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Street: Progress for Women – 115 years on

Hon Maryan Street
Minister of Housing
Minister for ACC

19 September 2008 Speech
Progress for Women – 115 years on

Speech by Maryan Street to an Invercargill National Council of Women breakfast to mark Suffrage Day


Today we mark the 115th 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 define us as a nation.

The personal contribution of leading suffragist Kate Sheppard to the suffragists’ struggle cannot 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 women 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.

That milestone was achieved by Labour's Elizabeth McCombs, who won the Lyttelton by-election in 1933.

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? One hundred and fifteen years on we have women at the head of all three branches of government: 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 government appointed boards, and in Local Government, women make up 17.8 per cent of our mayors and 29 per cent of our councillors. In a legal sense, women and men in New Zealand enjoy full and equal rights.

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. These issues include:

• 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.

As a government, Labour has worked hard on these core issues, with policies aimed at making a difference to the lives of every New Zealand women.

These include:

• Working For Families
• 14 weeks Paid Parental Leave
• Four weeks annual leave
• 20 hours free quality early childhood education
• The right to ask for flexible working hours
• Work place breaks and space for breastfeeding mothers where practicable
• Increases in minimum wage – nine in nine years, to $12
• No interest on Student Loans
• Kiwi Saver
• Cheaper doctors visits and prescriptions
• A Taskforce for Action to lead the campaign against family violence

Labour is showing its commitment to improving outcomes for women with these initiatives. But let’s not kid ourselves about what is at stake during this forthcoming election.

The National Party have opposed, prevaricated, grudgingly conceded and eventually flip flopped over nearly ever major policy that has meant progress for women.

Today they say they will keep initiatives such as Working For Families and interest free student loans.

Previously they said they would oppose Working For Families with “every bone in [their] bodies”, and labelled interest free student loans as unaffordable and irresponsible.

Given their record, why should New Zealanders trust them? Why put these hard won gains at stake?

I’d like to finish by pointing out the obvious, which is don’t forget to use your vote! None of the landmarks achieved by the suffrage movement, or the gains of the last decade mean a lot, if those rights are not taken up.

I want to encourage as many women as possible to use their vote on 8 November. It is one of the most important ways in which we can influence how we are represented. And what better way is there to honour those before us who fought so hard for the rights we enjoy today.

Thank you.


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