28 Sep 2018

The Useful Woman

From Beyond Kate, 5:00 pm on 28 September 2018

It’s 2018 and we have our third female Prime Minister. Back in 1893 when women’s right to vote was being debated in parliament, opponents mocked the mere idea of women MPs and laughed at the scenario of a nursing mother handing over her baby to address the House.


A collection of photos of suffragist Clara Alley

A collection of photos of suffragist Clara Alley Photo: Sonia Sly



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So much has changed in the 125 years since women won the vote, and having a Prime Minister who has given birth while in office is empowering to women like me. It challenges even my own stereotypes of women who make it to the top and the choices they make to get there.


It reflects new ideas of womanhood and, lest we forget, having our third female Prime Minister is a big deal. Most countries still have never had a single woman leader, let alone three.


Professor Charlotte McDonald from Victoria University says the vote - and the leadership roles that have come since - were not easily won.


“It wasn’t something whereby you woke up the next day and low and behold, women have got the vote. It was a big, energetic campaign,” she says from her sunny Wellington office.  


“They [the suffragists] had to rely on pretty labour-intensive forms of political agitation [and] most of [the women] didn’t have vast amounts of money or time.” 


If we look back to the 1890s, while the class structure was flatter than back in ‘the home country’, it wasn’t exactly an egalitarian landscape for a woman. Public life was for men; women stayed at home and church. Polling booths and parliament were definitely no-go zones for “the fairer sex”.


They were seen as raucous environments where foul language was freely used, and which, women would be best protected from.


That was one of the key points used by those opposed to women’s suffrage. On the surface it was an argument purporting to support women, but from the 21st century it looks more like a male attempt to maintain the status quo and keep women out of the business of politics.


Roderick Alley with photos of Clara Alley

Roderick Alley with photos of Clara Alley Photo: Sonia Sly


So why was New Zealand the first self-governing nation where women could vote?


Kate Hunter, professor of history at Victoria University, says it was partly out of practicality.


“In Victorian Britain, women’s roles were narrowly confined [and] the stereotype was that [women] were the ‘angel’ in the home,” she says.


That angel might have been doing needlework by the fireplace, learning French and playing piano. But here in New Zealand the demands for women were very different.


Hunter says the places where women gained the vote were those where women as workers were crucial to daily existence. 


“In rural Canterbury, a woman could not be confined to the home [because] it wasn’t practical [and] families couldn’t survive that way. So the notion of the useful woman, the useful companion, the wife...was really widespread in a lot of these white settler colonies,” she says.


In the late 19th Century, New Zealand was ripe for change. Cities were being built, while old class structures were being torn down. There was a sense of new world opportunity; and not just in New Zealand. The women’s suffrage movement was global. By the time women got the vote here, women in frontier US states such as Wyoming and Utah had been voting for years.


“Right through the 19th century women were pushing for greater rights,” says Hunter.


Clara Alley was one of them. She was an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and involved in the suffrage movement in Christchurch - part of the core group around Kate Sheppard driving the petition.


Her grandson, Roderick Alley, remembers her as a strong, serene and warm person who had a magnetic personality.


“She [tended] to lead from behind. But what she could do was loosen people up,” says Alley. Clara’s personality came to the fore at famous parties held in one of the Christchurch homes.


“Writers would come [and] people from different walks of life. And these young men would arrive and gravitate to the back kitchen to talk to this much older woman who had these sparkling blue eyes, and was a great conversationalist,” Alley says.


Clara was charismatic and able to draw people in and get them excited about the movement, according to Alley.


Clara arrived in New Zealand the 1870s as a 13-year-old girl. By then the gold boom was on a downward slide. The New Zealand Wars were coming to an end and Canterbury and Southland had their own railways.


She later married Frederick Carpenter, a school teacher, and together they shared an interest in the temperance movement.


Alley lays photos out on his dining room table and recalls a photograph taken in Springfield, where Clara managed to sign up all of the women in the small town to support the petition that went to parliament.


In that parliament today, 38 percent of MPs are women, including first-term East Coast-based Labour MP, Kiri Allan. She says her role is still to stand up and speak on behalf of others, just as the suffragettes did.


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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller


But she’s first to admit that it’s not without its challenges.


“It’s about making the hard decisions,” she says.


Allan comes from a legal background and advises those wanting to enter politics to ground themselves first, so that their soul remains intact.


“When you’re in these roles you’re constantly in the firing line, and not just you and your family, but everybody affiliated with you.”


And while many women have gone before her, Allan acknowledges the importance of what it means to be a woman in parliament and defends Labour’s quota.  


“Women bring so much to the table from all of our various walks of life...[but] sometimes it helps to have a little bit of a target to ensure that we see the diversity and incredible abilities of women in our respective environments.”


“I think that’s a challenge for corporate culture...to ensure that we have gender equity in our workplace.”


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