One hundred and twenty-six years ago, a dedicated group of women turned up on the steps of Parliament. They were there to present a petition asking that women be given the vote, and 9000 signatures filled the roll of paper.
Although that petition failed, the moment was still momentous. It set the stage for another more successful petition, two years later, signed by almost 32,000 women. But it was the lady already sitting inside Parliament, watching on, who has always had my interest.
Laura Jane Suisted was not a typical 18th century woman. Born and bred in Britain, she had immigrated to New Zealand at the age of 22, bringing with her an unusual amount of independence, determination, and writing skill. She would put those to use shortly, but first, she married an entrepreneur, destined for financial success, in Otago.
Their marriage had to survive several failed businesses, flooded homes, and infertility. It did, and James Samuel Suisted finally made his money. Laura Jane, as she became known, was finally able to make her indelible mark on New Zealand history.
In 1884, a new writing interest captured her attention. Already a published writer, and regular contributor to several publications, Laura Jane found herself now sitting in on the sessions of our 30-year-old Parliament as a note-taker. According to the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, she was probably the first woman to do so.
There was a more important “first” to come. In 1891, the very same year that Kate Sheppard and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union handed over that first petition on the female vote, Laura Jane was admitted to the New Zealand Institute of Journalists.
She was the first female member in its history.
It took almost a decade as Parliamentary correspondent for several newspapers to earn a spot in the Institute.
So it was that one of my relatives gained a front-row seat to the greatest political debates of the time. She did it without the help of anti-discrimination laws. She did it without other women smashing the glass ceiling ahead of her. She did it without even having the right to vote for the very politicians about whom she wrote every day.
She achieved that incredible career using things I admire far more: sheer determination, raw talent and mountains of skill.
Now, 124 years after women gained the right to vote in this country, and 126 years after the New Zealand Institute of Journalists officially admitted its first female member, the question is not just “how far have we come?” but “are we still made of the same stuff?”.
After all, there is a terrible risk that comes with having tangible political power (in the form of a vote), for both men and women. That risk is that we begin to think it a substitute for righting wrongs we see in between elections days.
We begin to blame politicians instead of wondering what we can do ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, election days are critical, and the privilege of holding political power in our own hands is not something to be taken lightly by any of us. The values and policies for which we vote will change our country in years to come.
But women like Kate Sheppard and Laura Jane remind us all of something else too; they remind us that who we are on the days in between elections matters just as much. They remind us that what we do on the ordinary days can also change the course of history.
After all, it was on an ordinary day in 1891 that a woman was first named “member” of our Institute of Journalists in this country. And it was on an ordinary day in 1893 that women finally earned us ladies the extraordinary privilege of being able to vote today.