Category Archives: Politics

Why New Zealand was the first country where women won the right to vote

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A memorial by sculptor Margriet Windhausen depicts the life-size figures of Kate Sheppard and other leaders of the Aotearoa New Zealand suffrage movement.
Bernard Spragg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Katie Pickles

125 years ago today Aotearoa New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant all women the right to vote.

The event was part of an ongoing international movement for women to exit from an inferior position in society and to enjoy equal rights with men.

But why did this global first happen in a small and isolated corner of the South Pacific?

Read more:
Women’s votes: six amazing facts from around the world

Setting the stage

In the late 19th century, Aotearoa New Zealand was a volatile and rapidly changing contact zone where British settlers confidently introduced systematic colonisation, often at the expense of the indigenous Māori population. Settlers were keen to create a new world society that adapted the best of Britain and left behind behind the negative aspects of the industrial revolution – Britain’s dark satanic mills.

Many supported universal male suffrage and a less rigid class structure, enlightened race relations and humanitarianism that also extended to improving women’s lives. These liberal aspirations towards societal equality contributed to the 1893 women’s suffrage victory.

At the end of the 19th century, feminists in New Zealand had a long list of demands. It included equal pay, prevention of violence against women, economic independence for women, old age pensions and reform of marriage, divorce, health and education – and peace and justice for all.

The women’s suffrage cause captured widespread support and emerged as the uniting right for women’s equality in society. As suffragist Christina Henderson later summed up, 1893 captured “the mental and spiritual uplift” women experienced upon release “from their age-long inferiority complex”.

Two other factors assisted New Zealand’s global first for women: a relatively small size and population and the lack of an entrenched conservative tradition. In Britain, John Stuart Mill presented a first petition for women’s suffrage to the British Parliament in 1866, but it took until wartime 1918 for limited women’s suffrage there.

Women as moral citizens

As a “colonial frontier”, New Zealand had a surplus of men, especially in resource towns. Pragmatically, this placed a premium on women for their part as wives, mothers and moral compasses.

There was a fear of a chaotic frontier full of marauding single men. This colonial context saw conservative men who supported family values supporting suffrage. During the 1880s, depression and its accompanying poverty, sexual licence and drunken disorder further enhanced women’s value as settling maternal figures. Women voters promised a stabilising effect on society.

New Zealand gained much strength from an international feminist movement. Women were riding a first feminist wave that, most often grounded in their biological difference as life givers and carers, cast them as moral citizens.

Local feminists eagerly drew upon and circulated the best knowledge from Britain, America and Europe. When Mary Leavitt, the leader of the US-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) visited New Zealand in 1885, her goal was to set up local branches. This had a direct impact, leading to the country’s first national women’s organisation and providing a platform for women to secure the vote in order to affect their colonial feminist concerns.

Other places early to grant women’s suffrage shared the presence of liberal and egalitarian beliefs, a surplus of men over women, and less entrenched conservatism. The four frontier US western mountain states led the way with Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1895). South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899) made the 19th century and, before the first world war, were joined by other western US states, Australia, Finland and Scandinavia.

Local agency

Social reformer and suffragist Kate Sheppard, around 1905.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

New Zealand was fortunate to have many effective women leaders. Most prominent among them was Kate Sheppard. In 1887, Sheppard became head of the WCTU’s Christchurch branch and led the campaign for the vote.

The campaign leaders were well organised and hard working. Their tactics were petitions, pamphlets, letters, public talks and lobbying politicians – this was a peaceful era before the suffragette militancy during the early 20th century elsewhere.

Read more:
Adela Pankhurst: the forgotten sister who doesn’t fit neatly into suffragette history

The women were persistent and overcame setbacks. It took multiple attempts in parliament before the Electoral Act 1893 was passed. Importantly, the suffragists got public opinion behind the cause. Mass support was demonstrated through petitions between 1891 and 1893, in total garnering 31,872 signatures, amounting to a quarter of Aotearoa’s adult women.

