If main parties want support from both sexes they must heed what suffragists fought for, says Jennifer Curtin

Today is the 120th anniversary of women's suffrage. After a long campaign women were granted full citizenship rights and New Zealand gained the honour of being the first country in the world to do so. Unlike Australia, the campaign did not result in women also winning the right to stand for Parliament (the centenary of that moment doesn't happen until 2019), but we feel proud nevertheless.

In recent years however, we might be forgiven for thinking that politics in New Zealand has returned to the days of 'old', where election battles were fought between male leaders and where the few women that were visible tended to be pitted against each other by media pundits (although now they use terms like "babes" and "sexiness").

Women as voters seem to hold little attraction for either of the major political parties. In fact, some in Labour seem to be doing their best to highlight how irrelevant women are to their campaign to win back government. So although Shane Jones in his leadership concession speech suggested Labour choose a female deputy leader, his previous comments describing women as "geldings" and how popular he thinks he is with readers of Woman's Weekly suggest he may not recognise what women want from their representatives. Fran O'Sullivan ( Herald, September 9) offered a brilliant riposte to both Jones' statements and the "bromance" evident between male media pundits and unreconstructed men who make "good" television. Yet even former Labour leader David Shearer said on Q&A that Labour needed a leader who could win back male voters We could be forgiven for thinking that Labour sees winning votes from women and men as a zero sum game - that the party can only win either aspirational working men or women, but not both.

This would be a foolhardy response. Historically it was thought that women voters more than men tended to lean towards conservative parties. We cannot know for sure since polls and surveys seldom sought out women's opinions. Nevertheless, numerous explanations were put for this conservatism - women's limited involvement in the paid labour market, their lower rates of trade union membership, and they were less likely to complete higher education. But all this began to change from the 1970s.


New Zealand women voters became increasingly more likely to support parties on the left than the right, and often more so than their male counterparts. Women's participation in the labour market had increased substantially, the women's movement had politicised women's issues in ways that challenged traditional ideas about women's roles, and women began seeking election as MPs.

In many ways, women as voters were beginning to look more like men and initially Labour appeared more successful than National at adapting to these structural and cultural changes. Indeed in the 1990s, women were significantly more likely than men to support Labour (a gender gap of 8 points in 1993). This gap was reduced to 5 points in 2002, but reopened at the 2005 and 2008 elections. However, in 2011 the differences between men and women were minimal suggesting Key's National Government has begun clawing back the women's vote from Labour.

So what made Labour more attractive to women voters in the past? Part of the story lies in the differences between women and men in how they perceive economic and social issues. Research suggests women are more likely to be interested in the national economic situation, while men focus more on their personal economic position; women are thought to be more sympathetic toward state expenditure while men are expected to show more interest in issues such as tax and crime. According to the New Zealand Election Survey in 2011, 60 per cent of respondents, both men and women, believed they were worse off economically, but more women than men thought that education and health expenditure and, to a lesser degree, welfare expenditure should be increased.

The second part of the story is about leadership. The New Zealand Election Study data shows that women were more likely than men to 'like' Helen Clark and this gap continued over her time as Prime Minister. And while Labour did not win in 2008, Clark's likeability rating among respondents of both sexes actually increased on her 2005 rating. Interestingly, with the exception of 2005, Key has yet to gain the same level of support from women respondents that Clark did in all her elections as leader. So having women representatives, in Parliament and Cabinet, matters to women voters, as do policies that involve support for women as workers and heads of families. This is not so different to what the suffragists fought for in the lead-up to 1893. Labour might want to ponder this, assuming they want to win back women voters in 2014.