Her Story

Sto­ries from the past and visions for the fu­ture mark the 125th an­niver­sary of women’s suf­frage.

North & South - - Contents - SHARON STEPHEN­SON

Her name was Louisa Mary Rhodes and, go­ing by a hand­ful of grainy black and white pho­tos, she was a woman wired for solem­nity. Yet in 1893, this mother of eight from Auck­land’s Free­mans Bay was enough of an ac­tivist to sign the Suf­frage Pe­ti­tion, which paved the way for Kiwi women to be­come the first in the world to win the right to vote.

Rhodes’ con­tri­bu­tion, along with the 32,000 or so oth­ers ( pre­dom­i­nantly women) who signed this his­toric doc­u­ment, is be­ing recog­nised to mark 125 years since the pass­ing of the Elec­toral Act on 19 Septem­ber 1893.

For Archives New Zealand’s Kather­ine C’ail­c­eta, the an­niver­sary has a per­sonal con­nec­tion – Rhodes was her great, great grand­mother, a fact the ar­chiv­ist dis­cov­ered only while work­ing on a project to un­cover in­for­ma­tion about the peo­ple who signed the pe­ti­tion.

“All we had were the sig­na­to­ries’ names and ad­dresses,” she says. “So we en­cour­aged peo­ple to re­search their an­ces­tors to

“There’s a lot to be an­gry about in this ex­hi­bi­tion, and we should be an­gry about how far New Zealand women still have to go.”

see if any were sig­na­to­ries,” says C’ail­c­eta, who stum­bled across her link with Rhodes while search­ing her own fam­ily tree and wrote a short bi­og­ra­phy of her.

Vis­i­tors to He Tohu at Welling­ton’s Na­tional Li­brary can see the original pe­ti­tion and check out the 1000-plus bi­ogra­phies col­lected so far (also pub­lished on­line at nzhis­tory.govt. nz/pol­i­tics/wom­ens-suf­frage/pe­ti­tion).

No­table de­scen­dants of fe­male sig­na­to­ries in­clude Ernest Ruther­ford, Sir Peter Blake and writer/po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Rewi Al­ley. “This is a liv­ing ex­hi­bi­tion and we en­cour­age New Zealan­ders to re­search their an­ces­tors,” says C’ail­c­eta. “We hope to be up­dat­ing this con­tent for many years to come.”

Also mark­ing the suf­frage an­niver­sary is Auck­land Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion Are We There Yet? Women and Equal­ity in Aotearoa, which runs un­til 31 Oc­to­ber.

Vic­to­ria Travers, head of ex­hi­bi­tions at the mu­seum, says it’s a timely look at how far New Zealand women have come – and how far we still have to go. “We started plan­ning this ex­hi­bi­tion be­fore the pay equal­ity and #Metoo move­ments re­ally kicked into high gear, but they are so rel­e­vant to the ques­tions this ex­hi­bi­tion asks around what we still need to do to achieve gen­der equal­ity.”

Di­vided into four parts, the in­ter­ac­tive ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures quotes from no­table New Zealand women. Says for­mer MP Mar­i­lyn War­ing about her time in Par­lia­ment: “How ex­haust­ing is it to be aware, how frus­trat­ing to feel pow­er­less.”

The protest move­ment gets its own sec­tion, with im­ages from pho­tog­ra­phers such as Gil Hanly and Robin Mor­ri­son doc­u­ment­ing nu­clear-free and abor­tion protests, as well as last year’s Women’s March. What Travers calls the “crunchy” part of the ex­hi­bi­tion high­lights sta­tis­tics on sex­ual iden­tity and vi­o­lence, eth­nic­ity and pay eq­uity – chal­leng­ing vis­i­tors to “look at our own priv­i­lege and be con­fronted by it”.

“There’s a lot to be an­gry about in this ex­hi­bi­tion, and we should be an­gry about how far New Zealand women still have to go,” says Travers. “But we’ve leav­ened the mes­sage with hu­mour, and hope vis­i­tors can chan­nel that anger into pos­i­tive ac­tion.”

Top: Demon­stra­tors at the Women’s March in Auck­land, 21 Jan­uary 2017. Pho­tographed by Emily Lear.

Above: Louisa Mary Rhodes (née Stephen­son), one of 32,000 sig­na­to­ries of the Suf­frage Pe­ti­tion, and her hus­band, Ge­orge Rhodes.

Pho­tographed by Gil Hanly.

Women protest in 1984 against the YWCA’S de­ci­sion to with­draw spon­sor­ship of the STEPS work scheme, which in­volved 40 women, most of whom were Māori or Pa­cific Is­lan­der.

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