Prime Minister Suffrage 125 speech, Christchurch

Kia ora koutou

Thanks

To ChristchurchNZ and Christchurch City Council for hosting this event.

I want to acknowledge in particular:

Hon. Lianne Dalziel – Mayor of Christchurch

Aroha Rereti-Crofts – representative of mana whenua

Hon. Dr. Megan Woods

Dame Ann Hercus

Local elected members

Other guests

Thanks to the Ministry for Women, for helping to coordinate the many other events throughout the country that celebrate this enormous milestone in our journey to equality.

It’s a particular pleasure to be at the beautiful Isaac Theatre Royal, after a long, and expensive restoration.

It’s also special to be in Christchurch to mark Suffrage 125 - the home of Kate Sheppard, and Elizabeth McCombs, the first woman MP who, incidentally won a by-election for the Lyttelton seat on this day, in 1933. And its also the home Mabel Howard, the first female cabinet Minister.  

What is it about this place?

I am deeply proud to be here today, talking to you all as the leader of the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote.

The first country in the world.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I have long worn that particular “first” as a badge of honour.

As a young woman, travelling overseas, I’d make sure all my international friends knew that women here were the first to gain the right to vote. It was a story that connected me to trailblazing, wahine toa of the past.

And it was a story which, I’ve always felt, helped our country earn its credentials as one with a unique history of doing the right, and fair thing.

Lately, as I’ve prepared for several suffrage events, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the women who fought for this precious right: One in five women back then signed the 1893 petition that compelled Parliament to enshrine our right to vote in law on the 19th of September.

Who were these ordinary women who, with a simple act of bravery and defiance, became extraordinary in their own way?

Of course, we know about Kate Sheppard.  A local hero here in Christchurch, and our most famous suffragist presented the petition in Parliament, wresting the right to vote from the very reluctant Dick Seddon.

But what of those other, 25,519 women who signed the petition along with Kate.

As we celebrate 125 years of suffrage, it’s easy to reflect on that time with a sense of nostalgia, and imagine that there was something particularly extraordinary about the women back then.

Many families will carry stories, passed down through the generations of great aunts, and grandmothers who signed the petition.

There’ll be stories of women who went to amazing lengths to vote. Women who walked miles through the night, to get a chance to sign. Women who took a leap of faith, and risked their standing, their marriages, in some cases, to put their name on a document with no guarantee it’d lead to any success at all.

When we look through the old documents we can see these were ordinary women – dressmakers, farmers, writers, shopkeepers, servants and mothers; pockets of signatories all came from the same street: I can just imagine their thrill as they all set off together to sign the petition.

They were ordinary women, but each was extraordinary in their own way.

Take for instance Christina Henderson.

Christina, like Kate Sheppard, was a Canterbury suffragist.

She was known as a serious woman, with strong religious beliefs and equally strong socialist sympathies.

She was born in Melbourne in 1861, the second of nine children of Alice Connolly and her husband Daniel Henderson.

Christina’s mother had been a governess before she was married and teaching was a career that Christina would later take up after the family moved to New Zealand.

Christina worked at Christchurch Girls High school from the year of her father’s death in 1886, till her retirement from teaching in 1912.

There, she rose through the ranks, to become “acting lady principal” for a time, before the Board of Governors considered her too radical to be appointed permanently.

Christina was indeed radical.

In fact she had all sorts of radical ideas. Along with her belief that women should be able to vote, she also believed in equal pay, for equal work.  She was paid half that of male teachers, while supporting her entire family at the time.

Her views on fair pay, and on men in general were summed up by this quote:

“'It is quite true that a woman manages to live on less than a man because her wants are fewer but it is equally true that her wants are fewer because her earnings are less”.

Christina went on to join the National Council of Women, and fought and won other radical rights for women, such as the right to serve as police, to be members of Parliament, jurors and justices of the peace.

Christina became a justice of peace herself in 1928.

Christina’s was just one story among 25,518 others. Stories of ordinary women which, through simple acts of courage and determination will in some way be extraordinary.

I’ll tell you another.

