More often mistaken for an extension of Australia, New Zealand is a nation with an eclectic reputation on the world stage. With the exceptions of sheep farming, bungy jumping, the inhabitants of Middle Earth, and of course New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk duo, rarely do New Zealand’s achievements register internationally. However, women’s suffrage is one area in which my home country leads the world. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. Instrumental in this achievement was Kate Sheppard, the movement leader who famously proclaimed: “all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”
Although the task facing the New Zealand suffragettes proved to be easier and less painful to achieve than that faced by their British counterparts, there were still hurdles to overcome. Ultimately the right of women to vote was born out despite Premier Richard Seddon, a staunch anti-prohibitionist and anti-feminist, ordering a Liberal Party councilor to change his vote to stop the bill passing into law. Two other councilors were so annoyed by Seddon’s interference that they changed sides and voted in favour of the bill, allowing it to pass by 20 votes to 18.
With the problem of women’s binge drinking regularly cropping up in the media, it now seems a tad ironic that New Zealand women’s right to vote can be attributed to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They believed that by giving women the right to vote there would be greater moral checks on politics. Judging by some of the behaviour exhibited by modern day politicians, it is fair to say that this hypothesis was well off the mark. This is not the only feature of modern society that must have Kate Sheppard rolling in her grave.
In the last week a former New Zealand female politician and broadcaster, Pam Corkery, has announced her plans to establish a male brothel. Prostitution is legal in New Zealand, so that’s not really the issue here. The problem lies in Corkery’s decision to defend her actions by saying that because New Zealand women were the first in the world to get the vote it is only fitting that they should lead the world in male brothels. Corkery’s words demonstrate the double-edged sword of New Zealand’s position in relation to women’s suffrage – although positive gains in the women’s movement draw attention to New Zealand’s pioneering spirit, more salacious factors which reference to our unique position in history can cause antagonism toward women’s rights. So to Pam I say, Go ahead, but leave Kate out of it!
Girl Museum Inc.