Wahine ma, koutou nga kahurangi o te motu, tena koutou.
Nau mai haere mai ki te Whare Kawana
Na te wahine te mauri o te whenua,
nāu ano nga mahi huhua mo Aotearoa
Ka nui aku mihi ki a koutou katoa.
Distinguished guests - welcome to Government House.
It’s a great privilege to have you all here, to celebrate our Suffrage 125 anniversary and, especially, to host so many distinguished, accomplished and talented women.
I extend a warm welcome you and to your special guests. I also acknowledge and welcome the public sector chief executives who are here with us this evening.
I am truly thrilled that we have here in this room over half of our living Dames, female holders of the Order of New Zealand and female Distinguished Companions of the New Zealand Order of Merit, to celebrate a milestone in the history of human rights: this day, 125 years ago, when New Zealand women finally won the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.
It was a sweet victory after a hard-fought battle, which took 12 years and at least three petitions to parliament. It galvanised suffrage movements around the globe, and confirmed Kate Sheppard’s status as an internationally renowned symbol of progressive politics.
We take the right to vote for granted today. None of us would quarrel with the sentiments expressed by Harriet Morison, the Vice-President of the Tailoresses’ Union, when she said ‘Women have to obey the same laws as men, have to pay the same taxes as men, and therefore have a right to the same representation.’
In the 19th century, this was a truly revolutionary notion. Our suffragists had to draw on all their reserves of courage to maintain the momentum during years of campaigning, petitioning and unsuccessful attempts to secure a change in electoral law.
They faced hostility and vilification by anti-suffragists who suggested that women would be ‘unsexed’ by suffrage, that ‘natural’ gender roles would be upended, and domestic chaos would ensue.
When the Electoral Act 1893 was finally passed by the Legislative Council, it was only because two members of the Council had changed sides – not out of moral conviction – but because they objected to the tactics of the Premier, Richard Seddon.
My predecessor at the time, Lord Glasgow, was petitioned to withhold his assent to the bill. We know that he was vehemently opposed to suffrage, which he described as ‘deplorable’, but in the end he was obliged to grant his assent, and in a suprisingly gracious gesture, he subsequently presented the pen he had used to Kate Sheppard.
No matter how victory was secured – for the women of New Zealand, their time had come, and there was much celebration. On the 28th of November, election day, they turned out in force to vote.
The suffragists had not rested when the Act was passed – in that short six week period that had worked tirelessly, so that by Election Day, 109,000 Women – 84% of the adult female population, were enrolled to vote. That must have been a Herculean effort in itself!
On polling day over 90,000 of them cast their votes. A turnout of 82% which was far higher than the registered male voter turnout.
Unfortunately, there were no female candidates to vote for, as women were not yet able to become MPs. But unsurprisingly, many male candidates professed a new-found enthusiasm for suffrage in an effort to secure the female vote.
It was a further 26 years before a woman could stand for election, and 40 years had passed before the first female MP, Elizabeth McCoombs, was elected in a by-election for the seat previously held by her deceased husband.
So although New Zealand led the world with women’s right to vote, we were slow to get female representation in Parliament. We are still lagging other countries – with 38 percent currently, New Zealand stands at number 19 in the world in terms of the percentage of female MPs.
It’s wonderful to see how much of an icon Kate Sheppard has become for New Zealanders. 125 years on from that ground breaking Electoral Act, she is a role model for anyone wishing to challenge the accepted order of things.
When I was growing up, Kate Sheppard had nothing like the universal name recognition she has now. It was a great pity, as strong female role models beyond teachers and nurses were rare when I was considering my career options. I am sure that many of you had a similar experience.
As a young lawyer in the 1980s, my role models were men. Even when I was at law school, none of my lecturers were female.
For today’s young women, the environment is different. There are female role models in every career choice and many older women to look up to and use as inspiration in their careers and personal lives.
For those of us who belong to these older generations, it’s our responsibility to encourage, advise and advocate for the young women of today.
Of course, just as women today can learn from the achievements of older generations, they can also learn from our mistakes. I suspect I am not alone in the room in acknowledging that many times early in my career I did not call out discriminatory behaviour when I saw it, even when I was the victim of it.
I hasten to acknowledge here that discriminatory and misogynist behaviour was not universal. Just as principled and enlightened men like Sir John Hall supported women’s right to vote in 1893, there were many who recognised women as equal in my various workplaces. I owe them a great deal. I learnt to identify them and to seek their counsel.
I also learnt that the way to survive in a male dominated business environment was to ignore the subtle and not so subtle put downs and get on with proving that I could do my job as well or even better than my male colleagues. I was assured that things would change – it was just a matter of time.
We now know that this was wrong – or at least too optimistic. It seems that for culture change to occur at anything faster than a glacial pace, disruption is inevitable. If we keep quiet and do nothing, nothing changes.
When it comes to gender equity in general, we all know that we have some way to go.
If we want faster progress, we need to take some tips from the suffragists’ playbook. They were skilful and resilient campaigners, with a national reach. They also secured the support of powerful men who were persuaded by the virtues and logic of the cause.
Broad consensus must be secured if there is to be lasting and meaningful change in gender equity, whether it’s in our schools, workplaces or homes. Campaigns for reform need to be supported and promoted by men as well as women.
The Suffragists’ believed that right could and would eventually prevail against injustice, stonewalling, prejudice, and ignorance.
We can learn from their determination to speak up and demand gender equity.
We owe it to them to do what we can to make further progress in education, recruitment, pay, promotion, leadership and workplace behaviour.
And their agenda to improve the welfare of women and children in their homes is as painfully relevant now as it was in 1893.
If we need any evidence of the benefits of women’s empowerment, it is present here in this room, in abundance.
Our nation is a better place because of the efforts of women here this evening. The writer Rebecca West described suffrage campaigns as being more than a fight for the vote but as ‘a fight for a place in the sun, a right to grow in art, in science, in politics, in literature’.
It is sobering to think that 125 years ago, you almost certainly would not have had an opportunity to contribute in the way that you have, in areas as diverse as politics, the arts, law, business, fashion, medicine, science, family planning, academia, the rights of sex workers, education and government.
You have earned the respect of your fellow citizens and you are role models for women and men who dream of serving their communities, of making a positive difference, of excelling and achieving their goals.
I hope that you will continue to encourage young women to believe in themselves and their abilities, to demand equal opportunities and to go for gold – because women have received just 17 percent of the Honours granted at the level of Knight and Dame since 1917.7
And I hope you will join me in promoting and supporting the message that further empowerment of women is not only the morally right thing to do, but also contributes to the better society that our suffragists fought so hard for.
It’s something we should all aspire to and make happen, for the good of all New Zealanders.
Kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui, huihui tātou katoa