120 Year's of women's suffrage

Tēnā koutou. On 19 September it will be 120 years since the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law which saw New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. In most other democracies – including Britain and the United States – women did not win the right to the vote until after the First World War. New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of our image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’. This anniversary presents an opportunity to consider the role and contribution of women to New Zealand political life.

While women could vote they could not stand for parliament until 1919 when three women contested seats at that year's general election. None were successful. It was not until 1933 that the Labour Party’s Elizabeth McCombs became the first female Member of Parliament (MP), winning a by-election in the Lyttelton seat following the death of her husband, MP James McCombs. Mabel Howard achieved the next significnat milestone for women in national politics when in 1947 she became New Zealand’s first female Cabinet minister. She served as minister of health and minister in charge of child welfare until Labour’s defeat in 1949, and then as minister of social security in the 1957–60 Labour government. Iriaka Ratana became the first female Māori MP in 1949 and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, Labour MP for Southern Maori, became the first female Māori Cabinet minister in 1972.

MMP was important in increasing female representation in parliament. In 1984 only 13% of MP's were female but following the first MMP election in 1996 this increased to 30% and in 2012, 32% of Members of Parliament are female. During that time Jenny Shipley became New Zealand’s first female prime minister after replacing Jim Bolger as leader of the National Party in 1997. Two years later Labour’s Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first elected female prime minister following November's general election. Clark would be PM for nine years, becoming New Zealand's 5th-longest-serving PM.

The feature New Zealand women and the vote provides a good overview of this topic and includes a short quiz which could be used as a way of launching a brief study or inquiry into this topic or of revising learning at the completion of the unit. It is a great topic for debate and discussion as to what impact women have had on politics and wheter parliament is still a 'man's world'.

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