As the 126th celebration of universal suffrage (or in many people’s minds ‘women getting the vote’) approaches, we’ve discovered many myths and legends have cropped up over the past century and a quarter. It is timely to provide a few insights, to allow people to commemorate New Zealand’s achievement in an accurate and meaningful manner.
Abuse and ridicule
While what people like Kate Sheppard and Alfred Saunders achieved was sometimes at a high personal cost, with some degree of verbal abuse and ridicule, overall New Zealanders did not see voting women as culturally frightening in the way perceived in England several decades later.
Many will have heard of the Pankhurst family and Emily Davison, the woman who died after being trampled by the Kings horse at the Epsom Derby.
After a number of books and movies, some will be aware of the brutal and extraordinarily harsh treatment that women in Britain endured at the hands of police and prison officials.
Hunger strikes carried out by some women were met with force feeding causing internal injuries and trauma.
These women were termed ‘suffragettes’, a word first used in 1906 in England. The label was intentionally demeaning, using the French diminutive ‘ette’ to belittle women in the movement. Just as a ‘kitchenette’ is less than a ‘kitchen’, a suffragette was deemed by name to be less than a suffragist.
Kiwi Kate is therefore more correctly labelled a ‘suffragist’ a term which can be applied to both men and women. Suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, which simply means to vote.
The English movement was far more militant and politically inspired than here in New Zealand, where many suffragettes were also members of left wing political parties. It wasn’t just women asking to vote, they were adding their voice to a slow and painful erosion of the upper classes hold on power.
In Britain universal male suffrage only occurred in 1918 and women were only added as late as 1928! By then, a whole generation of women had added their voice at the ballot box in New Zealand.
Green, purple and white?
British women chose the colours of purple, green and white, as they were the colours adopted by Emmaline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908.
It is widely believed that she adopted the colours of the chartists, who began asking for voting and other rights from the 1830s. The colours are meant to represent dignity, purity and hope.
Two decades earlier, here in New Zealand there were no definite colours worn.
The highly influential Women’s Christian Temperance Union adopted blue and white so many wore sashes of that colour.
Otherwise the most visible symbol our suffragist’s employed was a white camellia. Those parliamentarians who supported the bill were given white camellias to wear, while those who were against were given red ones.
Dress as resistance
While most women were content to wear a small token when parading or attending functions, other women took on a more radical dress sense to show their demand for change.
Not just about the vote, many women saw this action as part of a re-examination of the place of women in society. Some who sought to redefine, or abandon, gender roles, or call for a greater freedom of movement for women chose to wear ‘reform’ or ‘rational’ dress.
These women were considered very radical as they often cut their hair quite short and took on a masculine form of dress.
Tailored jackets and blouses that were already becoming fashionable were accompanied by shorter skirts or bloomer suits (like harem pants with a skirt on top), while other ladies took up smoking.
Ladies could also often be seen riding bicycles, as that was a visible indication that young women were going places and seeking freedoms not given to women before.
While dress reform movement wasn’t directly involved with votes for women, it made sense that freedom to vote and make their own choices went hand and hand with a more sensible clothing. This style of dress allowed women greater movement and did not constrain them as the old fashioned outfits worn over of tight corsets, bustles and numerous long layers of heavy fabric did.
Therefore, feel free to celebrate or commemorate women’s suffrage, as the suffragist’s would want. Wear a camellia, don whatever colour you feel appropriate, and in whatever style. While this year’s celebration commemorates the 126th anniversary of the bill, women’s fight freedom continued, so maybe you choose to go hippy for second wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, or even power dress with shoulder pads like the 1980s. It’s up to you as, thanks to people who have gone before, you are free to do whatever you wish.
By Kathleen Stringer
1 William and Catherine Fergus outside their Springburn home, with a banner for the Springburn Christian Temperance Union (Rose of Springburn Good Templars lodge).
2 Not reform dress but the dress style of the young ladies was still far more practical than their mother’s, and more masculine in styling.
3 Although women won the right to vote and many did, that did not mean that they became visible citizens. In this image of Election Day 1905, East Street seems devoid of any ladies.