Alpine Living Issue VII. New Zealand. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ©

New Zealand Women: A History of Strength

Elizabeth Elkin

Mary-Margaret Schmidt 

There is nothing particularly extraordinary about the New Zealand $10 note at first glance. Shades of blue—arctic, sky and royal—create patterns, weaving together the shape of a woman with a soft face and hair in a loose bun. Residents and travelers alike pass the note along, not realizing the history they hold in their palm.


Kate Sheppard, the woman on the currency, led the New Zealand women’s suffrage movement in the 1800s. Historians credit her as a spokesperson for a generation of women who were unhappy with the way they were treated.


“We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly,’” Sheppard said, according to the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage.


She traveled around New Zealand, trying to gain attention for the feminist movement. According to the Ministry, many opposed this movement and many encouraged women to go home and take care of their families. Sheppard did not listen; she spent her time lobbying members of Parliament and rallying more to the cause.


In 1893, the suffragists presented a 270-meter (886-foot) petition with nearly 32,000 women’s signatures on it in support of women gaining the right to vote. It was the longest petition to have ever been presented to Parliament at the time.


That same year New Zealand became the first western country to give women the right to vote. Many modern-day experts like Carisa Showden, director of the Board of Gender Studies at the University of Auckland, applaud this achievement. But Showden said there is still a long road ahead.

“On the one hand, New Zealand is rightfully proud of its history of being the first western country to give women the right to vote and does have a culture of prizing equality,” she said. “But at the same time, especially because it is a country with a small population, there is this impulse not to interfere in what’s going on in the private lives of citizens.”


Some of this, she explained, comes from the settlement of New Zealand. When the English and Scottish came to New Zealand, there were more men than women. She believes out of that grew a very masculine culture.


“It’s a country where there’s a kind of hyper masculinity around sport and farming and those kinds of ‘manly’ behaviors that underlie gender dynamics, not that there’s anything wrong with farming, but that there is this ‘manly-man’ masculinity that goes with that,” she elaborated. “I think that that can feed into current narratives about what it means to be a man and have a sexual relationship.”


Louise Ryan, a University of Auckland student, is proud of her Kiwi woman roots, but she still feels there’s a long way to go. As a college student, she has found more and more friends who think women still need to fight for their rights and address issues such as wage gap, sexism, domestic violence and sexual assault.


“These are just points, just stones,” Ryan said, determined. “People don’t realize there’s actually a lot more to work on. [Yes,] we did this really great thing. [But,] what else do we need to do?”

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