Did your ancestors help win women the vote in NZ?

by Sharon Stephenson / 19 September, 2018
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As New Zealand marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, a new exhibition featuring the original Suffrage Petition, looks at how far we’ve come – and how far there is still to go.

Her name was Louisa Mary Rhodes (pictured left, with her husband George) and, going by a handful of grainy black and white photos, she was a woman wired for solemnity. Yet in 1893, this mother of eight from Auckland’s Freemans Bay was enough of an activist to sign the Suffrage Petition, which paved the way for Kiwi women to become the first in the world to win the right to vote.

Rhodes’ contribution, along with the 32,000 or so others (predominantly women) who signed this historic document, is being recognised to mark 125 years since the passing of the Electoral Act on 19 September 1893.

For Archives New Zealand’s Katherine C’Ailceta, the anniversary has a personal connection – Rhodes was her great, great grandmother, a fact the archivist discovered only while working on a project to uncover information about the people who signed the petition.

“All we had were the signatories’ names and addresses,” she says. “So we encouraged people to research their ancestors to see if any were signatories,” says C’Ailceta, who stumbled across her link with Rhodes while searching her own family tree and wrote a short biography of her.

Visitors to He Tohu at Wellington’s National Library can see the original petition and check out the 1000-plus biographies collected so far. 

See the petition entries online here to search for your ancestors*

Notable descendants of female signatories include Ernest Rutherford, Sir Peter Blake and writer/political activist Rewi Alley. “This is a living exhibition and we encourage New Zealanders to research their ancestors,” says C’Ailceta. “We hope to be updating this content for many years to come.”

Also marking the suffrage anniversary is Auckland Museum’s exhibition Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa, which runs until 31 October.

Victoria Travers, head of exhibitions at the museum, says it’s a timely look at how far New Zealand women have come – and how far we still have to go. “We started planning this exhibition before the pay equality and #MeToo movements really kicked into high gear, but they are so relevant to the questions this exhibition asks around what we still need to do to achieve gender equality.”

Divided into four parts, the interactive exhibition features quotes from notable New Zealand women. Says former MP Marilyn Waring about her time in Parliament: “How exhausting is it to be aware, how frustrating to feel powerless.”

The protest movement gets its own section, with images from photographers such as Gil Hanly and Robin Morrison documenting nuclear-free and abortion protests, as well as last year’s Women’s March. What Travers calls the “crunchy” part of the exhibition highlights statistics on sexual identity and violence, ethnicity and pay equity – challenging visitors to “look at our own privilege and be confronted by it”.

“There’s a lot to be angry about in this exhibition, and we should be angry about how far New Zealand women still have to go,” says Travers. “But we’ve leavened the message with humour, and hope visitors can channel that anger into positive action.”

*It should be noted many women had no opportunity to sign the petition because of the dispersal of NZ's population in the 1890s.

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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