Today is the 124th anniversary of the success of the women’s suffrage movement. As I sit outside to take some time to myself to inch closer to finishing the fantastic book by Barbara Brookes ‘A History of New Zealand Women’, I can’t help but think about the tumultuous upheaval of the last one hundred and fifty years and the massive changes our society has grown through.
The book is particularly important because it weaves through the different issues affecting Pākehā and Māori women in Aotearoa. The continuing trauma of colonisation and the ongoing efforts to resist this are so important for young people, including Pākehā women like myself, to understand and respect. These are the politics of our history and they are woven into our lives whether we are aware of it or not.
Barbara’s story telling effortlessly works through a large number of policies, organisations and individuals lives. The stories are poignant and help me to understand my Mother’s life and the world she grew up in. On a day like today when I find myself wringing my hands about the chaos and upset surrounding the impending election I am reminded that change is always happening in some direction and that this is often a painful and difficult process.
I’m also surprisingly shocked (although I shouldn’t be) at how relevant the arguments from the 1960s and 70s still are today. The abortion debate that has risen to the fore this election is one example. With the current Crimes Act dating back to 1961, some of the arguments and debates are very familiar. I also found it useful to understand that the unequal pay gap partly originated from the belief that men had to support a family financially whereas women did not. Obviously, as the author outlines there are numerous facets of social norms and ideology that have kept the gender pay gap in place, but I find it helps to understand the origins of these phenomenon, if only as a retort to the endless barrage of internet trolling that surrounds these issues.
Another important role of history like this is to remind us where we fell over. It is clear from reading these histories that Pākehā women often moved within a mind-set that excluded the injustices of colonisation. I have heard of Kate Shepard numerous times and visited the monument to her on the banks of the Avon Ōtakaro river as a teenager but I hadn’t heard of Iriaka Ratana, the first Māori women MP elected to parliament. Barbara Brookes charts the course of many Māori women involved in politics such as Rehutai Maihi of Ngāpuhi who stood for election in 1935 and Tauiwa (Eva) Rickards who fought for the return of lands confiscated during WW2.
It would be great to see these histories taught as part of a wider decolonising of our education system. The calls for teaching more focussed the Colonial Land Wars are a good place to start and it would be even more fantastic to open up different histories to our young people.
These stories are a window into the different lives that have walked through Aotearoa and they are vitally important.
Research and writing like that in ‘A History of New Zealand Women’ are just the beginning and I can’t wait to learn more about our past and hear more from Māori, Pasifica and Tau Iwi voices in telling these stories.
A History of New Zealand