19 September, 1893.

It’s 2018 and three women walk into a room. The joke? It’s on the cynics who once said females were not fit to vote – let alone lead.

Those three women were all Prime Ministers.

We’ve come a long way since 1893 when some old chap by the name of Sir George Whitmore, a long-serving member of New Zealand’s Legislative Council, seemed to think women’s brains worked like a jar of pickles.

He would “rather see democracy run wild, and degenerate into anarchy and communism”, than live behind the conservative lines of its women’s votes.

Women, he gushed, could not bear arms so should not have a voice — in the governance of the country.

On the eve of the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, Dame Anne Salmond said that figuring out how to make it in a man’s world is exactly the wrong way of thinking. 24,000 women who signed that 1893 petition, didn’t mark the destination but rather the start of a journey, and that journey continues to this day.

It is not enough just to put women at the top of old hierarchies in this day and age because having to act like a man in order to lead, Dame Anne said, “is the ultimate defeat.” And thank god we are finally talking about these sorts of facets in women’s suffrage. Because the ultimate end-game of feminism was not and never has been simply to slot women into all positions of power currently held by men. The idea is not to uphold the structures that already exist, but rather to tear them down.

Feminism cannot move forward unless we move together, and if we don’t support equal rights for everybody then what are we doing? We have to be at the forefront for people who are too often marginalised.

The two ladies I look up to more than anything in the public sphere are Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark (and not just because red is their favourite colour). Reflecting on some personal experiences when it comes to celebrating 125 years from both Jacinda and Helen, they remind us that we need to push past the self-doubt we sometimes have set up for ourselves as women.

“Men are much more likely to put themselves forward even if they aren’t fully qualified whereas women want to be 120% qualified. And that’s some of the barriers we still need to get over.” About having that confidence to know that you can get the job done, regardless of whether the person behind the desk is Mr or Ms.

Parenthood – for example is not binary. We can still be ambitious for our careers, but still want to see our kids or have kids or not have kids. This should not be a female issue – this should be a human issue. Society does not win when men spend long, unproductive hours at the office, and delegate the burden and the joy of raising children to the other half of the human race.

And so, these invisible handcuffs – real or imagined, actual or potential – stagnate our careers and our opportunities in their most formative years.

But like those 24,000 women who signed that 1893 petition, change takes immense courage, and change takes time.

Women in power though – it’s not news anymore because we are a nation that is onto its third female prime minister and third female governor-general, where women have worn the mayoral chain in every major city and been leaders in almost every sphere.

When I think about my four times great grandmothers Johanna Enright Leatham and Louisa Miles Barclay who were among the 24,000 who signed that petition, I think of gutsy courageous women who led by example – well respected woman who were incredibly civic minded in the face of adversity.

It makes me proud to see that these women were so politically aware and active in seeing men and women as equals.

“I believe within the ordinary stands the extraordinary and it’s thanks to these women that I am here today. I choose to honour them by putting all the things left to achieve gender equality at the top of my list” – Ladies and gentleman, our current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Myself? I have many people in my life that I can credit for laying that path down for me, and for the fact that I am here writing this – both men and women. Who told me that I could be, do or say anything in this world. And men should never feel that their masculinity should be under threat from powerful and determined females like myself.

Nowadays we are starting to get that male/female equality at the starting gates. Awesome. After that, it’s completely up to the individual. There are no excuses, victim cards or free passes when you’re out on the playing field. Equality of opportunity is the goal.

New Zealand will go well if males and females are thought of and rewarded as individuals for their talent, heart and hard work as long as these opportunities are created equally and tarred with a feminist brush. So the message for males in 2018 should be the same as it always has been. Work hard, show respect and have high morals. You do that guys, and you’ll be just fine. Trust me.

If and when I chose to have a child (it’s up to me after all), it will be up to them to seize the opportunities and privileges that being born in New Zealand will offer them. But it should not be their job, or the job of women “leaning in” to fight to create a space for ourselves. It is incumbent upon everyone, male and female, to create a New Zealand where all of our sons and daughters have the opportunity to contribute equally, at home and at work, where the impact of parenthood is shared equally over both parents’ careers, where it is the “done thing”. They will work in the footsteps of all the Johanna’s and the Louisa’s, and of the voiceless armies of women who have gone before them.

125 years ago, Kate Sheppard bravely led this country’s women into a new era. It is up to this generation to do the same, for all our men and women. Any less, and you’re just a double agent for the patriarchy.


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