September 19 marks Aotearoa's 125th anniversary of women's suffrage.

A few months ago we gathered around and said, "So what are we going to do?" From one meeting, a singular idea emerged: we send a postcard to high-profile women around the world and ask them to write us a personal note acknowledging this momentous occasion.

This was something tangible and of the time (postcards were all the rage by 1870). A legacy idea (if, indeed, any were returned to us).

But it was easier said than done. First we had to find — and then engage — various publicists and ask them to not ignore us, to please read the email, then to send us a postal address so we could mail out a card.

Advertisement

We would tell the story of suffrage leader Kate Sheppard's extraordinary courage and achievement; the story about a small nation at the bottom of the world that was the first to give women a voice in the most profound and vital way: poti ma wahine — votes for women.

Hollywood actor and #MeToo campaigner Ashley Judd's agent came back and said, "She's in. Please send a card." (However, as we went to press her card had not arrived.)

Then chef and writer Nigella Lawson. Lawson's agent in the UK also represents Joanna Lumley. They sent a message asking could we send one for her too, because she'd love to do it. Then I got an email from Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffrage movement, saying, she'd heard about something called a "Postcard Project" — she'd love to take part. Could we please send her one?

We chose images for the postcards, wrote lists.

Throughout this project, what resonates is that New Zealand once led the way for the whole world and though there are still knots that need untying to have women truly equal, this is a vote of confidence in our collective spirit as New Zealanders — and as women and girls.

I've also learned that the power of an idea, once it takes hold, is seriously impressive.

We sent out about 100 postcards and, at the time of going to press, more than 50 were returned. Still more are trickling in.

Yes, we can congratulate ourselves but there is still much to do. In Moana Maniapoto's feature on "Black Pearls", game changers, she clarifies the notion of progress, and Pakeha aspirations versus the reality for wahine Maori. It's a rallying cry, a reminder — if we had needed it — of the legacy of colonisation and the sheer stealth of women like Dame Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard when they were up against so much.

Photographer Gil Hanly, now in her 80s, talks with Kim Knight about capturing the feminist movement in Aotearoa.

Dionne Christian champions the women who wore the pants in the 1800s and refused to back down.

Angela Barnett interviews high-profile New Zealand women about the moment they broke down the barriers they encountered and Giselle Clarkson (aka Giselle Draws) has created exquisite portraits for each.

We made a commitment, too, that this issue of Canvas would be created entirely by women.

Thanks to all who have contributed to this issue.

We want to share these magnificent, heart-felt, handwritten postcards, so they are part of an exhibition at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, starting today, until September 22. Thanks to the museum, for allowing us to share them.

Thanks to Te Papa for allowing us to use the colourised image of Kate Sheppard. It's part of the award-winning He Tohu exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington (see hetohu.nz).

Thanks to the publishers of 200 Women, a book full of inspiring women from around the world, who contacted publicists on my behalf (200 Women, created by Ruth Hobday and Geoff Blackwell, photography by Kieran Scott; Upstart Press, $75).

And thanks to the women from both here and overseas who took part in the Postcard Project. Their messages are empowering. Collectively we are greater still.

Mana wahine!