriously or to effect change…. Using a bit of humour can help with these conversations for change” – which sparked a jacket that contrasts the harsh words of her message with hyper “girly” patches.
“What I loved about the exhibition,” says Lyn, “is that it brought artists together. Artists can make us think about making the world a better place. So many young artists were involved, and it gave women an opportunity to say something about gender and equality. It was exciting to see younger women coming in and claiming the space as their own.”
Exciting, too, to see that the ongoing challenges of equity and equality still stir emotions and stimulate action 125 years after women achieved suffrage. The battle lines may have shifted, perhaps even softened, but it’s evident that women continue to celebrate role models and achievements and to fight for the elimination of injustices.