In 1893, we were not classified as people in New Zealand. Personhood hadn’t yet been extended to women. We were non-entities; vital to the future of the nation, yet essentially chattels of our fathers or husbands. We weren’t able to vote – that much is well known – but we also weren’t legally able to own property if we were married, we could only divorce our husbands under the most desperate conditions and we could expect years of imprisonment and hard manual labour as punishment if we dared to have an abortion.
“Women’s rights” was a strange concept back in the 19thcentury. Life was incredibly tough for many New Zealand women (particularly Māori women, many of whom had fallen into life-threatening poverty as great swathes of land had been stolen, sold or annexed) and the idea that we deserved certain human rights was simply conjecture. Indeed, sometimes it seems like that idea is still up for debate today.
When Kate Sheppard and the suffragists (gists, not gettes – the suffragettes were our more militant British cousins) won the vote in New Zealand in 1893, things slowly began to change for the better, and the brave ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union are held up as hero(ine)s today, but as with most of history, the suffrage story isn’t a simple victory story that we can celebrate without critical analysis, though it is often sold to us as such. There was much more to “votes for women” than electoral enfranchisement.
A point that is often lost in the rush to glorify our early feminist sisters is that suffrage was actually all about alcohol. The reason that the WCTU fought for the vote was to prohibit booze. Alcohol was wreaking havoc on communities in late 19thcentury New Zealand (as it still is in early 21stcentury New Zealand) and the suffragists wanted it banned. They had many good motivations for this, including domestic violence, poverty, disease and other “social ills”, but it is clear that enfranchisement was more about securing the votes needed to destroy the liquor industry than emancipation for women.
Another important nuance that is often overlooked is that, actually, some women had the vote in New Zealand long before Kate Sheppard came along. History is littered with stories of female rangatira, who, by their rank, had the most say in the affairs of their respective hapū. Women of chiefly rank within Te Ao Māori were “landowners” in their own right, and had a say in their own tribes. The concept of suffrage effectively ignores the fact that Māori women had been standing up and having their say for generations before Pākehā arrived at our shores.
It also obscures the work of important wāhine Māori. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know who Kate Sheppard is. You’d simply be living in good old Pākehā-supremacist New Zealand to not know who Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, Ākenehi Tōmoana and Niniwa-i-te-rangi were. The stories of Māori women’s rights campaigners have been trampled and silenced. I wonder how they’d feel if they could see the suffering and hardship still disproportionately experienced by Māori today. I wonder what they’d think of the sad reality that we’re still fighting for many of the same things today as they were in the 1890s. I wonder whether they’d be celebrating this Suffrage Day, or grieving.
I’m approaching today with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m celebrating the fact that I’m now legally seen as a person. Woohoo! I’m thrilled that we are celebrating this day with a female Prime Minister in the Beehive, and a number of Māori MPs in Parliament. I’m stoked that I can own property in my own right and that I won’t be imprisoned if I decide to have an abortion. It’s the little things, you know?
On the other, I’m steeling myself for the many battles that we still face. We are on the right path, but we still have a long way to go.
So, saying “happy Suffrage Day” doesn’t feel quite right, but I do hope that you have fun commemorating 125 years since women won the right to vote in the Pākehā system (whilst remembering to conduct a decent amount of critical analysis around the subject… because we all know that women are required to do extra work at all times).
Ironically, I’m hosting (alcoholic) drinks for a gang of women tonight. Here’s to the suffragists, but not for the reasons they had in mind.
Votes for women. I’ll drink to that.Support Villainesse