What would Kate think? One wonders, 125 years (next Wednesday) after New Zealand women won the right to vote, how suffragette Kate Sheppard would regard our stewardship of the privilege she promoted.

Tauranga's 2017 election resulted in 82 per cent turnout of electors on the general roll. This year's city council byelection, however, engaged around 30 per cent of eligible voters. My native country, the US, ranks among the worst in developed nations in voter turnout, according to an analysis published in 2016. Around a quarter of eligible voters that year chose Donald Trump as President. About 40 per cent of people who could have voted didn't bother. Trump has repeatedly told us via Twitter, audio and video he regards women as beautiful, bitchy, bleeding objects for groping, ogling and gratification. Yet millions of women sat on their hands during the election. They cast no ballot. They copped out.

How does voting fit into our busy lives? What's in it for us? For perspective on civic engagement, I sat among a mostly female audience last Friday at Tauranga's Holy Trinity church to listen to Helen Clark. I didn't live in New Zealand when she became the first woman elected Prime Minister, but I'd read about her domestic legacy during nine years in office and her leadership of the United Nations Development Programme for eight years. Clark worked to make the UNDP more transparent (perhaps she could give lessons to Tauranga City Council, who are fond of closed-door meetings), and advocated for the rights of marginalised people such as migrants, refugees, the poor, and women.

Clark's visit was an opportunity to hear from an early adopter of diplomacy and metaphorical hammers to crack the Beehive's glass ceiling. She'd been invited to speak in the Bay as part of Suffrage 125 celebrations. She told us we stood on the shoulders of those who've come before – women who championed the right of all adult females to vote, and made New Zealand a world leader in female enfranchisement in 1893. The United States would follow in 1920; the United Kingdom, in 1928.


Women make up 38 per cent of members of Parliament - the highest number New Zealand has ever had. More than 45 per cent of members on state sector boards and committees are female, and the Government has set a target to reach 50 per cent by 2021.

Yet research released earlier this year shows the proportion of women in top jobs in the private sector sits at 18 per cent.

We still have ground to cover on other fronts – closing the wage gap between men and women, and ending the country's legacy of domestic violence, which consumes 40 per cent of police time.

Change can start with voting – a tick on paper indicating our feelings about an issue, or who we think should lead. Our choices aren't always stellar. "The lesser of two evils" cliché leaps to mind. If we need somebody better in elected office, maybe that somebody is you. Start with a school board or other local government body.

Clark said women must be prepared, lean on their networks, and back themselves. "You've probably got to roll out the red carpet yourself and kick in the door."

Her comment reminded me of the 2015 movie Suffragette, which portrayed real-life struggles of women fighting for the right to vote in the UK in the early 1900s. I squirmed in my theatre seat watching women being beaten and force fed during hunger strikes. They lost marriages, children, fortunes, freedom and even their lives because they wanted a voice in government. We all want choice about the environment in which we live; agency over our bodies; access to affordable health care.

Pioneering women suffered so females could have a shot at decision-making alongside men, yet modern women (and men) shrug off voting as if it were a hair shirt. That 125-year-old triumph has become banal. Who cares?

Your neighbour cares. The one who decries cycleways as frivolous, because she hasn't ridden a bicycle in 20 years. She'll vote in your absence.


The man across town – the one for whom conspiracy theories are gospel and truth is a stranger; the guy who (mistakenly) believes birth control pills are equivalent to abortion? He'll vote for you.

The millionaire who thinks public education is overfunded? She'll vote in your absence, too.

Are you okay letting other people make your decisions?

It takes just a few minutes to read up on candidates. A few minutes to tick boxes.

We don't need to petition Parliament, conduct a speaking tour, endure hunger strikes, beatings or jail time to have our say.

Someone else has done the hard yards. One way to honour their sacrifice while participating in your community and country - is vote.

Kate would want that for you, too.