Pragmatically, the women worked in allegiance with men in parliament who could introduce the bills. In particular, veteran conservative Sir John Hall viewed women’s suffrage as a way to a more moral and civil society.

The Suffrage 125 celebratory slogan “whakatū wāhine – women stand up!” captures the intention of continuing progressive and egalitarian traditions. Recognising diverse cultural backgrounds is now important. With hindsight, the feminist movement can be implicated as an agent of colonisation, but it did support votes for Māori women. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia presented a motion to the newly formed Māori parliament to allow women to vote and sit in it.

New Zealand remains a small country that can experience rapid social and economic change. Evoking its colonial past, however, it retains both a reputation as a tough and masculine place of beer-swilling, rugby-playing blokes and a tradition of staunch, tea drinking, domesticated women.The Conversation

Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

World politics explainer: The Great War (WWI)

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Understanding the first world war is an exercise in comprehending the depth of human commitment to destruction, violence and resilience at a scale never experienced before 1914.
BNF France

Romain Fathi, Flinders University

This is the first in a series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.

In October 1918, a young man was temporarily blinded on the Western Front and evacuated to hospital. For four long years, he had served in the German Army alongside 11 million men.

Whether his blindness came from a gas attack or a sudden bout of nerves is still being debated. But it is clear that, like hundreds of millions of people at the time, his wartime experience shaped the rest of his life.

This was during the first world war – the foundational event of the violent 20th century – and that young man was Adolf Hitler.

What happened?

Sparked in the Balkans as a result of European nationalism and imperial rivalries, the first world war raged from July 1914 to November 1918. It pitted the 48 million soldiers of the Allies – led by the French, British and Russian empires – against the 26 million soldiers of the Central Powers – led by the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, who lost the war.

It was a truly global conflict fought on battlefields across the world, but also on the home front – in people’s living rooms, fields and factories.

Read more:
Flies, filth and bully beef: life at Gallipoli in 1915

The impact of the Great War

Over four long years, the world collapsed in what was then the largest industrial war ever fought. The conflict left over 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians dead.

A wounded soldier.
BIU Santé (Paris)

Over 20 million men were wounded – both physically and mentally – rendering them unable to resume civilian life. What’s more, the war facilitated the spreading of the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people in 1918-19.

And for what?

The Allies’ “victory” in 1918 did not result in a safer and better world, and the first world war failed to become the “war to end all wars”.

Conflict raged on in the Middle East and colonial outposts right through the 1920s. For many, war did not stop with the Armistice of November 11, 1918.

In fact, given the scale of devastation across Europe, it is not clear who won what.

“Winners” and “losers” alike lost population, resources and infrastructure. Yes, there were marginal gains here and there for some, but most countries came out of the bloodshed crippled financially. Some were politically crippled, too.

Perhaps one clear winner did emerge from the conflict, however: the United States.

The US sold materials and lent money to the Allies during the war and, as a result, amassed gold reserves that underpinned its post-war global economic dominance, while other countries were gripped in an inflationary spiral.

To a lesser extent, Japan, too, benefited from the conflict. Fighting on the same side as the Allies fuelled the country’s militarisation and imperial ambitions in Asia.

Another outcome of the war was the disintegration of the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, alongside the more recently-formed German empire, forever transforming the world’s political landscape.

The first world war also prompted the Russian Revolution, which further altered the course of the 20th century.

The “winners” were not immune from turbulence, either. France and Britain were confronted to various challenges in the colonies that had supported them throughout the conflict, in Africa or in India for instance. Local populations demanded more autonomy and at times even rebelled against their colonial masters.

The new world that emerged from this global conflict was one filled with hope, but riven by unrest, revolutions and ethnic conflicts.

A series of peace treaties, the most memorable one being the Treaty of Versailles of June 1919, endeavoured to secure and build a global peace, laying the basis for new international institutions such as the League of Nations. Its role was to prevent future wars through conflict resolution and diplomacy. But the treaty also required the demilitarisation of Germany, demanded that Germany acknowledge its responsibility for causing the war, and inflicted severe war reparations on the country.

