Barry Soper: Women can do better in Beehive

Social reformer and suffragist Kate Sheppard. Photo / Wikipedia
Social reformer and suffragist Kate Sheppard. Photo / Wikipedia

Kiwis take a great deal of pride in being the first country in the world to give women the vote. But while we reflect on it, as we did on Women's Suffrage Day yesterday, we should think about why they got the vote kin the first place - it was essentially because men were behaving badly.

It's often been said of the time that the main causes of death in colonial New Zealand were drink, drowning and drowning while drunk.

So the women's suffrage campaigners led by Kate Sheppard had a mission, to get their men folk out of the pub. Sheppard led the Women's Christian Temperance Union who in the year they secured the vote presented a petition to Parliament signed by almost a quarter of all adult women living in this country.

The vote allowing women into the polling booths squeaked home with just two votes though, after a couple of blokes changed their vote to send the then prime Minister King Dick Seddon, a vehement anti prohibitionist, a message.

They may have had the vote but amazingly they were allowed to stand for Parliament until the end of the First World War in 1919 and the first female MP wasn't elected until 1933, an incredible 40 years after they won the right to vote.

Suffrage opponents warned women who did go into the polling booths that they'd jostled and harassed by boorish, drunken men. But the first election was described as the best conducted and most orderly ever held with a Christchurch newspaper even saying it resembled a "gay garden party" with the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighting up the polling booths most wonderfully.

The closest New Zealand ever got to banning liquor was in 1919, when the threshold to outlaw it was 50 percent, and the vote came tantalisingly close at 49.7 percent.

Coming through the security cordons to my office it had me thinking about the number of women who were here when I started in politics almost 40 years ago. For starters there were just nine in the Parliamentary press gallery while in the debating chamber itself, which was a bit like an RSA club, the number of women were still in single figures at just nine percent of MPs. Today just over a third of them are women.

And today women voters outnumber men and actually vote more regularly - so come on sisters in terms of representation, you can do better than that!

- Newstalk ZB

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