By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 17/09/2018


Please don’t do the math, but I was eight in 1993 when New Zealand celebrated 100 years since Suffrage.

My mum the history teacher made sure we understood when major world events were going on. I remember her pointing out the Rwandan refugee crisis on TV, telling us it would matter later that we remembered this.

And so, of course, I remember the centenary of Suffrage. But it didn’t really mean anything to me then; how could it?

When Kate Sheppard was simply a woman on the ten dollar note, it meant nothing to me to consider that there had been a time women couldn’t vote or own property. At age eight, neither of those things were high on my agenda. (Property ownership still feels like a distant ambition, if we’re being honest.)

I’m officially named after two women, but the one that means the most to me is Sarah Jane Hampton (née Smith), my maternal great-great-grandmother. She was four when her family arrived in New Zealand on the Hereford in 1874, disembarking in Lyttelton and spending her life around Rakaia, Timaru and Dromore. She and her husband, John Hampton, are buried in Prebbleton and I regularly checked in on their grave when I lived in Christchurch.

Her name is there alongside the 24,000 other women who signed the petition that now sits in the National Library. I hope to one day see her name on display, but in the meantime I can search the interactive database and see her signature.

Archives NZ.

Sarah Jane the senior was a farming woman, who may not have been a suffragist, but right there I can see her willingness to put pen to paper to support a cause greater than herself. That’s something to be proud of.

Being the first country where women won the right to vote is something we Kiwis tend to pat ourselves on the back for, but we must also hold in our minds the things we’re not so proud of. Here are the truths that I hold in my mind: that Māori are diagnosed with breast cancer later than pākehā women and, along with Pasifika women, are more likely to die from the disease; that our rates of child abuse, domestic violence and suicide are appalling; that women are paid less than men even when we account for women’s prevalence in lower-paid industries; that women are less likely to be considered for academic promotions, or to be invited to be peer reviewers.

That for all of these things that white women experience, the effects are magnified for women who live at the intersections of gender, race, sexuality or disability.

What would Kate say?

The National Council of Women. Archives New Zealand.

Now when I think of Kate and the other Suffragists, I hope I would be as strong in their shoes. That I, too, would stand up against insufferable discrimination, getting on my bicycle and gathering signatures for that monumental petition. That at the very least, I would be Sarah Jane, putting my name toward a great cause, not knowing that one day a great-great-granddaughter would remember that act. But since it’s not 1893, I hope I will be strong enough to stand up for the things I know to be true, and to amplify the voices of those I believe in. 

So, this week, we’re running a special series on Sciblogs to commemorate 125 years of universal suffrage in New Zealand. I put a call out for women in science to contribute a piece with a very broad brief: they could write about anything relating to their lives, their science, or greater issues around diversity and equity. This week you’ll read pieces about women on research voyages, penguin sex and Edwardian puritanic shock, non-binary gender and finding the stories that bust fusty stereotypes wide open, and finding scientists in our communities. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed collating them.

Dr Sarah-Jane O’Connor is the editor of Sciblogs, a senior media advisor at the Science Media Centre, a former journalist and has a PhD in ecology. Featured image: Jim Henderson, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.