Women’s suffrage

Lianne Dalziel addresses the crowd. Facing her is Helen Brown, who also spoke. She is one of the authors of the recently published second volume of Tāngata Ngai Tāhu which features many women, a number of whom signed the petition.

It was good to meet with friends at the Kate Sheppard National Memorial on Monday 19th to celebrate 129 years of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa New Zealand. I was interested to hear our mayor, Lianne Dalziel, speak before her term in office ends. In the photo she is wearing a camellia brooch given to women members of parliament on Women’s Suffrage Day several years ago while she was an MP. Several other women spoke. We heard about the effort the suffrage movement took and about the women organisers (and some of the women who signed the petition), that the Electoral Act was passed by only two votes, that it was long afterwards before other reforms and inclusive political representation occurred, and that hard work is still required to maintain what has been gained.

On Wednesday, I was pleased to see Kate Sheppard featured in our notes for the class at the WEA on Women in Philosophy. We learned about women suffragists and activists, thinkers and writers from other countries too. It’s worth noting that the term ‘suffragette’ was applied mainly to women suffragists in the UK. To me, it has disparaging overtones, belittling the cause and belittling the women. No wonder that – out of sheer frustration at the lack of progress – they resorted to violent means. A friend and I discussed this today and thought sympathetically, and with concern, of the women currently protesting in Iran.

This afternoon we visited Kate Sheppard House where a volunteer gave a detailed talk about some of the clothing and items belonging to Kate Sheppard and what they tell us about her and the time in which she lived. She began by considering how Kate Sheppard, with the symbolic white camellia, is represented on the $10 note. Afterwards, we were able to explore the beautifully presented house and garden and were hugely impressed.

The Women’s Suffrage movement included at least one Māori woman activist who played a significant role. She is the first of the standing women in the memorial statue in the top photo.

We saw where Kate Sheppard and several other suffragists assembled the petition which was sent in sections from all around the country and pasted together ready to present to parliament. It was the third petition they had presented.

I hardly need to point out how hard it must have been then, with difficult access, to collect signatures for three petitions.

One of the rooms features many women who have achieved high office in Aotearoa New Zealand since the vote was granted. I know they have all had a difficult time being in the public eye and that the downsides of social media make it even more difficult today. I am pleased the government bought this house as a national memorial and education centre to be administered by Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga. It is important.