Friday, November 18, 2011

Correcting Obama

I know we Americans are geographically challenged, but really, couldn't the President of the United States have a fact-checker on staff? In a speech to the Australian Parliament, President Obama said:
"…women in this country demanded that their voices be heard, making Australia the first nation to let women vote and run for parliament and, one day, become prime minister."
Except, that wasn't Australia—it was New Zealand.

In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation in the world to grant women the right to vote, an effort that had been underway under various premiers since 1878. The right to vote granted to women included Maori women.

While South Australia gave women the right to vote in local elections in 1894 (having given women with property the right to vote in local elections in 1861), all the women of Australia didn’t win the vote in national elections until 1902, the year after federation (which created the nation of Australia). However, indigenous women in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory didn’t win the right to vote until 1962.

By comparison, women in Canada won the right to vote nationally in 1919 (though Quebec didn’t grant it until 1940), women in the United States won the right to vote in 1920 and in the United Kingdom, while women got some voting rights in 1918, they didn’t win full voting rights until 1928—35 years after New Zealand women.

Australia was technically ahead of New Zealand when it comes to running for parliament, so that part of Obama’s speech was sort of true: The same Act of the Australian Parliament that gave (white) women the right to vote in Parliamentary elections also allowed them to run for Parliament, and that was 17 years earlier than in New Zealand. Women didn’t get the right to serve in New Zealand’s now-abolished upper house, the Legislative Council, until 1941 (it was abolished in 1951).

However, in both New Zealand and Australia, having the right to run for parliament came well before a woman was actually elected but, again, New Zealand was first: The first Australian women elected to their House of Representatives and their Senate were both elected in 1943. The first woman elected to the NZ House of Representatives was in 1933. In 1946, Labour appointed the first woman to the Legislative Council, which was unelected.

New Zealand also had a female prime minister well before Australia. New Zealand got its first female Deputy Prime Minister—Helen Clark—in 1989. She became our first female Leader of the Opposition in 1993. We got our first female Prime Minister—Jenny Shipley—in 1997. We then elected Helen Clark Prime Minster in 1999. By contrast, Julia Gillard became Australia's first Prime Minister only in 2010.

Again for comparison, the United Kingdom got its first female Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, in 1975. She went on to become the country’s first female prime minister in 1979. Kim Campbell was Canada’s first female prime minister, but she never sat in Parliament as prime minister, so it’s a bit of a technicality. Similarly, Deborah Cleland Grey became Canada’s first female leader of the opposition, serving for some six months in an acting capacity until the permanent leader was chosen. The current Leader of the Opposition, Nycole Turmel, is officially the second woman to hold that post, but the first to actually be the leader.

The United States is not directly comparable to the Westminster-style parliamentary systems of these other countries, but it has never had a female president or vice president. Still, from 2007-2011 it had a female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, a job that’s actually comparable to prime minister in the NZ system, except for executive power. She’s currently Minority Leader, which is kind of like Leader of the Opposition in the NZ system. Pelosi became the first female Minority Leader in 2003.

That’s the full story that President Obama’s speech muddled up, but he’s not the first president to mess up history that relates to New Zealand: Bill Clinton said the US was the country that split the atom, when that’s credited to New Zealander Lord Ernest Rutherford, who was working in Britain. There was irony, too, that Obama should mess up a discussion of Australian and New Zealand history in a speech lauding the ties of the ANZUS alliance, a defence pact New Zealand was effectively expelled from when it went nuclear free (we’re the NZ in the treaty name, for goodness sake!!). Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

This isn’t exactly an international incident, and Kiwis are used to this sort of thing. But it would be nice if the White House—under any president—employed someone who knows something about history, or at least someone who knows how to find things out. We really don’t need presidents of any party reinforcing the common belief that Americans are geographically challenged and lacking an understanding of history. We have the Internet, after all: Looking stuff up is easy.

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