This is the story of a woman who in the 1870s made a name for herself as a walker.

Walking, I hear you gasp? Well to be fair, in those days it was called being a ‘pedestrian” and it was the sporting domain of men.

That was until, in 1872 a young women by the name of Catherine embarked on the enormous journey to New Zealand, aged just 19.

Being a sprightly and sensible women, she managed to snag herself a dapper young man named Joseph on the journey.

Now Joseph wasn’t just a 30 year old railway plates layer from Berkshire. He was a pedestrian.

The most famous of pedestrians at that time was one Captain Barclay Allardice, who in Newmarket London managed to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours, by essentially walking one mile every hour without fail.

It was a feat that Joseph tried to replicate when he hit NZ shores. The remarkable thing wasn’t that he tried. It was that Catherine tried with him. A petite 44kg, Catherine decided that in Joseph’s breaks, she would take to the field walking a half mile every hour.

The novelty was almost too much. In particular, her ‘very neat walking costume’ caught the eye of local newspapers. It featured bloomers, a high necked ruffled top complete with pearls and high top leather boots

You may ask how I know that?

Well basically because a copy of her, in her neat pedestrian garb, was sent to the British weekly ‘Illustrated sporting and Dramatic News” basically an old version of sports illustrated.

Not only did they publish it, they included the quote of a supporter and local merchant, that she was “the best bit of puck that ever wore petticoats”

And puck she certainly had. While her husband’s pedestrian career was somewhat plagued by poor attendance, and bad debts, Catherine was a ground breaker.

Four years after arriving on New Zealand’s shores, she was setting records here.

In 1876, what was then the city hall of Auckland, filled out with a crowd of people there to see Catherine’s next feat. She was going to attempt 100 miles in 24 hours.

The hall had been measured out. She would have to do 2833 circuits before she finished. As the Auckland Star put it this was “a feat that had never before been attempted by any female inhabitant of our planet.”

The Herald was a little less deep in its analysis. Reporting that “her physique did not give token of much power of performance” but she was “pleasing, and of good figure” 

At 8.30pm Catherine stepped out in her costume and began her race. As you can imagine, the crowd thinned out a bit. After all, she was just walking in a circle. For a time a drunk sailor walked with her.

By 6.30pm the next day, Catherine was ready for the home straight. She had 2.5 miles to go. The hall was filling up again, and a band began to play as she picked up the pace for her final laps. As she rounded the bend the hats and handkerchiefs went up, the applause was deafening.

She was, at that time, the greatest female pedestrian in the world. She was a woman, I have no doubt, of huge courage and spunk.

She was also my great-great-grandmother. And her signature is on the 1893 petition.

Now, I’m not telling this story to show off about my families’ amazing, sporting prowess – the legacy began and ended with Catherine - but for other reasons.

How many of our courageous, but sometimes unusual, stories do we know and tell?

And do they always have to be great feats – things that others have never achieved before, to be remarkable or noteworthy?

I don’t believe they do. Sometimes stories of courage are simple, but beautiful.

The stories of Christina and Catherine may appear unremarkable – a woman who walks a lot, and a stern teacher who became a “lady principal”. But give them a little context, and they are not only remarkable in their own way, they are courageous.

Within the ordinary sits the extraordinary. Each of the women, who just got on with it, has a story that can inspire us, to just get on with it too.

Kate, Christina, Catherine, Elizabeth Mabel, Whetu Tirikātene-Sullivan, Helen Clark were all part of a journey to equality that we are continuing to this day.

The issues they fought for – economic independence, freedom from violence, equal pay, are issues we are still grappling with today.

And like my great-great-grandmother Catherine, and the thousands of other women who signed that 1893 petition, women today are living their own extraordinary stories.

It’s to them we owe progress.

Ordinary women, taking leaps of faith to fight and winning battles still - for pay equity, against domestic violence, and for the right to choose to be a carer, to have a career, to be a mother.

As we celebrate 125 years of Suffrage I choose to honour these modern extraordinary women today by putting your goals at the top of my to-do list too.

There is enough power in those every day leaps of faith, to change the world.