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Fortune telling: the second hundred years of women's suffrage

Issue date: 
Thursday, 2 December 1993
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

Somehow, I suspect that this isn't news: Suffrage Centennial Year is pretty much over. Come December 31st, this Cinderella Festival turns into a pumpkin, you might say.

Many people have spoken and written about the year. Here are just a few of their comments.

This was the opening of a recent newspaper article on the Suffrage Centennial, which sums up the year pretty well in my view: "It's been a year of celebration, picnics, art and drama festivals; a year of international conferences, new histories, films, television programmes and massed camellia plantings; a year of rediscovery and reassessment - New Zealand women's history and their present.

In some quarters it has also, and sadly, been a year of vilification. Prominent feminists have been subject to personal attacks, their work denigrated, their motives questioned. The centennial has been rubbished as a waste of money, and elitist middle-class extravagance in times of economic hardship."

A magazine said: "There has also been some negative reaction - mainly from a small number of men but also from some women who were opposed to the celebrations, though for different reasons. They tended to be concerned about celebrating something like this after nine years of economic and social policy which have actually hurt [a lot of] women.

That is an absolutely understandable concern. But I'm also interested that some people used that to suggest that in times of hardship women had no right to celebrate their achievements. Almost as if a celebration for women was a luxury and that it was women's job to attend to the needs of others, that they have to put themselves last, that they don't deserve luxuries. And yet the fact is large amounts of the money granted went on projects to help...

One of the things that made me angry was the suggestion that the money should go instead to women's refuges - as if women were responsible for domestic violence. No one ever suggests breweries or sports clubs give money to refuges."

Returning to the newspaper article, it goes on to ask: "So has it been worth it? What have we got out of it? More to the point, what will the medium and long-term effects be?

The centennial pushed women's issues and history into the sunshine. Will 1994 (put them back in the shade)?

The Suffrage Centennial Year Trust ... was established in 1991 with two responsibilities. The first was educational, to promote the centennial throughout New Zealand, and the second was to allocate funding - $5.3 million - to projects which...promoted women's social, political, economic and cultural development; recognised and encouraged their diverse cultural identities; increased awareness of women's contribution to New Zealand society and increased the historical data base on that contribution.

...two surveys 18 months apart...conclude[d] that those two responsibilities have been successfully discharged...

Much of the education and promotion work was carried out be local suffrage committees. ...the Trust encourage local communities to establish co-ordinating committees [and] thought maybe 12 or 15 such groups would get going.

The response, Dame Miriam [Dell] says, was dreamlike - 66 committees throughout the country working with local authorities, government departments, libraries, museums and galleries, with schools and community groups.

Particularly satisfying has been the participation of schools, where much of the long-term benefit will be felt. Thanks to the centennial, young men and women in secondary schools have had far greater exposure to women's history, to the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, than their parents or their older brothers and sisters. That understanding, that broader, more inclusive view, of our past will be of long-term benefit...

On the funding side there's been a bit of a fuss, to put it mildly, about who got what and the purposes to which it was applied. There was bound to be. Applications for the first funding round of $880,000 totalled $7 million...

Dame Miriam...says she is more than satisfied that everyone was fairly considered. 'We wanted to achieve coverage of the whole of New Zealand, to cover all the issues which are of importance in women's lives, to reach all New Zealanders and to act in a properly bicultural way, in regard to the multi-cultural nature of our nation. We tried to get a geographical balance in all activities and a balance of youth and age, rural and urban and to include a diverse range of women.'

There was disappointment but there were also unrealistic and unreasonable expectations. To put it bluntly, it is somewhat unrealistic to expect a government-established and funded organisation to overthrow the patriarchy in 12 months on a budget of $5.3 million.

'The burden of expectation was incredible. People wanted us to solve all the problems immediately, they wanted us to comment on issues or events where had no mandate for comment. It was really obvious from the moment we began that people thought we could fund everything, hoped we could address wider issues such as poverty and unemployment. We were never set up to address those long-term, wider objectives. People gave us a much greater mandate than we could ever have met.'

