National Council of Women in 1896 / Wikimedia Commons
The Prime Minister is on maternity leave, there’s a female majority on the Supreme Court, and our head of state is a woman. The gender gap in Parliament is (slowly) closing. In short, things are looking pretty good for women in Aotearoa. But this didn’t happen overnight; nor did it happen easily. New Zealand women have fought for over a century. Their actions have made it possible for me to write this paragraph about so many amazing women leading our country. To celebrate those change makers, here is a brief run-down of five pioneers of women’s rights in New Zealand.
As well as being one of the suffragists who was instrumental in gaining the vote in 1893, Anna Stout continued to fight for women’s rights long after that landmark achievement. She was influential in the creation of the first piece of legislation that ensured women were guaranteed inheritance of money and property if their husband died. At a time when state support was scarce, this prevented women and children from being thrown into poverty. In 1918, she protested the arrest of sex workers within a brothel, highlighting the double standard that the female workers were arrested but their clients faced no charges. By tirelessly advocating for others throughout her life, she helped to establish the foundations of what it means to be a women’s rights activist in New Zealand.
Safe sex advocates were unusual and controversial during the early 20th century. Ettie Rout did not let that stop her. As a nurse in Egypt, she noticed the high rates of STIs among soldiers and worked to find a medical solution. After her solution was refused by all official channels, she went to London, developed a kit which included condoms, and sold it from a soldier’s club that she set up. The official New Zealanders realised the value of her idea when their soldiers became healthier… So they copied the kit and distributed it, without giving her any credit. They also banned any mention of her from New Zealand’s papers. Interestingly, Anna Stout was one of the most prolific campaigners against Rout’s work (she believed it encouraged sin), showing the generational divide between those who fought for suffrage and those who continued the women’s rights movement.
Having kids and sitting in Parliament is not a new combination; Iriaka Rātana showed that it could be done back in 1949, when she became the first Māori woman to sit in New Zealand’s Parliament. That was a few months after the birth of her 7th child and her husband’s death. She fought for the welfare of Māori people and was elected to the Western Māori seat for seven consecutive terms. By defying those who told doubted her and told her she could not lead, Rātana paved the way for a more diversity among our representatives.
As a former sex worker and the first openly transgender person in the world to be elected as an MP, Georgina Beyer was breaking ground for women’s rights throughout the 2000s. She beat Paul Henry to win Wairarapa (a normally conservative seat) in 1999 and represented Labour for three terms after that win. She remains vocal and honest about her experiences as a trans woman in our Parliament, and the double standards she faced throughout that time. Her most significant work involved reforming the law around sex work – you can read her moving speech, which got the votes to pass the legislation, here.
Equal pay is a battle that still needs to be fought. In New Zealand, Kristine Bartlett and her union, E Tū, kickstarted that battle with a Court case demanding equal pay for aged care workers, after finding that these female workers were being paid much less than the equivalent pay for a male-dominated industry. They won an historic settlement, and the Government introduced legislation that was intended to fix the problem… Though whether it addressed the problem effectively is questionable. Pay equity is a movement that continues today, and it is sure to define the women’s rights movement for this decade and years to come.Support Villainesse