Suffrage 125: Reflections, and Looking to the Future

Suffrage 125: Reflections, and Looking to the Future

By Harshaa Prasad

The Public Policy Club was honoured to host four remarkable Kiwi wahine toa last week to celebrate the 125-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Dame Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark, Chlöe Swarbrick and Louisa Wall spoke to a full room at the Heritage Hotel about intergenerational change in New Zealand’s feminist movement. Reflecting on the night, PPC looks at the issues that those wahine set about answering. What have the struggles been in getting where we are 125 years on? What issues still need tackling today?


Getting here: 125 years

The road to gender equality in New Zealand hasn’t been an easy road to traverse. Dame Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark did not hesitate to call out a workplace that made the beginnings of their careers particularly challenging. Even after getting the legal right to vote in 1893, the ball was slow to roll when it came to women occupying political roles, with the first female MP (the Labour Party’s Elizbeth McCombs) only elected 40 years later. All the panellists had to overcome many glass ceilings to get to their respective positions. When moderator Ali Mau asked about some of the obstacles they had tackled, all seemed to have faced sexist comments on social media (and some even death threats). The barrage came from many sources; in one bizarre account by Dame Jenny about starting up student loans, the banks refused to take responsibility for female education on the basis that they weren’t a safe investment.

The question then is – how do we distribute resources to establish an equitable playing field? Dame Jenny broached this question early in the night and promptly pointed to one solution: legislation. Beginning with the Electoral Act 1893, which legalised voting for women, and continuing with the Human Rights Act 1993, which put in place equal gender pay, legislation has been a key tool for change and equal rights. Whilst legislation is not a magic wand, and gender inequality remains across many facets of society, legislating is undoubtedly a pivotal first step. Despite this, it’s crucial to then create actual, monitored change. The panel discussion drew out a great example of this: female Labour and National MPs during Dame Jenny and Helen’s respective leaderships worked together on issues such as gender equality and sexual reproductive rights. Being in a leadership is more than occupying the space; a leader uses the space to make change that is meaningful, and politics is a way through which we can shape the future.

Moving on: the next 125 years?

It’s important for every generation to think about what their responsibility is, and where the opportunities for the future lie. The panellists were quick to point to glaring gaps still existent in New Zealand’s gender equality effort. Having fought for the vote and representation in Parliament, it’s important to turn to, as Chlöe said, the experiences of women in 2018. Representation on boards, the gender pay gap, overrepresentation in low wage work and lack of financial security, as well as intimate partner violence and domestic violence stats skewed against women, are just some areas of concern. Louisa Wall pointed out the difficulties and importance of balancing practices like FMG in New Zealand against the consent of the women engaging in those cultural practices; one solution would be to restrict this practice solely to adults, rather than children. Additionally, legislation, such as Marriage (Court Consent to Marriage of Minors) Amendment Bill, aims to restrict underage marriage and is helping pave the way for law that remains culturally sensitive whilst prompting the right of those practising that religion. The panellists discussed a number of these major issues.


Women on boards

Gender equality in public boards are up to 43%. Admittedly, they could be doing better at a CEO level, but as both Dame Jenny and Helen pointed out, private boards still have to catch up. Dame Jenny, having been an active part of a number of boards, is an advocate for strong and committed change. There needs to be a deliberate and conscious effort to push for gender equality, which leads to more balanced and resilient boards. This topic leads neatly to the next – how can we enforce this an equitable hiring system, and are quotas the solution?


Quotas recognise that the answer to an inherently sexist system is to dedicate a certain number of jobs to female employees. Louisa was quick to defend. Research, she reasoned, has shown that quotas produce outcomes. Countries like France and Germany have seen immediate results, which the wahine agreed were in part due to an incentivised system. One fear of quota naysayers (namely the National party), said Louisa, was that incompetent women would get through the system in place of competent men. This is a dated fear – New Zealand has no dearth of qualified women, rather a system that is biased towards men in the same role. Dame Jenny felt that quotas can be hit or miss; other means of getting the same result, like a 2-3-year window, should be considered.

Ordinary Kiwi women – should we focus on wellbeing more than leadership?

Ordinary women, said Dame Jenny, are leaders. Chlöe listed several friends who, through their everyday jobs, were a hero. 75% of the world’s unpaid work is done by women, and women are the main holders of minimum wage jobs. It’s the safeguard and availability of rights such as 20 hours free early childhood education and paid parental leave that make the playing field more even for men and women. Dame Jenny thought it was necessary to separate leadership from economic advancement, pointing to her and Helen’s own humble upbringings. Women must avoid falling into the traps and clichés that ordinary women can’t take leadership roles.

What can young men do to support equality?

Helen stated that New Zealand would start closing gaps in the fight for gender equality once men’s loads start looking more like women’s, applauding Clarke Gayford as an example of a man undertaking traditionally female roles. This is particularly important, she said, in light of the fact that women do most of the world’s unpaid work, from raising the family to keeping the household running. Chlöe cautioned that we must not buy into a patriarchal idea of success, pointing to the alarming sexist comments she has experienced from the mouths of women as an example of women being pitched against each other.

How can women of colour be more involved?

Dame Jenny raised a practical point about mentorship – we should all be mentors to someone who is not like us. Through this, we learn and create a ladder for our mentee. Louisa contributed a great example of such mentorship, namely the Manurewa Youth Council’s aim to engage with young leaders and her personal contributions to the effort.

Fragile progress

Despite making some amazing progress, said Helen, it’s crucial not to give in to toxic attitudes still prevalent in society. Once legitimatised, these views can garner state/legal support, destroying progress. She pointed in particular to the way that the abortion debate is being played out in the US, and the uneasy road ahead for a women’s right to her own body.

In a similar vein, Chlöe spoke about the relative success of her position as New Zealand’s youngest current MP, particularly in relation to her counterparts in Australia and the UK. However, young women were being saddled with questions about their relevant (or, irrelevant) life experience more than young men, pointing to her infamous predecessor, Todd Barclay. She implored the audience not to let such considerations hinder the potential for young people to become leaders. We, she said, are the first generation to face massive student loans, to truly face climate change and its effects, and to address major global failings such as the refugee crisis. To be stalled at the starting line by ageist concerns would delay the progress our society needs.

Global glass ceilings

It’s important to remember that as a whole, New Zealand’s problems are minor compared to what women go through around the world. 155 countries still have laws that discriminate against women, purporting to control aspects of female life from marriage, to employment to children. Their glass ceilings are different from ours, and it’s something we must continue to advocate for.


Why, asked Helen, are we celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage? Is it because New Zealand has elected our third female Prime Minister? Is it the third wave of feminism, in which women are fighting for more than legal rights, and demanding equality in all aspects of their lives? It’s important, in celebrating this milestone, to reflect on where we have come from. It’s even more important to recognise that our work is not done. We need to aim for 50% representation in Parliament. We must guarantee the rights of women in the workplace. We need to help other countries to support their own wahine. The legacy of our suffragettes lives on in our own actions; it’s an inspiration to see four wahine toa continue advocating for this change.

A big thank you to our speakers, Dame Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark, Chlöe Swarbrick and Louisa Wall, and our moderator, Ali Mau. 

Special thanks to Chorus, Anthem, and Spark for sponsoring the event and making it possible.


The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.

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