...there has, [however], been a re-energising and refocusing by women on women's issues and a heightened perception of women's aspirations by the wider community - including decision makers in the private and public sectors.

'There's been a big accounting of how far women have got. Government departments for example have been required to carry out projects for the year, which have focused attention on where women are and have helped reactivate women's and Equal Employment Opportunities networks, which had fallen into abeyance somewhat with the restructuring of the state sector. Lots of women have used the year as leverage and, sure, next year won't be suffrage year but I think women have been emboldened and energised and made more determined to keep the pressure on...'"

So, it's been a useful exercise - a year of continuing education, really. And I hope that at least some of its lessons stick.

If they do, we'll have a more accurate social compass, a deeper understanding of our own history and a sharper view of how we are developing as a society.

The Year made us ask ourselves some basic questions - what social choices do we still have to take? - what decisions about gender roles should we take? - and, will they leave us better off or poorer?

To answer them, I suggest that there are three issues we have to resolve.

The first is to continue to define and refine our thinking on what it is that women in New Zealand still need to achieve - no small task, that one.

The second is for women and men to learn better, more effective ways of talking across the cultural divide that separates the genders.

The third is what you could label a classically-feminist recommendation - that the bias in our society that favours men's values over women's, be eliminated.

So, first question first. If the women's movement were, quote, 'to succeed,' what would this success look like? What is our vision for and of the future? Or perhaps, given that there are several visions of New Zealand's future on offer at any one time, which should we strive to make real?

The rediscovery of Kate Sheppard and Company's goals, from a century ago, gives a valuable perspective. You can gain another if you go back to when you, yourselves, were girls. What did you want when you were 8, or 13, or 17? The point of all this self-inquiry is, for all of us, what was missing from the pictures we had?

In the past, there have been many definitions and prescriptions of and for 'what women want' - equality of opportunity, equal rights, equal pay for work of equal value and so on. But what is the highest common factor of all these formulations? I suggest that, 100 years after women were formally recognised as legal persons, we are still striving for the proper recognition of the truth and the wisdom of the idea that women and men are of equal status.

Equal status is a useful specification, because it allows for the biological differences between women and men, without unbalancing their equal worth.

So my first hope for the years to the bicentenary of women's suffrage is that we acquire a broad cultural awareness that men are not superior to women, women are not superior to men, but that the genders are complementary. The skills, perceptions, talents of both are valuable and needed. This should be already a truism. Many people would agree, I'm sure. But the belief has yet to really change our culture.

Differences between men and women's lives are still used to uphold false beliefs about relative social worth.

In the past, observations about the differences between women and men have been heard as saying that women are different from the standard, which is whatever men are. The male standard is the norm, the female departs from it. And then, 'different' changes to 'worse','dissimilar' to 'not equally valid.'

"Much as I understand and am in sympathy with those who wish there were no differences between women and men - only reparable social injustice," says Deborah Tannen, an American linguistics professor and writer, "...research...and experience (say) it simply isn't so."

One of the main stumbling blocks to achieving women's and men's equal status, she goes on, is the barrier raised by the two genders' different 'cultures.' She asserts that because "there are gender differences in ways of speaking, ...we need to identify and understand them. Without such understanding, we are doomed to blame others or ourselves - or (our relationships)..."

Removing some of the barriers to women's rights need not involve confrontation or out-and-out hostility.

Many of the problems women have had in attaining equal rights and responsibilities should be much more readily solved if we get better at translating women's point of view to men, and vice versa. This applies at the personal level, as well as in the public arena.

"Talking past each other" (Joan Metge) occurs in gender terms as well as racial.

This is a big step away from the conspiracy theory that holds that men deliberately and consciously oppress women. Certainly there is a lot of Grade A male chauvinist piggery about, but there are many men out there who wonder how, after making sincere efforts to try to communicate their goodwill, they are still perceived as being malign manipulators.

On the way to achieving equal status for men and women, we need to see and acknowledge that women and men in our society live in parallel cultures. Women's and men's cultures almost touch, but not quite - we are headed in roughly the same direction, but there is and has always been a distance between us. This is obvious in Maori society, but not well understood in the Pakeha world.

