124 years of progress – and disappointment

It was the year 1893. The Government of Richard John Seddon, otherwise – and probably better – known as King Dick held office. Womens suffrage movements around the world were struggling to gain traction.

But in New Zealand a hell raising firebrand for her time, Katherine (Kate) Sheppard, was mobilising New Zealand women like few other suffragettes were managing to. To the conservative, male Parliamentarians, big bushy bearded men such as Mr Seddon, the thought of a female being able to vote was too much to bear. No more drinking until one had to stumble home from the pub, expecting the Mrs to have dinner ready and be ready for sex at a time of his choosing. No more treating her like a punch bag – it was all too much for them to bear contemplating.

It was not just about their rights, but their role in society. No longer were women prepared to just be the ones that kept the house clean, did the cooking and the ironing. No longer were they prepared to left out of decision making that controlled their lives. No longer were they prepared to be second class. No longer was inequality an option.

King Dick disagreed.

Then that “Bloody Woman” as Kate Sheppard was known among the Parliamentarians of the time arrived at Parliament. Her discourse with Mr Seddon was at times rude, other times blunt and often feisty in nature. But Mr Seddon was about to find that Kate Sheppard was not going to take no for an answer.

124 years after that 32,000 strong petition was rolled out in the halls of the New Zealand Parliament, the progress has been substantial. Women now command Royal New Zealand Navy combat ships (Lt Cdr. Lorna Gray HMNZS Otago, Cdr. Lisa Hunn HMNZS Te Mana), occupy senior governance roles such as the Governor General (Dame Patsy Reddy) and two have been Prime Ministers (Helen Clark and Dame Jenny Shipley). Several more have been the Chief Executives of high ranking companies such as pre-Spark Telecom (Theresa Gattung). Some have gone on to hold powerful United Nations jobs such as head of the United Nations Development Programme (Helen Clark).

But the progress is tempered by significant disappointment. Even though women have made all of this great progress, there are significant bastions of overt sexism still to be dealt with in all corners of society. From the casual sexism I have seen at pubs where womens sport other than netball is roundly derided, usually by middle aged males, where the female bar tender is called “darling” and often within earshot you can hear men discussing their sex appeal, I can tell you there is a long way to go. From seeing in the work place female colleagues get ignored because they are female, even if at times they are senior, even if they muck in like everyone else and do the dirty tasks, I can tell you there is a long way to go. From the fact that we have family violence like Once Were Warriors and that successive Governments have failed to make major inroads into this, I can tell you there is still a long way to go.

Because there is. It will be when I can’t tell you any more about the examples above, when I see mutual respect instead of a sneering veneer of contempt, that will be when I can say things are better. Otherwise That Bloody Woman might be more than just the name of an epic retelling of a New Zealand story about how one woman’s determination put New Zealand at the forefront of women’s rights all those years ago.

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