Thursday, 18 September 2014

Celebrating Votes For Women

When you vote tomorrow – remember…..

On 19th September 1893, Premier Richard Seddon (King Dick) – who had challenged women attaining their Suffrage every step of the way - with consummate impudence, telegraphed Mrs. Kate Sheppard “Electoral Bill assented to by His Excellency the Governor at quarter to twelve this day and trust now that all doubts as to the sincerity of the Government in this very important matter has been effectively removed.”
N.Z. taking its medicine
His deeper feelings were more probably voiced by the Christchurch Press “We now have got the Female Franchise as surely as we had the Measles. It has come to stay and we must make the best of it.”

 Winning the right to vote was a great victory for our country and one that had been fiercely hard-earned. A huge groundswell of women had met hostility and fury for years before it was a done deal.

The issue was forced into prominence by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union whose motives were feminist. Feminism being the idea that women should have social, economic and political equality with men and should have autonomy in determining their lives.

The Temperance Union was NOT prohibitionist, but had pleaded for moderation in the drinking habits of a rowdy masculine colony with too many pubs and an overwhelming percentage of males to females. It had become quickly evident to the Christian women leaders that to protect women and children, some form of political and legal empowerment for women was the obvious goal - if one wanted temperance to prevail. As well as struggling for political rights, the Temperance Union led women in the latest ideas of child care, nutrition, provision for ex-prisoners, dress reform and sexual equality in marriage.
National Council of Women
Temperance and the Suffrage movement formed a special relationship in New Zealand. Women played a vital and practical role in pioneer New Zealand. 
A spirit of egalitarianism had early asserted itself in this newly formed country. 
The Old World’s conservative forces hadn’t yet had time to become too strongly entrenched within our political systems.

The right to cast a ballot seems today a minor token to grant women. But then it was a catalyst that bought deep collective fears into the open. It seemed to represent all the other changes that had been happening throughout  the 19th century.

 Many social, legal and economic changes occurred quickly and relatively easily. However, trying to extend political rights resulted in high emotions and caused great controversy.
Torch Bearer

Women’s suffrage became an evangelical cause for its supporters who made a religion of the vote. 

Opponents saw women’s suffrage as anathema and blackened the names of its leaders.

The family in particular was the battleground – it was deemed to be a structure that required the subordination of women. Women should stay in the domestic sphere!

When Women’s rights have come to stay,
Oh who will rock the cradle?
When wives are at the polls all day,
Oh, who will rock the cradle?
When Doctor Mamma’s making pills,
When merchant Mamma’s selling bills,
Of course, ‘twill cure all women’s ills,
But who will rock the cradle?
New Zealand Graphic, August 1891.

And yet when women began voting, it did not mark revolution or a huge change in voting patterns of the country.
6 Dec 1899 Rutland Street Auckland
Women’s suffrage was assimilated quickly. We quite casually came to accept it as a normal working of the electoral system, despite only four other countries in the world taking it on board before World War One. Within a decade, it became self-evident to most Kiwis that women should vote as a matter of course. 

In fact it could be argued that enfranchisement didn’t mark the beginning of women’s emancipation but its ending. Many women thought that the removal of former legal and political barriers to women’s freedom would automatically open to the full acceptance of women as equals in society.
But until the 1970’s the Feminist Movement made little headway. Women did not enter public life in large numbers and failed to compete with men in professions, industry or politics. Roles were strictly upheld along stereotypical gender lines. A woman’s’ place was firmly believed to be in the kitchen and the bedroom, subservient to men.
Women remained second-class citizens.
25000 signatures gathered

Reflecting upon our right to vote in the General Election tomorrow makes me sad. The women in the incumbent government seem a toxic bunch when compared to those social reformers and humanitarians such as Kate Shepard, Margaret Sievwright, Lavinia Kelsy, Elizabeth Henderson and numerous others from the 1890’s. 

Our 2014 election issues such as children’s poverty and social inequity seem shockingly similar to the late 19th century’s problems. Above all, the arrogance of incumbent Team Key– harkens back to the 19th century upper-class belief that the ruling class had a natural-born right to rule. Let the masses “eat cake” and be surveilled without their knowledge, appears to be their attitude.  Their slick and thoroughly anti-democratic actions revealed over the course of this ongoing dirty politics saga reminds me of the 19th century men who fought so hard to prevent half of the population in casting a vote.

So many women – and men – seem oblivious to our herstory of those brave women’s idealistic struggle to make the world a better place; When you cast your vote tomorrow, remember those brave Kiwi reformers who believed in the social welfare of the whole collective.

19 September 1893, when we won the vote, the world celebrated. A woman from Melbourne cabled “Your long, patient, faithful, untiring, earnest, zealous effort is finally rewarded, which means so much, not for you and the women of NZ only, but for women everywhere on the face of the globe. It will give new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation, and give promise of better times, of an approaching millennium for all down-trodden and enslaved millions of women, not only in so-called Christian countries, but in India and the harems of the East.
Right glad I am and proud of New Zealand.”

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