19 September 2007
Suffrage Day Celebration 2007
Speech prepared for delivery to Suffrage Day breakfast with Local Government New Zealand Grand Hall, Parliament
Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. Before I begin, I would like to introduce and thank Local Government New
Zealand chief executive, Eugene Bowen, for agreeing to join me in hosting this breakfast. Welcome also to my
parliamentary colleagues, Kerry Prendergast who is Vice-President of Local Government New Zealand as well as Mayor of
Wellington, and, in particular the young women from our local colleges.
We are here to celebrate the 114th anniversary of New Zealand women leading the world in winning the right to vote. That
milestone is a great source of pride and is one of the things that defines us as a nation.
I should begin by noting that women who owned property and paid rates were allowed to vote in local government elections
in Otago and Nelson as early as 1867. That's 26 years before New Zealand women achieved universal suffrage. This right
was extended to other provinces in 1876. So I suppose in the context of the times, local government was actually pretty
progressive, although I am sure the numbers of female property owners – who were mainly widows and spinsters – were very
low and therefore did not constitute a threat to the more conservative thinkers of the time. The situation certainly
gave little satisfaction to the suffragists and from the late 1860s the clamour for universal suffrage began to grow
louder and more persistent.
I do not believe the personal contribution of leading suffragist Kate Sheppard to the suffragists’ struggle can be
overestimated. This indomitable woman worked tirelessly from 1887 distributing pamphlets, writing letters to the press,
giving talks to a variety of groups, making personal contact with politicians, and of course circulating petitions,
because she believed that women should take part in society and politics.
She also believed – rightly – that women could not make any of the changes needed in society without first winning the
right the vote.
Motivated by humanitarian principles and a strong sense of justice, she said: ‘All that separates, whether of race,
class, creed or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome’. By being excluded from voting, women had been classed with
juveniles, lunatics and criminals.
Suffrage bills were defeated in Parliament in 1888, 1891 and 1892, but Kate Sheppard and other suffragists continued to
campaign for the vote.
On the 19th of September 1893, Prime Minister Richard Seddon telegraphed Kate Sheppard to tell her the governor had
signed the bill that gave New Zealand women the vote. The Governor, Lord Glasgow, honoured Kate as a political leader by
presenting to her the pen with which the bill granting womanhood suffrage had been signed.
The 1893 elections were held in late November, and over 90,000 – 65 percent of women over 21 – exercised their new right
to vote, without the world falling in as some people had predicted. Kate herself wrote:
‘The General Elections have come and gone. For the first time the women of New Zealand have joined with men in choosing
members of Parliament, and we have waited with bated breath for the deluge of calamities which it was prognosticated
would follow the admission of women into the political arena.’
No women were elected in that 1893 election. The right to stand for office was not part of the suffrage campaign – that
did not occur until 1918 – and it was not until 1933 that New Zealand gained its first woman member of Parliament, 40
years after women won the right to vote.
Kate Sheppard did not rest on her laurels. She realised that the right to vote was only the first step, and she
continued to fight for women’s rights, especially the right for married women to have control over their own money.
She also went on to found the National Council of Women, to edit the first newspaper owned, managed and published by
women, and to travel to England and America to give support to suffrage campaigns in those countries.
I wonder what she would say if she were here today? We may not have the temperance measures that drove the suffragists
in their quest for political equality with men, but 114 years on, this is a very different world from that of Kate
Sheppard and her supporters. We have women in the roles of Prime Minister, Parliamentary Speaker, and Chief Justice. We
have equal pay legislation and paid parental leave. Women make up 42 percent of members on state sector boards and
committees, and, of course, we have 18.9 percent women mayors and 26.9 percent women councillors.
I was selected to stand for Parliament on Women's Suffrage Day in 1990 – and that was only because a hotly contested
selection went beyond midnight – but it has enabled me to claim this day as a special one for me personally.
When I entered Parliament 17 years ago women made up around 25 per cent of Parliament; today, it is a third. So, while
progress has been made, there is still more to do.
In a legal sense, women and men in New Zealand enjoy full and equal rights. In fact when I presented our sixth report to
the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in August, I was
able to inform the CEDAW Committee that New Zealand had finally removed the last remaining legislative discrimination
against women in employment. But, equality in law and equality in reality are not always the same thing. That's why the
Convention refers to 'all forms of discrimination' – de jure and de facto – both are a contravention of our rights as
As a society we need to work together to bring about change to the attitudes and behaviour that now represent the
greatest barriers to women realising their full potential. I am speaking of issues such as:
- the pay and employment disparities that still exist, including the gender pay gap and occupational segregation;
- the disproportionate responsibility placed on working mothers, and the implications that has for their well-being as
they try to juggle the needs of their families with the demands of paid work; and
- the high rates of violence and abuse against women, much of it happening within the family.
Many of the initiatives the government has taken to address these issues are featured in our five-year
whole-of-government Action Plan for New Zealand Women. These include:
- the introduction of paid parental leave, plus the extension of cover from 13 to 14 weeks and to the self-employed
- significant improvements to childcare and early childhood education, including the 20 hours per week free early
childhood education that are now available for three- and four-year-olds at participating teacher-led early childhood
- the establishment of the Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families and more recently the Taskforce for Action
on Sexual Violence.
We have also introduced our Pay and Employment Equity Action Plan. Currently, 12 public service agencies have undertaken
full pay and employment equity reviews and are taking steps to address any inequities identified and there will be
further reviews in the public health and education sectors as well.
So, the government is showing its commitment to improving outcomes for women.
But one way for women to improve outcomes for themselves is to make sure they vote. That is why the theme for this
breakfast is ‘Use your Vote!’ We want to encourage as many women as possible to use their vote on 13 October as this is
one of the most important ways in which they can influence how their local community is represented.
The vote in central government elections is around 90 per cent – in local government last election it was about half
that – that is not good enough and makes a mockery of what our forebears fought for.
There is no better way to honour those who fought so hard to win women the right to vote and the other rights we enjoy
today. It may be a right, but I go a step further and say it is a responsibility.
We owe it to their memories, to ourselves, our daughters and nieces to consider the issues, consider the candidates,
consider what is at stake and vote. It is easy with a postal vote to put the envelope on the bench and think you have
time to vote, but what happens when the next day's mail gets placed on top of that envelope and more mail comes the day
after and the day after that.
Don't let those ballot papers sit anywhere; when they arrive, sit down and read the information; go on the internet and
read their campaign sites; vote and take your ballot paper to the post box and send it on its way.
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
I want that inspiration to continue to reach all New Zealanders, but particularly to the daughters of our country. I
want them to claim their rights as citizens and to accept the responsibility these rights bestow and to vote.
I would now like to hand over to the Vice-President of Local Government New Zealand as well as Mayor of Wellington City,