We know the gap is there, but it's hard to measure and it makes us uncomfortable. So we just assume that women and men do, or ought to, talk and think in the same way and have the same priorities.

The hard evidence is that this is wildly inaccurate. When men and women talk, quite often they talk right past each other. Many of men's and women's basic assumptions about sex roles - about the way individuals should co-exist with wives, husbands, children, employees, employers and so on - about what constitute legitimate aspirations and expectations - our basic assumptions are different.

Or if we have noticed the discrepancies, we have not taken any action as a consequence.

Both men and women would be changed by the examination of fundamental cultural assumptions. Indeed, one of the signs that 'cultural recognition' of women's equality is really beginning to take place, will be that women's behaviour changes, as well as men's.

To highlight the problem, you often hear a black and white contrast made between co-operation and competition. One's good and the other's bad. Which is which often depends on whether you are male or female.

The need is to reconcile the two qualities, to combine the best of the two world views. Competition is necessary. It seems to be the most direct, effective and efficient way to lift certain kinds of performance, whether of career-minded individuals say, or organisations.

Co-operation is also necessary. Two heads are better than one, and team work is effective - learning to co-operate in all our enterprises - including homemaking - is also required.

The point is, I believe that if both men and women could change their behaviour - both genders would gain.

There are a few tentative indications of "new age" thinking observable. I know of cases where a man has given up his job to move with his wife's promotion and there are increasing numbers of house-husbands and male child-minders.

Some women already have better careers or career prospects than their husbands. The problem is, most men still 'know' - quote, unquote - that their status is lowered if they're not the ones out there, finding and bringing home bacon. (Please note the pork-flavoured metaphor.) Equal status requires that such male 'knowledge' has to be re-examined.

Heaven knows, this would be only sensible - what are the healthy alternatives to men living with women's equal status? - when are men going to cotton on to the idea, that not every male has to be a "bloke", confusing isolation with independence and self-strangulation with strength?

One of the signs that women are living in a braver new age, will be when we are more comfortable in dumping some of the social expectations we have inherited. A sign that true education is taking place is that teachers learn along with their students: so yes, feminists and feminism also have some growing to do.

Women need to become a little more competitive and assertive in character. What is more, their peers need to support and encourage this growth - women have to become more comfortable with female tall poppies.

Too often, women feel they must always be co-operative and supportive. This has also meant that they should not try to excel at the expense of 'fitting in' - that a 'good' woman always has to meet others' needs before her own, and so on.

Women, like men, need to spend time celebrating individual achievement, including other women's excellence. Too often, a woman's outstanding performance makes others wary - it's viewed negatively. Granted, this is a sweeping generalisation - of course, there's no universal 'women's approach.' Even so, such individualism has traditionally been more a male way of relating to life, a male way of living in the world. We still hear "Who does she think she is?" Such challenging of men is a lot rarer.

Men's and women's ability to see and in some cases, adopt, the other's world view, would begin to change social attitudes, and then outcomes, in many life situations that we already acknowledge as unfair.

With more contact between our masculine and feminine cultures, we should become readier to accept that a man's and a woman's points of view are not 'one-down' or 'one-up' on each other, but complementary.

It would, above all else, be a healthy change. Everyone would benefit. But on its own, it will not be sufficient to achieve truly equal status for men and women: even after learning how to communicate across a cultural divide, there remains the bias against women - against their independence, against their equal status - built right into the way we live.

Which brings me to my third necessary step. It is the classical feminist prescription of identifying and then overcoming the persistent inequalities that are the result of the social hierarchies we cling to in New Zealand.

Until men finally admit that women are unjustifiably disadvantaged within the current social framework, hierarchy will often continue to sink into patriarchy

There's evidence for this everywhere, built right into the language and the way we think. Look, for instance, at the definitions of matriarchy and patriarchy in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. You'd think they would be nearly identical. Instead, patriarchy is "a system of society, government, etc., ruled by a man and with descent reckoned through the male line." The roots of the word are from the Greek words for father as "head of the family," and "ruler."

Matriarchy, on the other hand, is "a form of social organisation in which the mother is the head of the family and descent is reckoned through the female line."

