6 Dec 2013

Pitcairn celebrates 175 years of women's suffrage

5:48 pm on 6 December 2013

The Pacific Island region has the world's lowest rate of women's representation in parliament, but one small island is bucking the trend.

The newly elected seven-member council of the British territory of Pitcairn now has a majority of women.

A cultural adviser on Pitcairn, Meralda Warren, says that's timely following the celebration on 29 November of 175 years since Pitcairn women first got the vote.

Meralda Warren, who is a descendant of one of Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers, says Pitcairners are proud to be the first place in the world to gain suffrage for women, and the men turned on a feast to celebrate. Sally Round spoke to her.

MERELDA WARREN: It was 1838 when they appealed to one of the captains on the ship to help protect the women of Pitcairn from the whaling ships, from being exploited by some of the whalers on the ships. The leaders of the island then who are the children of the Bounty who have grown up asked also that they give women equal rights and the right to vote.

SALLY ROUND: And this was the right to vote for your local government?

MW: Local government. That's the beginning of the local government.

SR: OK. So straightaway, as soon as Pitcairn was established, then, women had the right to vote for the local mayor?

MW: Yes. At the time it was chief magistrate. I think the men respected the women in those days because without the women of the Bounty to look after Pitcairn it probably would have failed because the women, led by Mauatua, and the other 10 women, they really looked after the island in the first four years and strived to help the islanders to appreciate this island and to grow. So it is the women of the Bounty who pushed this forward.

SR: You talk about the women of the Bounty. These were women who were originally from Tahiti?

MW: From Tahiti, from Tubuai and from Huahine.

SR: Do you normally celebrate this day in such a fashion or is it just because it was the 175th year?

MW: This is actually the very first time it's been celebrated. We are a dependent territory of Britain, but we've always recognised that Pitcairn was the first place in the world where women had equal rights to vote.

SR: So they were ahead of their time?

MW: Very much so. Just going through the Pitcairn register book, there was about 20 women who voted on that very first voting day. It's not so long ago we just celebrating Pitcairn Day because we're starting to recognise that there are days in the year where we should just stop and look back and enjoy those days.

SR: And do you think this is evidence of a kind of a resurgence in the Pitcairn identity at all?

MW: Possibly, I think so. We're trying to make a positive Pitcairn. We've had too much dark stuff happen to us, where it's been negative over the last 15 years or so. So it's putting a positive light on Pitcairn and trying to make it be seen that we're trying to keep this place going. It's something we are proud of, our heritage.