International Women's Day: Dame Anne Salmond's Speech

Women and Democracy

I find myself strangely at home here in Parliament. As they say, “In politics, itsdog eat dog; whereas in academia, it’s precisely the reverse.”

On International Women’s Day, we can paraphrase a hymn that I used to singat boarding school, ‘Let us now praise famous women, and our mothers thatbegat us.’ Its important for us to do this, lest they be forgotten. As VirginiaWoolf, the great Bloomsbury novelist, noteded acerbically, ‘For most of history,Anonymous was a woman.’

In her book A Room of One’s Own, drafted for a lecture at Cambridge, Woolfevoked the attitudes that until 1948, ensured that women could not graduatefrom that great University:

To write, or read, or think, or enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime.

As a Nuffield fellow at King’s College, Cambridge in 1981-81, I learned whatVirginia Woolf was talking about. At King’s High Table, I was often mistaken fora wife who had got lost. Fortunately, by then I had spent a lot of time on marae,and was not particularly shocked by local fables about the ritual uncleanlinessof women.

Thus it was with anthropological glee that I watched as during that year, St.John’s College went through an anguished debate about whether to go co-ed,flying back fellows from leave or raising them from their deathbeds in an effortto stop this abomination. As the history of the College records:

The Secretary of the Council, an astronomer (and normally one of themore accurate members of the Fellowship) attempted to count the insome cases palsied hands of the 87 standing (or almost standing) Fellowspresent, and delivered the result to the Master.

Carried, the Master declared, by 57 to 28, and therefore by the necessarytwo-thirds majority, but only just.

Still this was a sufficient number to carry the motion, and there was much loudguffawing in the King’s College common room at the discomfiture of the oldguard at St. John’s.

Strangely enough, almost a century earlier, similar scenes had been enacted atthe Legislative Council in New Zealand. In 1893, after a series of unsuccessfulefforts, Kate Sheppard and others dramatically rolled their 270 metre Women’sSuffrage petition across the floor of Parliament. Soon after, a bill that gavewomen the vote was passed in the Lower House by a large majority. With a roarof approval, Maori women were included in the measure.

Stung by this challenge, the Premier, Richard Seddon, lobbied the ‘brewingparty’ and almost mustered the numbers to stop the bill in its tracks in the UpperHouse. Infuriated by his tactics, however, two members who had originallyopposed the bill voted for it, and it was passed by 2 votes. In this way, NewZealand became the first country in the world to enact women’s suffrage.

Anonymous is still, perhaps, a Maori woman, however. In a much less wellknown campaign, in that same year Meri Mangakahia was fighting for women’srights in the Maori Parliament. In an impassioned speech in May 1893, shedeclared to the Paremata:

‘I will explain the reason that I really want Maori women to have the vote andfor women Members to stand in the Maori Parliament:

  1. There are many women in New Zealand whose husbands have died andwho own land
  2. There are many women in New Zealand whose parents have died andwho have no brothers, and who own land
  3. There are many intelligent women in New Zealand who marry men whodo not know how to run their land
  4. There are many women whose parents have grown old, and who areintelligent women with land of their own
  5. There are many male chiefs in this island who have appealed to theQueen over the problems affecting them, and we have never receivedany advantage from their appeals. For this reason I ask this House thatwomen members be appointed. For perhaps the Queen will consent tothe appeal of her Maori women advisers, since she is also a woman.’

At this time, the Maori population was in free fall, with very low fertility andhigh mortality rates, and many of the freedoms of Maori women were beingcurtailed as part of the colonial process. While Maori women retained theirland rights, even when the Native Land Court was introduced, until 1888 if theymarried under European law, they found that their lands passed to theirhusbands.

The story of the freedoms of Maori women is an important one for us all tounderstand in New Zealand. Over time, rights once taken for granted can belost – and this applies to democracy in general.

In ancestral times, Maori men and women enjoyed a relative equality, based onreciprocal exchanges, although the way that this was configured differed in different parts of the country.

In his beautiful account of the origins of the cosmos, for instance, TeRangikaheke from Te Arawa wrote – ‘Kotahi ano te tupuna o te iwi Maori; koRangi raua ko Papa’ – ‘There is just one ancestor of the Maori people, Rangi andPapa’.

