Still on the margins, Anne Else

Suffrage and Beyond ‑ International Feminist Perspectives
Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan (eds)
Auckland University Press, $39.95

The movement for women’s suffrage can be said to have begun at the World Anti‑Slavery Convention held in London in 1840, where American women delegates were barred from sitting with their male colleagues. By 1940, nearly 50 years after the women of New Zealand won the right to vote in national elections, at least half the world’s women still had no such right.

The complex issue of female suffrage has until relatively recently been largely ignored by historians and political scientists. At first this was largely because it concerned women and was therefore seen as marginal. Patricia Grimshaw’s ground‑breaking study of the New Zealand campaign was published only in 1972. In her essay for this collection, Grimshaw herself notes recent complaints of “an almost hostile neglect of woman suffrage” even in “the field of modern feminist scholarship where historians have turned the focus away from ‘high politics’ to issues of the politics of the personal”.

But there are other reasons, too. As the introduction points out, the history of women’s suffrage and “first wave” feminism generally was long out of favour because of what was perceived to be “its narrow class and racial base, and its commitment to liberal politics”. Even more off‑putting to modern feminist historians, perhaps, was its strong association with protestantism, temperance and chastity.

Thanks in part to the catalyst of the 1993 centenary, a great deal more work on suffrage and related topics in New Zealand is now available, from writings by suffragists to accounts of the specific forms of discrimination which women politicians continue to encounter. However, the 1993 Victoria University of Wellington Suffrage and Beyond conference, which gave rise to this collection, had a much broader focus. According to the editors’ introduction, it aimed to bring together “some of the leading English-writing historians working on [female] suffrage history”, in order “to discuss the achievement of women’s suffrage in various countries, and to analyse its impact”, thereby helping to “break down the ethnocentrism which operates in much suffrage literature”.

Suffrage and Beyond presents 16 of the 54 papers presented at that conference. Prominent English, Australian and American feminist historians abound, including Jane Rendall, Ellen Carol Dubois, Nancy Cott, Marilyn Lake and Carole Pateman. There is much variety, with papers on Japan, South America, Germany and France and a chronological span covering 300 years. But the extent to which the collection as a whole succeeds in working across boundaries of nationality and ethnicity depends on the reader’s standpoint.

One near‑silence must be noted. Though neither speak directly for themselves, Aboriginal and Pacific Island women feature in far more depth and chronological breadth (in essays by Ann Curthoys and Penelope Schoeffel Meleisea respectively) than do Maori women. Mira Szaszy’s challenging conference paper on Maori women and suffrage has not been included, though the editors briefly canvass the topic in their introduction.

The two essays by Pakeha historians extend their reach outward, placing the New Zealand experience in its international context, with a view to illuminating both. Patricia Grimshaw turns to the cluster of “small societies, marginal geographically to the political mainsprings of the women’s movement” where women won the vote between 1890 and 1902, to offer “a sketch of an interpretative model that might fruitfully be explored across this comparative dimension”. She stresses the intersection of three potent discourses: “evangelical protestantism, the problem of alcohol [notably the way it threatened women’s and children’s life chances] and ideas of women’s rights”. In frontier societies, women were very much in the minority and posed less of a threat to men. Grimshaw also looks at “the intersection of women’s rights with the processes by which men in these communities were seeking to establish an identity for themselves”, distinct from that of the metropolis. That identity included what was known as “manhood suffrage”, though “nonwhite” men were often excluded. Racial supremacy played its part, for both women and men, in these early victories. Raewyn Dalziel looks at how the victory in New Zealand was presented abroad, raising “issues of women’s agency, their nature, and role, involving a politicisation of gender that left New Zealand women’s citizenship and political status in an ambiguous position”. Maori women’s enfranchisement was rarely noted by overseas suffragists, but “when it was … concepts of racial superiority were evident”. This aspect of her discussion will, I hope, be picked up and developed further than Dalziel is able to take it here. It should be read alongside Jane Rendall’s fascinating work on the languages of the early British suffragists (1848‑1874). Rendall uses a remarkable 1870 Manchester suffrage journal extract from a Nelson magistrate’s speech, citing the oppressed position of Indian and Maori women (this further brief appearance of Maori women, albeit only as racist representations, is overlooked in the index), to point up her contention that:

The theme that united virtually all writing on the suffrage in these years is a consciousness of progress, of participating in a progressive movement of civilisation, to be differentiated from those other parts of the world still dominated by a “savage” brutality, and by despotic governments.

