Image: New Zealand Parliament Buildings / Ulrich Lange / Wikimedia Commons
First published on Wednesday the 20th of September, 2017, this piece comes in at number 26 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.
Women have always had to deal with sexist bullshit. Especially those in power. As the glass ceiling starts to crack, sexist attacks come flying. In a time when a female-contested by-election is described as the battle of the babes, where an award-winning author is labelled an ungrateful hua for voicing an opinion, and where speaking out about survival as a solo mother can see you removed from party leadership, it’s important to understand the history of women’s struggles in New Zealand politics.
1886 - ‘King Dick’ liked alcohol. More than women’s rights, in fact. In the face of petitions in which tens of thousands of New Zealanders declared their support of women’s suffrage, Prime Minister Richard Seddon campaigned against women voting, to support liquor companies. He urged men to assert their “prerogative as the lords of creation” i.e. to put women in their place as non-legal persons tied to their husband/father. Thankfully, Kate Sheppard’s resourceful group of suffragettes won us the right to vote in 1893, despite Seddon’s underhanded political strategies.
1933 - For those interested in the democratic representation of 50% of the population, electing our first female MP was an exciting landmark. Elizabeth McCombs won a by-election in Lyttleton after a lifetime campaigning for women and advocating for a better welfare system. Articles recognising her impressive achievements frequently refer to her as ‘Jimmy’s Wife’, tying her worth to her MP husband. On her first day in the House, newspapers devoted columns to the fact that she refused to wear a hat rather than, y’know, actual issues. Clearly, women’s clothing choices have been a hot political issue since 1933.
1949 - Iriaka Rātana dealt with attacks on her position as a mother, not just from National party rivals (who compared her to a crowing hen) but from her own party. Labour told her she had ‘heavy enough domestic duties without taking on the responsibility’ of a seat. Whilst pregnant, she campaigned for and won the Western Māori seat by a huge majority, becoming the first Māori woman elected to Parliament. Rātana is proof that a woman’s reproductive plans are irrelevant to her political abilities and completely inappropriate to ask about (not looking at anyone).
1956 - As bad as the pay gap is today, in the 1950s there were separate pay scales, limited promotion opportunities, and significantly lower minimum wages for women. Jean Parker, an experienced IRD worker, was sick of watching young, unqualified men receive promotions that she deserved. She appealed these decisions to the Supreme Court and won, in a landmark case for equal pay. In response to her success, her employers demoted her and halved her pay, claiming that pay equity would harm men. Women fought their way to the first pay equity laws and the Government has since figured out that blocking successful decisions on equal pay will piss off a lot of people.
1975 - We’ve all seen that photo of Trump and a roomful of men signing away the reproductive rights of women. In the 1970s, New Zealand was a lot like that. All four female MPs (yes, four), from opposing political parties, voted against more restrictive abortion laws. Their voices were ignored by their male colleagues. These men insisted they knew best, despite a majority of the population saying otherwise. The ‘boys’ club’ vibe of Parliament was unshakeable. The shift to MMP started a trend of improving representation, but the number of female MPs still sits at only 31%.
1992 - In response to negative publicity about his economic policies, PM Jim Bolger decided to insult Victorian Premier Joan Kirner’s size, using the saying, “the show's not over till the fat lady sings”. When questioned about the insult, he tried to get out of the situation first by mansplaining the origins of the saying (a Wagner opera) and trying to claim its use was not sexist. Sound familiar, anyone? At least Bolger didn’t get billboards made…
1997 - There is a black hole in political commentary surrounding our first female PM, Jenny Shipley. The silence is especially notable in comparison to Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore, both of whom were not elected and held office for less time than she did. Maybe the 90s were a boring time for politics, or maybe there’s something weird going on. Like, I don’t know, sexism?
1999 - Much like Kaye and Ardern’s ‘battle of the babes’, the 1999 election between Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark was described as a catfight and a battle of Xena princesses. Helen Clark endured relentless focus on her appearance and gender throughout her time in office (and even today), and has reflected on the experience in various interviews. When the most powerful woman in the country is a “political dominatrix”, a “black widow”, and bumper stickers read ‘Ditch the Bitch’, politics doesn’t exactly seem welcoming towards women. Sexist comments couldn’t prevent Clark from achieving great things, but the unwarranted focus on her gender discourages others from following in her footsteps.
Though the sexism of the 2017 election is nothing new, it’s still damaging to female representation in politics. When women are shut down or belittled or reduced to their appearance, gender can become a barrier to entering the political conversation.
But we are here. We’ve been able to vote for 124 years. Now stop with the sexist bullshit.
(Thanks to Barbara Brookes’ A History of New Zealand Women for teaching me about these amazing women and their lives.)Support Villainesse