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Suffrage Day 2001: Liz Gordon Speech

'Suffrage Day 2001: Time To Reflect On Where We Are Now'

Speech to Parliament by Alliance MP Liz Gordon
19th September 2001

For immediate release

I'd like to begin by wishing my parliamentary colleagues and the people of New Zealand a happy women's suffrage day.

108 years ago today in this very place the all-male members bravely took a step towards social equality by making New Zealand the first country in the world to give women the right to vote.

A new definition was added to existing electoral legislation to note that "'person' includes female". The passage of this bill was rocky, and the proposal eventually passed by just two votes. The Christchurch Press grumpily reported the next day: "New Zealand now has women's suffrage as surely as we had the measles".

This statement proved quite correct. Arguments for women's emancipation have spread like a rash and now exist in all areas of human life, and have extended to nations beyond the English-speaking West where feminist movements began.

It is hard to achieve a world which provides genuinely equal opportunities for people regardless of their gender, and such a world has never yet existed in the whole of human civilisation.

Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, the philosopher Rousseau argued that women could not be given freedom. Like a bear kept all of its life in a pit and then let out, he said, women, once freed, would be a danger to themselves and the whole of society. Women are of weaker nature than men, he said, and must be kept under men's control.

Well, at the beginning of the twenty first century women are well and truly out of the pit. And there wasn't a revolution, was there? We still clean the toilets, don't we, and bring up the babies? We still serve communities and do most of the unpaid work.

This year, twelve thousand more women than men will graduate with first or second degrees from the universities of this nation. We will also get a higher proportion of the A grades.

Less than a century ago Sir Frederick Truby King went up and down the country arguing that education interfered with girls' physical development, making them unable to suckle their young and bear the pains of labour, as well as causing eye failure, headaches, menstrual disturbances and constipation.

He was wrong, wasn't he? Women are excellent at education. Unfortunately, within six months of leaving the university they are getting paid, on average, $3,500 less than their male colleagues. Within 5 years, the pay gap is $10,000.

The average woman in the public sector earns $13,000 less each year than the average man. Over the past decade the trend is towards a widening of the gap. I believe that this government, and all that come after this, must commit itself to closing it. The cost will be significant, but it is no longer tenable that women are paid at a discounted rate in order to keep the state sector's payroll bill down.

For every ten politicians in central government only three are women. We are one of the world leaders but 30 percent is not equality. In particular, I urge constituents to note that only a quarter of local body candidates this year are women. There are many reasons that people cast a vote for a particular person. Once political differences have been taken into account, however, I hope voters will support women candidates.

The first woman MP did not enter this place until 1933. Things have changed dramatically since the time of Elizabeth McCombs, both for politicians and for women as a whole. Women can open a bank account, buy a house, bring up children alone with support from the state, seek refuge from violence, gain security in old age and the list goes on and on.

Some believe that women's fight for equality has gone too far, even though we are demonstrably not yet equal. We are now being told by some that our aspirations have gone too far.

Women have never been more educated or more able to participate in our society. We want recognition, equal pay, paid parental leave. Childcare opportunities, before and after school care for our children and to be accepted by men as equals.

It's not asking much, is it?


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