Thursday, September 19, 2013

Women’s Suffrage Day at 120

Today is the 120th anniversary of Women's Suffrage Day. On September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Of course, that was only a major turning point for women’s equality, not the end.

One of the things I think is interesting about the debate over women’s suffrage is that the male politicians of the day warned about changing the “natural” gender roles of men and women, an argument we’d see repackaged by conservatives in the recent debate over marriage equality. Despite the opponents’ warnings about female voters facing trouble from boorish and drunken men at the polls, the first election under the new freedoms (1893) was described as New Zealand’s “best-conducted and most orderly”. Freedom often works like that.

However, it wasn’t until 1919 that women got the right to stand for Parliament, and it wasn’t until 1933—40 years after women’s suffrage—that the first female Member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected. In December, 1997, New Zealand got its first female Prime Minister when Jenny Shipley rolled then-National Party Leader Jim Bolger. Two years later, Labour Party Leader Helen Clark became the first woman to become Prime Minister through elections, and she served in that office for just under ten years.

The celebratory graphic with this post is from female members of the Labour Party caucus in Parliament. Even though things are obviously better for women than in 1893, New Zealand has a long way to go before it has gender equality. So why did the Prime Minister’s office think the graphic below, highlighting the inequality of women, was a good way to celebrate Women’s Suffrage Day?

THIS is what John Key thinks is celebratory?
The Tweet John Key’s staff sent with the graphic said: “It's fantastic to see New Zealand women leading the world once again.” This led one of my Tory Twitter friends to reply, “was someone in your office drunk when they thought it was a good idea to highlight that women are still unequal?” Exactly. The fact that women in New Zealand aren’t treated as badly as women in other countries is NOT something to celebrate (especially on Women’s Suffrage Day!), but rather something to rededicate ourselves to fixing. John Key missed an opportunity to commit to women’s rights and failed to do so.

Young Nats' Exaggeration.
This is why I rolled my eyes when I saw a graphic (at right) Tweeted by Young Nationals, the party's youth wing. Over a black and white photo of Jenny Shipley, they proclaimed in National Party-ish blue banners, “Women’s Rights” in the top banner and “A National Cause.” in the bottom banner. National has done little if anything to advance women’s rights, even though Young Nationals have been advocates. Maybe they need to seize control of the party to make their banner true (actually, in all seriousness, that would be a great idea, and a great benefit to the country for all sorts of reasons).

We have a long way to go before we achieve full equality for women, despite what John Key seems to think. But 120 years ago today, the fight became real as women finally got the vote. Celebrating that fact is what today is about; rededicating ourselves to completing the work is our obligation.

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