Five questions with . . . Margaret Chapman

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In the third of several interviews in a 125 Suffrage-themed Five Questions series, The Courier puts some suffrage-themed questions to Rural Women NZ South Canterbury co-ordinator Margaret Chapman.

Q How important has women’s suffrage been for our country?
Very important, as it meant women were no longer just bystanders on the direction and decisions of government, which often adversely affected them.

“Suffrage 125” celebrations are in swing after official events began yesterday.

Yesterday marked the 125th anniversary since the Electoral Act 1893 was signed into law, giving New Zealand women the right to vote.

The day was marked by a suffrage breakfast, along with the opening of a suffrage-themed exhibition at the South Canterbury Museum in the evening.

The celebration of the milestone, in which New Zealand became the first country where women were allowed to vote, continues until the end of the month.

The South Canterbury branch of Rural Women NZ will host a Suffrage 125 luncheon on September 28 at Sopheze on the Bay.

The keynote speakers will be National Council of Women of New Zealand president Vanisa Dhiru and Sue Scott, who in 1975 became the first New Zealand-born woman to graduate from the Auckland School of Engineering.

During her first year at the engineering school, Ms Scott was the only woman in the civil engineering class of 90 students, although there were four other women in other engineering streams.

After a 40-year engineering career, she retired from Opus’s Alexandra office last year, where she had worked since 2004.

Ms Dhiru told those gathered at Rural Women NZ’s regional conference in Ashburton last month she was proud to be president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in the year of Suffrage 125.

She said she thought it was fitting she was in the role “as it was important to be reflective of the new and growing diversity that is in New Zealand”.

The pair will speak at the luncheon on September 28, which starts at 11.30am.

The fact that nearly 20% of the adult female population of New Zealand signed the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition showed that women wanted to have more say in the democratic process of the country.
Six weeks after gaining the right to vote in 1893, 73% of women took the opportunity to vote, whereas only 56% of men voted, so that sort of speaks for itself. All over the country women travelled – often on horseback – around the countryside, collecting signatures for the petition, as they recognised the importance of the women’s voice in decision-making.
A huge advocate at this time in South Canterbury was Jessie Mackay, who was a friend and contemporary of Kate Sheppard. Jessie, who was a teacher at the Kakahu Bush School, wrote numerous articles for the Otago Witness and [Christchurch’s] The Press on the plight and the rights of women.
She was also present at the first meeting of the National Council of Women, established in 1896.
Jessie is remembered as New Zealand’s first internationally recognised woman poet.
She continued her fight for women’s rights through her writing for the rest of her life.

Q How significant is this anniversary?
It is always important to look back and acknowledge and celebrate the courageous women who took up the challenge of addressing the many inequities that women faced.
It is important, too, to reflect on how far we have come as women and as a nation.
It is also a time to ask: “Are we there yet?”, and what still needs to be achieved.

QHow has the fight for equal rights affected you on a personal level?
Personally, I come from a family where I had strong women role models and brothers, so learnt at an early age to stand up for my rights.
My great-grandmother was one of the women in Dunedin who signed the 1893 petition.
It was very special to me to see her signature (in her own name, not her husband’s) on the petition.
She must have been a strong independent woman and this was passed on down through her family, all of whom forged their own path in life.
I also hope she would have been proud of what I have achieved.

Q Is this work of the suffragists still relevant in this day and age?
They led the way and showed that women united can bring about change.
This has continued over the ensuing generations.
It took until 1919 before women were entitled to stand for Parliament, and not until 1935 that Elizabeth McCombs became the first woman elected to government.
This all didn’t just happen – it took courage and conviction of women’s rights to achieve.

Historic . . . Timaru women put their names to the 1893 suffrage petition, as shown in this page of the document that has been digitised by Archives New Zealand. PHOTO: Archives New Zealand

Some of the issues the women who signed the suffrage petitions felt so strongly about have been ongoing and are still very much a focus for women today – recognition of the value of women’s work (RWNZ has lobbied for over 80 years for fair pay for home-care workers), equal pay for equal work, domestic abuse, alcohol abuse, to name but a few – so yes, the work is still relevant.

Q What work is still to be done?
Isolation, domestic violence, access to health services including mental health services, access to education for all and reliable communication services are all important to rural women and their families today and continue to be addressed and advocated for by Rural Women New Zealand.
As a former national president of Rural Women New Zealand and passionate South Canterbury resident, the late Ginny Talbot always said change takes time; it takes persuasion, perseverance, patience and a vision of the positive effect the change will have for women, their families and communities.
So much has been achieved but there is still so much that needs to be achieved.
With each generation new issues arise – gender equality, child poverty, homelessness and the need for a living wage are all issues that New Zealand as a nation now needs to address.