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Letter from Elsewhere: Celebrating September 19th

Letter from Elsewhere with Anne Else

Celebrating September 19th

How did you celebrate yesterday, September 19? You didn’t know there was anything special about it? Well, let me enlighten you: September 19 is Women’s Suffrage Day. This year it was the 111th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world where women won the right to vote in general elections. Oh, you missed it? You weren’t alone – as far as I can tell, the whole of the national media missed it too. (If I’m wrong, do let me know. Maybe it will get a mention tomorrow.)

I can’t think of any other major national achievement that gets treated so off-handedly, but there you go. After all, it’s not as if it was in the same league as winning the Rugby World Cup (well, we might win it again one day, you never know), or getting a gold medal at the Olympics (but three of them went to women, driving some sports jocks into a frenzy of anxious soul-searching).

Beyond sport, we’re not big on cheerful national celebrations here, especially where sheilas are concerned. Even in 1993, the centenary of women’s suffrage, a lot of disgruntled media blokes fell over themselves trying to prove it wasn’t such a big deal and we didn’t even really come first (Arizona and the Isle of Man aren’t actually countries, but they were desperate to rain on the girls’ parade). Imagine a sudden surge of stories about why Sarah Ulmer’s gold medal doesn’t count because she isn’t really the fastest female on wheels ever in the known universe, anyway the chaps can still go faster, nyah nyah nyah, and you’ll start to get some idea of what it was like.

I did manage to celebrate, at a very nice brunch organised by the Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The Commission is pretty keen on people voting, so they chose Women’s Suffrage Day to make the 2004 Wallace Award (named for Sir John Wallace, the former inaugural president of the Electoral Commission) to the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Commission CEO Dr Helena Catt pointed out that we might take women in politics for granted now, but when WEL started in 1975 there were only four women MPs, none of them in Cabinet. WEL’s work played a crucial role in changing attitudes towards women in politics, and empowering women to be involved.

But it’s a big mistake to take any advance for granted. Researcher Jean Drage points out that at the last general election, the percentage of women in Parliament didn’t grow, it shrank. She thinks this may have something to do with a complacent perception that women have made it.

Right now we’re in the middle of local body elections. The first woman mayor, Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga, took office in 1893, the same year that women’s suffrage was won. She was elected the day after women voted for the first time in parliamentary elections.

Overall, the number of elected local positions available is declining, and the number of people standing for the remaining posts is going down too. This year, says Drage, 140 fewer are standing, including 54 fewer women. Because fewer women stand overall, this doesn’t look good for the future.

Of those who do stand, a higher percentage of women than of men usually succeed, so women now make up 30 percent of all those on local bodies. Yet last time the number of women elected to local councils fell by 43, and the number of women mayors fell from 19 to 12.

I don’t vote solely by gender, and I don’t know any woman who does (though I’ve heard quite a few men swear they’ll never vote for a female). But the more equally women and men are represented, the better.

Here’s how you can tell I’m right: imagine women winning 70 percent of local seats and 75 percent of Parliamentary seats. Judging by the fuss over a handful of women holding our top government offices for the first time in history, the howls of protest would be deafening.

P.S. Congrats to the Dominion Post for its inside front page photo and caption today about the Wallace Award to WEL.

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- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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