Suffrage Day – continuing the fight of our pioneering sisters

The 2014 general election day in New Zealand is September 20 ; a momentous occasion whereby Kiwis pick their 51st Parliament. But it’s worth remembering that this cornerstone of democracy wasn’t always the case. One day prior – the 19th – marks 121 years of women’s suffrage, following New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in 1893. It is important to reflect on how far we have come as a nation, and how far we still have to go in the quest for gender equality. 

The movement for women’s rights began in northern Europe, the US and British colonies in the late 19th century, challenging for the first time the perception that political affairs were for men, and men alone. The goals of the movement were twofold: to gain the right to vote, and to use that vote to reform society (most notably, to prohibit alcohol!)

With support from the liquor industry, who were terrified of women getting the vote, politicians who were suffrage opponents narrowly prevented a bill, granting women the vote, from passing in 1878. 1893 brought with it a petition featuring over 25,000 signatures, presented to parliament in a wheelbarrow. This spectacular number represented around a quarter of the New Zealand female population at the time, which is hard to fathom when we consider that now that would be over half a million people. When the bill finally passed that year, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote.

Even after being granted the right to vote, women still faced many obstacles to equal rights. New Zealand women were barred from standing for parliament until 1919 – around the same time that most other democracies started giving women the right to vote.

Suffrage Day is a significant day in New Zealand’s history worth celebrating, but it also provides an opportunity to look for further progress that can benefit women. Organisations such as YWCA Auckland are already working hard to do this, alongside their vision: “we will not rest until every woman is able to fulfil her potential.”

The winners and judges from the inaugural 2014 YWCA Equal Pay Awards 

In reflecting on Suffrage Day, Vanessa Ceelen, YWCA Auckland Board President says, “I choose to believe that young women can do anything they want to do, if they put their mind to it. The most valuable thing we can give our young women is confidence to believe in themselves and impact their own destiny.  This is one of the legacies that we were given, when we were given the vote.”

Today, Suffrage Day doesn’t hold as much meaning as it may have for our great-grandmothers. After all, we now largely take our voting rights for granted, having always had that opportunity in our lifetimes. It’s worth remembering the women who fought so hard to grant us that right though, and the struggles they went through.

YWCA Future Leaders mentor, Elanor Christianson adds, “I have immense respect for the women who fought for the right for women to vote both in New Zealand and elsewhere, and huge pride that New Zealand was the first to make this a reality. For me it shows what you can achieve with determination, commitment and focus.”

Although Suffrage Day is an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come, as a society – it is also worth considering how far we are yet to go to really call ourselves a socially progressive nation. With a 13% pay gap still existing between men and women, it’s clear that there is still work to do before men and women are truly equal.

The equal pay movement is this generation’s equivalent of the suffrage movement. YWCA Auckland, who have been empowering women in New Zealand through social and economic change since 1885, are working to inspire change on both a business and individual level.

Their $9 note campaign challenges people to think about pay equity on an everyday basis; considering the effort required for a man to earn the note they are carrying in their wallet versus a woman. We’re not sure how the late, great Kate Sheppard would respond knowing that for every $10 a man makes, a woman earns only $9.

You can join the debate and become a modern day suffragette at #demandequalpay

The YWCA Equal Pay Awards, on the other hand, celebrate businesses that are already making inroads towards equal pay, acknowledging those businesses on the journey to address the issues in their organisations and inspire change for the wider business community. Winners from the 2014 inaugural awards include Westpac, Sky City, and Simpson Grierson, showing that no matter the size of the company, businesses can take real action towards achieving equal pay.

It’s all part of the drive to give women the opportunity to realise a better future. Become a modern day suffragette and join the debate at #demandequalpay 

Hero image credit: Auckland Libraries: Heritage & Research. Ref: 7-A12353, women voting at the Drill Hall in Rutland St, Auckland, 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections

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