Still fighting for social justice:
descendants of New Zealand’s suffragettes
As New Zealand women head to the voting booths, we honour those who fought for our right to vote. Nicola Russell meets three Kiwi women who are descended from those who signed the suffrage petition, and who are carrying on the fight for social justice today.
For broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes, activist and academic Marilyn Waring and young author and public speaker Hana Olds, the general election is a time to celebrate their ancestors’ involvement in gaining New Zealand women the right to vote.
On the suffrage petition displayed at the He Tohu exhibition at the National Library in Wellington, they can see in black and white the names of their forebears who made it possible for women to go to the polling booths and vote on who will lead our country. The petition represents, for each of them, a moment etched in family history, one that has helped shape their own attitudes to social justice.
These three remarkable women, who carry the genes of women who made history 124 years ago, talk to us about how they are continuing the battle for equality today.
When Marilyn Waring asked her grandmother, Mary McSweeney, what her most important memory was, she told her about a day in November
1893 when she was four years old.
“Her mother dressed her in her Sunday best and then her father got the gig out. She knew it wasn’t Sunday and she was very surprised at what was going on,” says Marilyn. “Then her mother drove her to the polling booth to exercise the first vote women had.
“I think it was so special that she understood it to be a day of such moment that she took her four-yearold daughter with her so she would always remember.”
When Eliza Jane lost her husband, she moved to Waiorongomai in the Waikato, where she met another Mary McSweeney – a woman Marilyn believes was related to Eliza Jane by marriage. It was this Mary whose name appears on the suffrage petition.
“In 1993, when the suffrage petition went on display, the National Library reproduced some pages from it and there was an entire page from Waiorongomai, out the back of Te Aroha,” says Marilyn. “Because I knew Waiorongomai as a child, it gave me very good pictures of having to travel in the winter on horseback to get these signatures. And women did this all over New Zealand.”
When Marilyn joined parliament in 1975, there had only ever been 13 women MPs. She faced a hard road ahead, not only as New Zealand’s 14th female member of parliament, but at 23, the youngest ever member.
“It was like being in a big gathering of grandparents,” she says. “In my first National cabinet (1975-1984) I think there were only three people under 40; the majority had served in the armed forces during the Second World War, so it wasn’t just gender, it was this enormous leap to try to bridge the space between the feminist movement and this cabinet of grandads.”
She says bridging that gap was the most challenging experience she has ever had and describes it as inhabiting two different hemispheres.
“The men with power weren’t going to do the moving, so what could I do to be effective in that environment? You just go to battle really – which is the nature of the place anyway.”
Her battle tool was her intellect. She learnt to ask the right questions.
“In my first term, for example, the National Party decided it would wage war on domestic purposes beneficiaries for ‘rorting the system’. It was totally outrageous and nobody was asking the question ‘How much of this money is unpaid maintenance?’ so at least I got to put my foot in the door with that. From the moment I did, it became obvious that the government was supporting men not paying maintenance as opposed to supporting women on the DPB.
“I had a university education – I liked evidence and I liked data and the social data on women was pretty non-existent, so at least one of the other things I could do to undermine the prejudicial reasoning that went on all the time was ask questions in the house of ministers.”
Highlighting the gaps, she says, was one of the only tools she had strategically available to her. By the end of nine years she had lodged nearly 1000 questions.
Marilyn says she is proud of both the suffrage petition and the Treaty of Waitangi. “I feel both of those are real treasures and, as a person from Aotearoa, I carry them really close to my heart – they are a source of great pride and humility. As a schoolchild I noticed the Treaty because every other treaty we were ever taught about was signed by men and this one, some women signed.”
Asked what her greatest battle has been, Marilyn says it is ongoing. “I am still battling it – the whole issue of women’s unpaid work not being recognised.” She’s been doing this from the late 1970s and it really blew up when she left parliament in 1984 and wrote Counting for Nothing, which has become a feminist economics bible.
She now teaches PhD students at
AUT. “The great joy of what I do now is every person who comes in the door to do a PhD with me wants to change something around social justice, around dignity, around the rights of minorities. I feel like this job is my nirvana.”