Well, it's nice to be given the headship of something, but what happened to the rest - to society and government? Where did leadership in public life vanish to?

A third step is needed - a third step towards a bi-centenary of women's suffrage that would really be something to celebrate.

Dale Spender made the point a few years ago, that schools cannot teach what society does not know. What she wrote about was the "invisible woman," and, "education in its broadest sense - ...what we know in our society and how we come to know it."

In history, she noted, women's absence from the record is startling. How is it, she asked, that women have been 'disappeared' from the records, throughout most of history?

Ms Spender doesn't compromise - she calls a fault a fault and a blind spot a blind spot. When it comes to economic life, for example: "Men...have defined what they do as work, and where women do not do the same things as men, they are classified as not working, regardless of the number of hours they spend...This demonstrates a male monopoly on meaning, for in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary...women have learned to deny the realities of their own (lives)".

This "male monopoly on meaning," has resulted in men's and women's world views not yet enjoying equal status. In the hierarchy, or the patriarchy, of ideas, men's are the more valued.

So the outpouring of books about women in New Zealand during Suffrage Centennial Year has clearly been one of the celebration's chief benefits.

The record is more complete than it was, better balanced.

However, the legacy of the past, with women being denied equality, will not be erased by playing blame games - gaining moral superiority by being acknowledged the victim of injustice is not as important as simply getting on with fixing things. Here we can learn from current debates in Maori affairs. [E.g., Tipene O'Regan: out of a "grievance mind-set."]

The need is to look forward to what needs to be accomplished, not to look back in anger and accusation. A more productive alternative by far is to put into practice, after all these years, the precept that men and women are the complements of one another.

One enormous caveat: turning talk into action is the hard bit - step three is the giant leap for womankind, to hark back to another historical event.

To break through the last barriers to women's cultural suffrage will require many years of the same sort of public education effort that Kate Sheppard organised, 100-and-more years ago.

Both genders have an obligation to act; not to attempt change just through analysis and prescription - through words alone. Setting examples rather than formulating prescriptions is, and always will be, the most effective form of teaching.

Children have to see mothers able to advance in their careers, and fathers doing their share of the laundry, cooking and caring.

Men have to accept that the absolute priority given to their careers by society and family is not justified or justifiable.

Employers have to accept as unremarkable, the need for fathers to stay home and look after the kids, sometimes, or to take them to school, or to the doctor, no matter that it is during normal working hours.

Women have to accept that competition is necessary for excellence. Such struggles are therefore to be sought out at times. At other times, the competition must be with oneself: occasional self-absorbtion has to be seen as part of women's natural order.

Both genders have to recognise and accept that women in positions of authority are not threatening, or unsympathetic, or un-womanly.

To return to 1993, is "the carnival over?" Do we face the last goodbye?

As Dame Miriam pointed out herself in the newspaper article I quoted from earlier, "there's an entirely fortuitous but very helpful [sequence of events to come]: the suffrage centennial will be followed in 1994 by the International Year of the Family and any consideration of family issues immediately focuses attention on the status of women. The following year sees the UN Conference on the Status of Women, to be held in Beijing, and, in 1996, the centennial of the National Council of Women.

[Some people have pondered] whether the end of the year won't see the heaving of a collective sigh of relief and a remarginalisation of women's concerns."

Well, she and I have discussed this several times and we have both had the experience of "men who said the year has made them reappraise the way they do business, the way they think about people, about the place of women in their organisation, about women's under-representation at management and executive levels.

And much of the work that's been done, the creation of new resources - history books, works of art, music, poetry, the suffrage gardens, the plantings of camellias, the memorials, will become part of our intellectual and physical landscapes. It won't go away and it can't be ignored."

I'll leave the schedule of things we need to do here, because for such a short list, it's already a long one - it calls for enormous social change. Notwithstanding this, I hope success comes sooner rather than later. That it should take another 100 years for example, to the bi-centenary of Women's Suffrage in 2093, would be entirely too long.

But that's long enough for any lecture. For the rest of the available time, I'd really like to hear what you have to say, your comments about Suffrage Year, and your hopes for the future. The floor is open.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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