In the beginning, male and female were a single being, undivided, until theywere separated by their children. As they were thrust apart, Rangi wept forPapa, and his tears became the first lakes and rivers, giving life to the land. Atthe same time, Papa’s mists rose up to greet him.

This principle of complementarity is also reflected in the landscape. The westcoast is the tai tama tane, the male coast where storms crash in from theTasman, and the tai tama wahine is the east coast, calmer and safer for seatravel. Likewise in the human body, male and female alike have a female (left)and female (right) side. The tikanga of gender balance in Maori are multipleand many.

On the marae, too, this is reflected in the counterpoint between the karanga, thekeening call summoning ancestors to a hui, always performed by women, thefirst voice to be heard on a marae; and the whaikorero or speeches, followed bythe waiata, where men and women sing together.

Likewise, descent can be traced from all four grandparents, male and female;and men and women alike can be leaders, as one can see from Land Courtrecords, tribal histories and early European accounts. In the ancestralinheritance of land, women often inherited from their mothers, and men fromtheir fathers.

This same principle was reflected in domestic life. According to early Europeanobservers – Samuel Marsden, Richard Taylor, Joel Polack and many others -Maori men cared tenderly for their children, taking them to formal gatheringswhere chiefly children asked questions and were answered by the elders. Inquote after quote, these observers noted with surprise that Maori women andchildren were not struck by their menfolk.

At times of war and among some iwi, however, the principle of gender balancetilted towards the male side. Nevertheless, in many parts of the country (theNorth, East and South), female leaders were powerful. They stood to speak onthe marae; and meeting-houses and kin groups were named after them.

So why did Meri Mangakahia have to stand up in 1893 and fight for women’srights in the Maori Parliament? Just as rights can be fought for and won, theycan also be lost.

With the introduction of alcohol, and European ideas about gender and physicalchastisement, the whole system of gender checks and balances had beenthrown out of kilter. Many Maori women are still living with that bitter legacytoday.

When the Maori Parliament was set up in 1892, women leaders could speak butnot vote – although in the European Parliament, they had no speaking rights atall. Maori women signed up in the temperance movement, and fought for thevote and the restoration of their ancestral lands.

This struggle is still going on, even here in Parliament with its seatingarrangements. I vividly recall Heni Sunderland’s frustration when at her homemarae in Gisborne – my home town, where the ancestral proverb is ‘Turangatangata rite’ – Turanga where all people are equal – a paepae was set up and thesenior women were told they could not sit there.

As she remarked tartly, “What they are saying to us is we are tapu men; we areso special that you women cannot come and sit here. I reacted badly, because Inever ever saw it done to my Grannies, and I don’t see why it should be done tome, and why it should be done to my children, because that was never ourway.’

So while we praise famous women, and pay homage to their bravery andleadership, like Heni Sunderland, we cannot rest on their laurels. Freedom isfragile, often assailed by the greedy and powerful, and this is commonplace inNew Zealand society at present.

What price democracy when children in our affluent nation are dying of thirdworld diseases? Or when women are beaten and abused? Or when those inpower turn a blind eye to their suffering? Or when gross inequality is becomingentrenched, and democratic freedoms are cynically eroded, as the Law Societyhas pointed out to the United Nations?

Like Kate Sheppard and Meri Mangakahia, we have to call upon our courageand compassion. Unless we fight for our rights as citizens and women, and forthose of our fellows, especially those who are most vulnerable, they will be lost.It has happened before in this country, and it can happen again.

We have a proud history of women standing tall in New Zealand. Manywomen leaders have picked up their paddle and steered the waka to safety –‘Kia whakatane au i ahau!’ – or been the first in the world to seize the vote orgain degrees, or have smashed through glass ceilings, or led the way for thenation, inspiring us in different ways.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we have to keep on caring, andstriving for a better future. And in so doing, in the spirit of complementaryexchanges, we don’t have to mimic our menfolk, lovely though they may be.

Listen to the cry of Papa-tuanuku:

Piki mai, kake mai
Homai te waiora ki ahau
Kia tutehu ana te moe a te kuia I te po
Ka po, ka ao, ka awatea!

Climb here, draw near
Bring me the water of life
The sleep of this old woman has been troubled in the night
But now the dawn has come, it is day, it is light!

Category: