What a great way to mark the 125th anniversary of NZ women being granted the right to vote.
Christchurch has a proud history as the birthplace of the suffrage movement, home to Kate Sheppard, the only woman to appear on a New Zealand banknote apart from the Queen.
Betty Cuthbert (Sheppard’s great-niece and a former President of the National Council of Women) said “Kate fought for what she thought was right all the way through. She was concerned by poverty among women and children, at men spending all the money on alcohol, but realised they were powerless until women had the chance to vote."
This victory for gender equality, the first country in the world to grant women the vote, was an inspiration for other women worldwide who were also campaigning for the right to vote.
The extraordinary thing though was that first election held just 10 weeks later. Despite the short timeframe for voter registration, 109,461 women – about 84% of the adult female population – enrolled to vote. On polling day 90,290 of them cast their votes, a turnout of 82% (far higher than the 70% turnout among registered male voters). There were then no electoral rolls for the Māori seats, but women cast perhaps 4000 of the 11,269 Māori votes that year.
That is an extraordinary commitment and we owe it to the suffragists for making this happen. I think of them when I vote. Voting honours their courage, commitment and tenacity.
2017 General Election overall turnout as a percentage of enrolled electors was 79.8%. And in local government here, for the election in 2016 the voter return was 38.34% despite voting forms being posted to all registered voters.
The suffragists knew the vote was vital step in their struggle for equal rights. It would give them the political power to hasten social reform. We may wish to ask ourselves are we fully using our political power to achieve the social reform we want to see.
We cannot be complacent. There is gendered face to poverty and domestic violence that we cannot ignore. Hard won rights and privileges can unfortunately be taken away all too swiftly and therefore we need to take our responsibility to vote seriously and that includes standing for public office too.
When Kate Sheppard died in Christchurch on 13 July 1934, the Christchurch Times said: ‘A great woman has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures. We can all continue to be inspired by Kate Sheppard and her fellow campaigners. Our city and country benefits when we all claim our rights as citizens and accept the responsibility these rights bestow.’