Friday, 9 September 2016

Grahamstown Gazette: the Election edition

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the September edition.

From The Treasury: 

One thing I’ve noticed since I started working at Thames Library earlier this year is that the library building is full of artwork, but most people are too engrossed in the hunt for a good book to fully appreciate it. By the public computers, for example, there’s a cute piece of quilting based on the pattern of the Carnegie Library’s bathroom floor tiles. A stained glass window over the non-fiction section depicts gold bursting forth out of the earth. Up until recently, the library was home to a huge map of Thames by Barry Brickell, which is now on its way to a new home in the Thames Civic Centre where it can be more easily admired.

Particularly since the building was renovated in February, more and more people have taken a closer look at the artwork on the wall behind my desk. It’s a wall hanging designed by Reta Clark and stitched by a group of local embroiderers in 1993, to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage. Along with the pioneer women’s Remembrance Garden, beside Thames Historical Museum, the wall hanging is one of two local sites commemorating the efforts of Thames’ suffragettes.

September 19th will mark 123 years since women were granted the right to vote in New Zealand. New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant women’s suffrage, after nearly two decades of campaigning. The biggest petition, presented to the government in 1893 and well-supported by the women of Thames, contained the signatures of more than 31,000 women, or about a quarter of New Zealand’s adult female population at the time. The House of Representatives twice passed electoral bills that would have enfranchised all adult women, but on both occasions the bill’s opponents managed to sabotage the legislation, so it would not make it past the conservative Legislative Council and into law.

The bill was finally passed thanks to a bit of political backstabbing and in-fighting in the Upper House. Premier Richard Seddon did not want the bill to pass, but he needed one more person to vote against it in the Legislative Council in order to defeat it. He contacted Liberal Party councillor Thomas Kelly, who was voting for the bill, and convinced him to change his vote. Two other councillors who were planning to vote against the bill, William Hunter Reynolds and Edward Cephas John Stevens, were so incensed by this backroom deal that they decided to also change their votes out of spite. Consequently, The Electoral Act 1893 was passed 20 votes to 18.

As the bill finally became law on September 19th, the following morning’s Thames Star was brief but jubilant on the subject. ‘The women of Thames are wasting no time in having their names place upon the electoral role,’ they reported. ‘Forms for enrolment may be obtained from the Star office.’ By late September, the Thames Star reported that local women were ‘enrolling to vote in numbers, and by the time the writs are issued for the general elections there will be comparatively few females in the Thames electorate whose names will not appear on the roll. This is precisely as it should be.’ 

You can use a search engine on NZ History’s website to find the names of women who signed the 1893 Suffrage Petition. The Treasury’s shop sells copies of Rosemary Killip’s book To Find a Fortune, which features images of the signatures themselves.


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