COMMENT:

It's 4.30am as I write this.

I imagine there's not too many others out there penning essays at such an early hour, save for a few procrastinating university students.

On the other hand there will be plenty of people already at work. People who are at work at that hour day in, day out. I think of them — the shift workers, the bus drivers, the cleaners, the nurses — every time my alarm goes off.

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And now, I also think about mothers. Their alarm is never a dulcet, tinkling cascade of chimes — it's a gurgle, followed by a louder splutter, intensifying to a full-blown baby-crying crescendo.

Like those other early risers, I bet those mums consider their pre-dawn activities to be nothing out of the ordinary, if they consider them at all.

But they are far from ordinary.

FULL BROADCAST: PM Jacinda Ardern joins NZH for our Suffrage 125 broadcast

PM Jacinda Ardern joins the New Zealand Herald editorial team as the guest editor of the 125th Suffrage edition.

As New Zealand celebrates 125 years of women having the vote it's easy to reflect on our history with a sense of nostalgia and determine that, somehow, that was an era of extraordinary women.

Certainly we can name a few — Kate Sheppard, Margaret Sievwright, for example — but what of those 25,519 other women — one in five of the population — who signed the suffrage petition back in 1893?

They too were extraordinary in their own way.

Behind every single one of them there would have been a story.

Take, for instance, the sisters of Elizabeth McCombs.

Two gained university degrees — one went on to become a teacher, the other a journalist. Another became a Presbyterian missionary.

McCombs, while too young to sign the petition, later became New Zealand's first female MP.

There are writers, campaigners, shopkeepers, domestic servants. There are pockets of signatories from the same street, reminding us of the painstaking door-to-door exercise involved in collecting and compiling the petition.

Among those who signed was Palmerston North's Kate Wiltshire. It's a fairly unassuming name and one that few would recognise these days.

Ardern says story of her great-great-grandmother Catherine Wiltshire is a reminder that every one of the signatures on the suffrage petition represents a woman who was extraordinary in her own way.
Ardern says story of her great-great-grandmother Catherine Wiltshire is a reminder that every one of the signatures on the suffrage petition represents a woman who was extraordinary in her own way.

Yet Kate, or Catherine as she was legally known, had a fascinating back story.

Described in documents as a servant or possibly dressmaker, she was just 19 when she arrived here in 1872.

As with many women of that time, Kate married a man she met on the voyage from the UK. Joseph Wiltshire had great aspirations to follow his passion when he migrated, not as a bricklayer as he had been but as a long-distance walker.

Kate wanted in. And not for her the role of spectator. She was going to foot it as a pedestrian walker (as it was known then) in her own right.

By 1876, Kate was such a drawcard that she filled the Auckland Town Hall as she attempted to walk 100 miles (161km) in 24 hours, a feat thought never before attempted by a woman.

Weighing just 44kg, Kate had her sceptics. Indeed the Herald noted at the time that "her physique does not give token of power [or] endurance".

But Kate had both endurance and speed.

A year before she had risen to the challenge posed by some to demonstrate how good she was compared to the best male racers by competing against one. She would walk six miles to his seven.

It was a rare and early example of a female against a male in the sporting arena and Kate held her own, finishing just 15 seconds behind her opponent. As a reporter noted at the time, there was "an air of determination about her which showed she was capable of great things".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern edits the New Zealand Herald 125 years of suffrage edition. Photo / Michael Craig
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern edits the New Zealand Herald 125 years of suffrage edition. Photo / Michael Craig

And she most definitely was. Kate completed the 100-mile challenge in 24 hours and became, as some described her, the greatest female pedestrian on the planet.

She was also my great-great-grandmother.

I tell this story not to demonstrate any physical prowess among women in my family (if there was any, it definitely began and ended with Catherine), but for two other reasons.

Sitting behind each of those petition signatures will be a story and each of those stories will, in some way, be extraordinary.

But we should not assign the "extraordinary" to the history books. Great feats are not great because they were "firsts" or because they achieved some measure of publicity, but because they took effort, commitment and often courage.

Some of the most extraordinary things are undertaken without fanfare or acknowledgement.

They are accomplished by women who are "just getting on with things", women who consider themselves "ordinary" — the solo mother who juggles child rearing and household management, the low-paid worker (predominantly women) facing that daily grind, the carer, the stay-at-home mum who commits herself to the most crucial of jobs but who is hardly ever credited to be "working".

Within the ordinary sits the extraordinary. And on behalf of each and every one of those women, who "just get on with it", we need to get on with it too.

The right to vote was never the destination; it was the start of a journey.

Margaret Sievwright, Kate Sheppard's co-presenter of that famous petition, was calling for equal pay, economic independence and sex education, back in the late 1800s.

Those are issues we are still debating. We are still on the journey.

We have a history we can be proud of in Aotearoa. Every family will have a tale of a pioneering woman, a "wāhine toa". But these women also exist today and their strength is manifest in our daily lives.

It's to them we owe progress.

Lifting wages, closing the gender pay gap, living free from violence, having the choice to be a carer, to have a career, be a mother — those are uppermost on my to do list. Our extraordinary women deserve no less.