On Sunday, September 19, Aotearoa New Zealand commemorates the 128th anniversary of Suffrage Day, a world-leading legacy for women's rights and democracy.
If we cast our minds back to early colonial New Zealand, the reality of life for women is they were excluded from any involvement in politics. It was generally accepted in society that women were naturally suited to domestic affairs, such as keeping house and raising children.
Only men were as seen fit for public life and the rough-and-tumble world of politics by virtue of their masculinity.
The suffragists of course sought to challenge this notion with their efforts to generate the moral reform of society. They even dared to ride bicycles, the steed on which they would charge into battle.
As the movement gathered momentum, by the early 1890s opponents of women's suffrage had begun to mobilise – much akin to the modern-day keyboard warriors and internet trolls who patrol the social media pages of high profile women and feminist groups with their self-appointed facts about life and relentless mansplaining.
They warned that any disturbance of the 'natural' gender roles of men and women might have dire consequences for society.
Suffrage opponents in particular had warned that delicate "lady voters" would be jostled and harassed at polling booths by 'boorish and half-drunken men', but in fact the election of 1893 was described as the 'best-conducted and most orderly' ever held.
A Christchurch newspaper of the time described the streets which "resembled a gay garden party" - [cue this time-honoured gender stereotype] "the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up polling booths most wonderfully".
Three years after suffrage was achieved, the National Council of Women (NCW) was formed in 1896. These first-wave feminists continued to demand equal rights for women and the moral reform of society, the cornerstones of the suffrage movement.
One of their first campaigns was a call to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869 which enabled police to require the medical inspection of women suspected of being 'common prostitutes' in case they had venereal disease, but took no action against men.
It wasn't until 1910 that this repeal was realised; women could not stand for Parliament until 1919; equal pay was only enshrined in law in 1972; and in 2021 the gender pay gap still hasn't been closed.
However, there were some early wins in their campaigns to influence government policy: the Criminal Code Amendment Act 1896 raised the age of consent from 14 to 16, and the Female Law Practitioners Act of the same year enabled women to become lawyers, with the Divorce Act of 1898 creating equal conditions of divorce for men and women.
Importantly, the NCW provided women with strong networks and opportunities for public speaking as well as political action, and for that we can all be thankful.
Across the country, local branches continue to remain active, and NCW still plays a key role in informing legislative change regarding key issues for women and critiques of systems and structures which perpetuate gender inequity.
That it celebrates its 125th anniversary this year is an astonishing achievement, and its role as the leading gender equality organisation in Aotearoa remains vital. Visit National Council of Women of New Zealand (ncwnz.org.nz) to find out more about their activities.
The Women's Network has worked in partnership with the Whanganui branch of NCW over many years, and we continue to enjoy opportunities to work together to champion women's development and empowerment. Likewise, is our dynamic partnership with the local branch of Zonta.
Founded in 1919 in the United States of America, Zonta International has 30,000 members in 1200 Zonta Clubs in 67 countries.
Zonta International has a long and well-respected history of partnership in programmes with United Nations Agencies and maintains consultative status on women's issues with the UN and Council of Europe. Disrupting the status quo requires vigilance, and transformative change can be realised when we work collectively, together.
Visit About Zonta International District 16 - Zonta International District 16 (zonta.org.nz)