19 September marks the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act that granted New Zealand women the right to vote. To commemorate this historic occasion, Te Manawa is publishing interviews and profiles of prominent local women at each end of those 125 years.
Here Te Manawa interviews Jill White, who has served as a City Councillor, Regional Councillor and Member of Parliament, and was Mayor of Palmerston North from 1998-2001.
I think in some ways extremely well. But I do get concerns that maybe there are some women who are missing out, and I think particularly women who are relatively new New Zealanders. I think about people in our lovely Multicultural Council here, and refugee women. I’ve been interested to talk to one or two people at the Multicultural Council, and their interest is real. And their knowledge is quite good actually, about Kate Sheppard and her role, and we are such a wonderful city for welcoming refugee people and enjoying diversity. I really would like to know just how much is done making sure women understand what suffrage means for them in New Zealand
I guess the other aspect for all of us is being politically savvy enough to know what we should be looking for in local politicians, as well as national level. Our figures, particularly for local body voting, are not great.
How does that relate to suffrage issues?
Having the vote is one thing. It’s what it says about taking part in the whole of the political life of your society, and that’s why I think it’s a matter of concern when we get a relatively low 60-70% of people voting in local body elections. It’s saying that there’s a significant percentage who for whatever reason aren’t involved, or don’t think it’s worth being involved. That’s a bit scary.
How far do you think we’ve come in the 25 years since the 100th anniversary?
The last 25 years there has been such incredible social upheaval, I think – some really exciting potential.
Just thinking about the term “feminism”, it is still scary for some people, and I do really wonder whether some men are actually still haven’t come to terms with their relative roles in society and in the family. There are some tremendous men who don’t feel at all intimidated by the role women take. But there are still some who don’t actually enjoy having a female Prime Minister. Some who haven’t quite got used to the fact that violence is not an adequate way to deal with issues.
This is one of the essences of the suffrage movement. It’s not just about having a vote. It was about thereby being able to influence your life and the life of your society. And I think there are incredibly wonderful things that are being done because women are taking that upfront role in social life, instead of just being pushed into that family role, and wonderful men who are taking on a fatherhood role, which is superb…but I don’t think we’ve quite got a balance yet. We haven’t got a balance in a lot of ways!
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first woman was elected to Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs. In 1981 when Helen Clark was in Parliament, she was one of only eight women in Parliament. That’s just incredible. Now, I went into Parliament in 1993. There was a wonderful corridor that we walked down with the photos on each side with the women who had been MPS until then. There were only 36 women. But now when you look at Parliament and see the greater number of women who are there now in really key roles. There’s been a real burgeoning of women’s influence.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your roles because you were a woman?
I grew up in a school that had an idea that they were teaching self-government. We had a lot of opportunities in class and at the school council level for women and men to take active parts. And I think it’s fair to say that there were a number of us women there that had never considered that we didn’t have the same ability to think and speak and have our sixpence-worth. And that was encouraged at the school to a significant extent. There was a great training in things like class meetings, school council meetings. I never felt anything but able to hold my own.
Although going into Parliament was a bit daunting, it wasn’t daunting because of the woman/men thing, it was because there were a lot of people there on both sides of the House who knew an awful lot more than I did. I didn’t ever find speaking in the House terribly easy – there were people who had better oratory skills than I – but at committees I certainly felt I was able to hold my own. I don’t think that was a gender thing. And there were other women who were more than able to make their presence felt, like Helen [Clark]. I think of people like Ruth Dyson, Annette King certainly. Very strong and well listened to by both sides of the house and both genders.
What about at the local level, where things can be a bit more, ah, provincial?
For my first couple of years on the City Council I was exceedingly grateful for Merv Hancock, who sat next door to me. Merv encouraged me to stand up and have my sixpence-worth. But once I found my feet after those first several months, I loved local government and always felt that I had some important things to say, and said them. Whether other people thought they were important or not!
It didn’t stop me being very angry at times, but I didn’t ever feel being put down because of being a woman.
What do you think are some landmark achievements by women in this country?
The women who were motivated to get out and knock on the doors of the other women [in 1893]. The people here and in Feilding, like Margaret Giesen and her daughter Florence and Florence’s sister-in-law. Getting out and doing that hard graft, tapping into the real mood of the times. Women were so ready to sign that petition, with women like Kate Sheppard leading the movement, but spurred on by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union coming from America to help set that organisation up here. So those early achievements do ask some wonderful questions about New Zealand then – that’s the historian in me coming out.
But since then, Helen as Prime Minister was a magnificent achievement. I was really sad when Tariana Turia left the Labour Party. At one stage Tariana and I had offices in the same corridor, and I had great affection and respect for her, and for her feeling that she had to go, that she didn’t sit comfortably in the Labour Party. I’ve been really interested in what she’s been able to achieve in her time since. She, to me, achieved a great deal as a woman really standing up for what she thought was right. That stands out.
Who would you recommend that young women look to today for inspiration? Is it Jacinda Ardern, being Prime Minister and a mum, or, say, Julie Anne Genter riding her bike to the hospital?
The nurse side of me does not advocate travelling by bicycle to be induced [laughs].
But I look at Aleisha Rutherford, I think she’s a pretty good model for young women here if they’re interested in getting into political life. Look at how she manages the political side of her life and the family side of her life – the whole breadth. Because she’s a young woman, that stands out, because it’s good to have role models of different ages.
Is there anything still on your list that you’d like to get done? Anything you wish you’d achieved?
One or two things at Regional Council. The women who are on the Council at the moment are suberb and I’d love to think they’ll get more support.
That council did go ahead with the One Plan, and I just loved being part of that process.
How do you think society benefits when women have a more equal voice in it?
To make sure that the experience of a wider spectrum of people is involved in what makes a city, a region or a country run, it seems imperative that you’ve got to get that whole depth of intellect and knowledge. Because women’s life IS different from men’s life. To say “it’s great, it’s lovely, but we’re not going to listen to what half the world has to say” seems a bit wasteful.
There’s a lot of learning to be done by all of us about how to deal with violence in our society, and I think we’ve got to be better at listening to those who suffer violence and those who administer violence, and I’m not putting those into gender categories. There are some scary things about our society, and one of the real challenges facing us all is [finding] a really healthy way of bringing up children so they’re healthy adults, so they’re able to cope with the quite complex issues about a society like the world today.
How do we move towards that goal?
I think support links are extremely important, links for women who maybe don’t value themselves as much. And that’s true for men as well. It’s when people don’t value themselves very much that they start to undervalue other people, and that’s when you get children who are abused or people who are violent within families.
I think we have to be more aware of the potential and the needs of migrant women, old and young. Something as basic as language is so important. I take my hat off to places like Queen Elizabeth College for the work they do with migrant women, and the Multicultural Council, and places like Women’s Refuge.
I think nowadays women are showing that when it comes to national politics, local body politics, you can stand and be listened to – but you can’t afford to slacken off! You’ve got to be encouraging others to come on. Because it’s absolutely essential to get those perspectives.