In 1893, the New Zealand government granted the vote to women, becoming the first country to do so on a global scale. For most of the rest of the world, including the United States, women had to fight for many more years before their rights were acknowledged. Many of these movements lasted for over 70 years, while New Zealand’s suffrage movement only took force in the 1870s and achieved its goals only 20 years later. Even at this early date, three bills (dating 1878, 1879, and 1887) only narrowly missed passing in Parliament. Shortly before the third attempt, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was established and began working closely with the suffrage movement. The organization was led by Kate Sheppard, pictured above as the green “Go” figure on many of the crosswalks surrounding the government buildings in Wellington, New Zealand. Sheppard put together a series of petitions, resulting in 32,000 signatures in 1893 for votes for women. With the petition in hand and two councilors who changed their vote just to embarrass the competition, the bill for women’s suffrage passed in New Zealand on 8 September 1893, 20 votes to 18. While there was a great deal of opposition, in large part from liquor companies who were worried about the suffrage movement’s alliance with WCTU, it all took place in the form of political maneuvers such as petitions. There were few or no violent or militant movements in the New Zealand fight for women’s suffrage.
While it seems like a small symbol at first, maybe even just a tourist attraction to point out to tour groups, the use of Kate Sheppard as the green woman on the crosswalk signals is a significant representation of New Zealand’s cultural views and values. From what we’ve seen so far, the New Zealanders are very proud of being the first country to give women the vote. They show it in many ways. There are several statues and photos in Parliament as well as throughout the city; however, the crosswalk signal is one of the more unique ways in which they show their pride. Originally only a one year plan, the lights were supposed to be switched back to the standard walking man on December 31, 2015, but the people signed a petition and now Kate is “here to stay” (Young). The people of New Zealand seem to consider it to be something that makes them unique and for good reason. Most countries have not had the opportunity to celebrate a 121st anniversary of votes for women (the crosswalk light was put in place on the 19th of September, 2014), New Zealand has gone above and beyond by not only acknowledging and taking pride in this achievement but also showing off the achievement to the general public in even the most mundane way. Votes for women is not something special in New Zealand, but, rather, an ordinary, everyday, expected occurrence. Women, and their rights, are not to be hidden away or even put on display as something special; equal rights are just as common as crossing the street.
That is not to say that 1893 was the end of the fight. There was and still is more to do as there is in much of the world. New Zealand was not the first to allow women to participate in the legislature. In 1978, abortion was legalized with an amendment to the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act of 1977 but only under certain conditions; however, even with these and other issues, New Zealand has normalized civil rights. Kate Sheppard is as significant as any other historical figure, but she is also not put on a pedestal any more so than those other figures. New Zealanders are proud of their history, but they are not showing it off. Kate Sheppard is less a tourist attraction or money making effort and more a source of much needed change. Instead of wearing her as a badge, New Zealand history accepts her as part of itself. While women are not yet completely equal in New Zealand and there is still more to do, by making Sheppard an ordinary person and an ordinary part of daily life, New Zealand has shown that, for them, equality is not exceptional. It is expected.
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