Dalziel concludes that in the years after 1893 the New Zealand women’s possession of the vote became “a symbol of women’s equality and citizenship that had been given substance without creating disorder”; but it also conveyed a message “about social and political justice. Not to be heeded has always been the fate of small nations.”

This ironic observation is rather depressingly borne out in the rest of the book. No one other than ourselves seems particularly interested in why, to use Carole Pateman’s revealing words, “women won the vote before 1910 in some peripheral countries ‑ New Zealand, Australia, Finland and Norway …” Though comparisons abound, this farthest-flung periphery remains firmly marginal, its almost embarrassingly early victory making it a perpetually awkward exception to many theoretical approaches. I greatly regretted, too, the absence of anything at all on New Zealand in the section headed “After Suffrage”. Does New Zealand women’s history stand to “women’s history” as women’s history stands to “mainstream history”?

Such concerns aside, this collection provides a wealth of pleasures and challenges. The writing is almost uniformly excellent. The authors wrestle with major questions of equality and difference, race and class, domination and subordination, conservatism and progressivism. Patricia Grimshaw stresses a major reason for a renewed interest in suffrage: “Issues of women’s relationship to the state, of women and citizenship, have re‑emerged as vitally important.”

Carole Pateman’s essay, the last in the book, addresses these issues directly, illuminating much that has gone before. She notes that in discussions of electoral reform,

… important dates and pieces of legislation … are cited without qualification as landmarks of the extension of the franchise and democracy. In fact, such milestones actually mark… one, the widening of manhood franchise; two, the denial of votes to women.

Suffragists faced hard choices: did they support such “reforms”, hoping their turn would come next time, or oppose them because they continued to exclude women? Should they try to win limited suffrage for some women only, on the male pattern, or insist on votes for all women, when that prospect was still hopeless?

As Pateman sensibly notes, it is easy to see why some suffragists argued in apparently racist and élitist terms, “when they faced such unrelenting hostility from all sides even to the suggestion that some women should be enfranchised”. She recalls, for example, the six‑hour physical and sexual assault by police and male onlookers on a peaceful march by British women in 1910; and she comes to a stark conclusion which is continually implicit in other essays. Male resistance was so strong because “the franchise appeared to pose a radical challenge and threat not just to the state but to the powers and privileges of men as a class” ‑ a threat which was “seen as even greater than that of the working classes” ‑ or of black men. Building on her work on “the sexual contract”, she continues:

The question of votes for women turned the separation of the public and private spheres into a political problem ‑ and that is precisely the political problem that … political scientists ignore … The vote was … a potent symbol of all that was entailed in an equal social and political standing for women. But [it] was also demanded as a practical weapon of reform, so the threat posed by suffrage to the patriarchal order seemed very real.

As other essays show, male opposition might take on different colourings, whether of conservatism or socialism, machismo culture or nationalism, religion or (as in France) opposition to women’s perceived alliance with religion and the right; but this goes to the heart of the matter.

So why did women get the vote in the end? Pateman’s convincing if bleak hypothesis is that “it was not views about women or the family that had undergone a radical change …” but views about the vote, and that the “taming” of the democratic franchise by means of the party system was partly responsible. In other words, men had found new ways of keeping women out.

On the eve of another momentous change in our own system of voting, this book should be read by everyone interested in political power, democracy and citizenship.

Anne Else is a feminist writer, editor and commentator. Her most recent book was Women Together: A History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand.

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