She is also writing her parliamentary autobiography, which she describes as like returning to the 19th century.
“There are some changes now – people recognise that MPs have children and should be able to spend time with them in the school holidays, which definitely didn’t happen. I suspect there is less obvious sexism in the debates, not necessarily because people don’t think like that, but because they don’t want to be caught thinking like that.
“But the games are still played. I was truly, truly shocked at some of the debate on Louisa Walls’ marriage equality bill. It is the only time since I left [parliament] that I have been back to the house and sat and listened to a debate. I was showing support to Louisa but also reminding the House that we had been there.”
When asked about the women’s rights movement, she says, “Carry it on. We owe it to them, we have privileges many of them never had. There are a number of women who signed the suffrage petition with a thumbprint, a cross. There was a group of women who couldn’t read or write but knew they wanted the vote.”
Women, she says, can combat sexism one decision at a time. “It is everything from ‘don’t leave your dirty dishes in the sink, do them yourself’ right through to ‘I beg your pardon, don’t bully me’. Also, be active – iwi governance needs you, your school board needs you, definitely the private sector boards need you, the single parents who can’t access Working for Families need you.”>>
We have privileges many of them never had.
At the age of 11, Hana Olds watched a documentary about a Malaysian doctor who received his education against the odds and wanted to find a cure for cancer. At 12, she published a book about him that raised thousands of dollars for his work.
“The documentary was about a professor in Wellington called Dr
Swee Tan, who grew up in a very poor environment but decided he wanted to be a doctor,” Hana explains.
“He went to university, facing multiple challenges along the way. Twenty years later he developed a really innovative cure for strawberry birthmarks, which basically meant the thing inside the tumour attacked itself.
“He went on to say he believed he could cure cancer, and that he wanted to create a research institute.”
Hana, who was in a gifted children’s programme, asked her teacher if they could invite the doctor to talk to the class. After that, she approached him to ask if she could write his story. He was reluctant, but his wife talked him into it. A year-and-a-half later Hana’s book was published in schools and raised about $35,000 for his institute.
Hana went on to speak at conferences, was nominated as a finalist for the Women of Influence in the youth section and a finalist in the youth section for Wellingtonian of the Year. “I feel truly privileged to be able to speak, because for me it is so much more than words – it is a way of looking at life,” she says.
Hana spoke at the opening of the He Tohu exhibition and has visited it four times.
“I went with my mum and my aunty and they have this really cool thing where you can search up names on the suffrage petition. We searched my great-great-grandmother and found her name. Mum and I were quite emotional – it reinforced that we come from a line of strong women. It would have been quite hard to sign the petition in those days. It was an extreme patriarchal system and women were oppressed emotionally, physically and spiritually, so it really hit our hearts.”
Hana has heard much about her great-great-grandmother, Anna Olds, who wrote a diary about travelling from Britain to New Zealand. “She was an extremely strong woman who left her family and friends to bring her family to a foreign land.”
Both Hana’s parents have been activists. “They were at Springboks tour protests, they were at Bastion Point, they were both raised Christian and, through the Methodist church, joined some radical Christianity and youth movements.”
At high school Hana was part of the feminist club, the amnesty club and directed the Shakespeare Society, a student-led group that has been going for 25 years.
She completed an entrepreneur programme at the Auckland
University of Technology (AUT) at the beginning of this year and will be studying political studies and Maori studies at Victoria University in 2018. She is fluent in Te Reo and her main goal is to support a change in the political system to embody the treaty and support New Zealand to adopt bicultural practice.
She’s setting her sights high – her role models are Dame Whina Cooper, Helen Clark and world-renowned Maori educationalist Dr Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere. And, of course, her great-great-grandmother.
“I’ve always read and I really enjoy stories set in the past because it forms a lot about the present; it makes you appreciate where we have come from. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the privileges I have, but also a deep sense of responsibility for the amount of change that we still have to make.
“Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but knowing what they were doing during that [more challenging] time – that inspires me to push the boundaries in my lifetime.”>>
I have a deep sense of gratitude for the privileges I have, but also a deep sense of responsibility for the amount of change we still have to make.
Mihingarangi Forbes says her role as a journalist is to strive for equality and give a voice to those who don’t have one. It’s a concept her ancestors William Sidney and Mary Jane (known as Jennie) Lovell-Smith devoted their lives to, both being key players in New Zealand’s women’s suffrage movement.
The couple had 10 children, who all went on to become involved in their parents’ work. One of those children was Hubert Lovell-Smith, Mihi’s greatgrandfather.
When he was in his early teens, Mihi says Hubert would “drive his mother around the outskirts of Christchurch, where she would knock on doors and try and get women to sign the suffrage petition. There is one story of them going to a house where they didn’t have a pen to sign the petition, because the only pen in the house had gone to school for the day.”
When William and Jennie met Kate Sheppard, she became a major player in their family and ended up living with them. “They all had this mission to get the vote for women,” says Mihi. “That house would have been all go!”
The Lovell-Smiths’ unorthodox living arrangement was a long-lasting one. Kate remained with the family until she died in 1934, nursed by William and Jennie’s daughters Kitty and Lucy, who hadn’t married and stayed at the family home until their own deaths.
“Part of the house was Aunty Kate’s wing and the other part was Jennie, William and the children’s wing. They were pretty out-there people – they weren’t your average nuclear family – and I am sure there were parts of society that frowned upon them.”
Jennie died in 1924, and Kate and William married a year later. “There are lots of stories about what went on, but one of my aunts, who has read lots of [family] letters, says she believes that William’s relationship with Kate was the primary relationship of his life,” says Mihi. “They had a connection that was so great, they were like best mates. The story goes that it was platonic up until the time Jennie passed away, but no one will ever know.”
The fight for social justice didn’t stop with Jennie and William’s children. “I grew up knowing we were a little bit different – all the women in my family have been very active,” says Mihi.
Her grandmother, for example, lived through the war and bucked the social trend of settling down and creating a nuclear family. Instead she got a PhD in nursing and travelled solo through the Pacific. She didn’t marry until she was 38, which was very late for the time. Her sister, Joan, became a photographer, an uncommon occupation then.
“They had roles that were a little bit different to the norm, but they weren’t as radical because the era didn’t allow them to be.”
Mihi’s mother, Marcia Amadio, was a different story. “My mum was totally radical. I grew up with a garage full of protest banners and spray paints. She fought for gay and lesbian rights, she was involved in Women Against Pornography, Halt All Racist Tours. As a kid, I went to a Springboks tour with her and I remember there being people in crash helmets and police. I was scared but I knew what it was about because we always had these meetings in our house.”
That was during the 1980s in Feilding – a conservative farming town where women protesting was not a common or welcome occurrence.
“My mother would be down the main street with very small groups of protesters, giving it to farmers about the environment, and the council for not having enough female councillors. The farmers used to call them idiots, but Mum didn’t care and she still doesn’t care. She is 67 and still meets that group of women for brunch to tell their war stories.”
Mihi can now see the inclination in her own children. “They are 16 and 13 and more into the Kardashians than the Lovell-Smiths – which kills me on the inside! – but they have grown up with my mum, who is a social activist, and my sister, who is an environmentalist, so we are a family who have those discussions around the table.
“My kids have protested against deep-sea oil drilling and my 16-yearold daughter has been active in pushing for more Te Reo Maori at her school.”
Asked how she feels about women’s rights today, Mihi says discrimination against women still exists, but it is better disguised.
“It is not so in-your-face because people know you can’t discriminate against women; it’s a bit like racism in this country – it is more subtle, which actually can be more dangerous.
“No one would say to me, ‘Mihi, you won’t be considered for this position because you are a female or you are Maori’ – it is more subtle than that.
But in my family we don’t really suffer fools, so nothing really stops me and whatever school or job I am involved in, I will always push for social justice, Te Reo Maori and equality.” AWW
They had this mission to get the vote for women.