President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles, 1919.
BNF France

The end of the fighting also brought more challenges. Tens of millions of soldiers were demobilised and returned home, prompting issues related to public health, unemployment and domestic violence. Hitler, for example, returned to Munich with no family, no career prospects and no place to stay. He would resent the Treaty of Versailles his whole life, and claim that Germany was not defeated on the battlefield, but stabbed in the back by internal enemies – the Jews, the left and the republicans.

But let it not be said that the first world war caused the second, nor that it made Hitler who he subsequently became. In the late 1920s, Germany was doing pretty well under the Weimar Republic – so well that this period was dubbed “the Golden Age”. Pacifism was a strong bipartisan force in 1930s France, Britain and Belgium. Another future was entirely possible.

Contemporary relevance

Yet, in the inter-wars years, the repercussions of the first world war remained omnipresent.

Old empires had left a vacuum for new states like Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to form, and the borders of those new states were soon contested.

Even the 1929 financial crash was partly related to the first world war. This was because states accumulated debt to finance the conflict, and their debt increased even more as they continued borrowing to pay war reparations after the war had ended. This contributed to global inflation and financial insecurity, two factors of the 1929 crash. The first world war – or rather, its consequences – seemed endless.

And it is those consequences which undeniably created some of the conditions which set the second global conflict ablaze. Not least through armament, such as tanks, military aviation, submarines, chemical weapons – all of which became weapons of choice during the first world war and played a crucial role in the second.

But the second world war had its own intrinsic causes not directly related to the first world war. These included the development of new totalitarian ideologies, mass media, anti-Semitism, and the failures of the League of Nations as well as liberal democracies to oppose dangerous regimes.

Interestingly, some historical actors and historians believe that the two world wars cannot be separated, and form, in fact, a Thirty Years’ War.

Injured WWI soldiers in a battlefield trench, 1915-1918.

Certainly, the repercussions of the first world war are still being felt today. Intergenerational grief and family history spurs hundreds of thousands of people to engage in digital commemorations or commemorative tourism at former battlefields.

The land, too, remains deeply affected. In Belgium and France, for instance, war-time explosive devices continue to kill people, and will still be found for hundreds of years to come.

In some places, the soil is so contaminated by chemical agents from the first world war that nothing has grown there since.

Finally, much of the geopolitical struggles of modern times date back to the first world war. The Middle East is a case in point. Decisions taken during and after the war laid the basis for ongoing conflicts due to contested boundaries and spheres of influences in the region.

The end of the war was not the victory the Allies claimed it was. But politicians and military leaders had to justify the dead and the enormous sacrifices they had demanded from their people. Thinking back, the most chilling part of the vain bloodbath is that the citizens of the belligerent nations did support the war and its sacrifices for years, some until the breaking point of revolt.

The first world war was a turning point in history as it irremediably altered political, economic, social and cultural life around the globe. First world war studies remain one of the most active fields of historical research today precisely because of the relevance of the conflict throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Understanding the first world war is thus an exercise in comprehending the depth of human commitment to destruction, violence and resilience at a scale never experienced before 1914. But it also reminds us of the fragility of peace, and of our duty as citizens to remain vigilant of nationalism.The Conversation

Romain Fathi, Lecturer, History, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Socrates and Democracy

Militant suffragettes: morally justified, or just terrorists?

Janna Thompson, La Trobe University

Between 1912 and 1914, a group of British suffragettes called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) launched a campaign of militant action. Lead by Emmeline Pankhurst, they avoided harming people but committed various crimes to draw attention to their demands and put pressure on the government. Suffragette (2015), now in cinemas, shows this part of British women’s struggle for the vote.

Was the militancy of these suffragettes justified? The film portrays the frustration women experienced when their peaceful protests and participation in parliamentary enquiries failed to get the desired results. Faced by a government that seemed bent on denying suffrage to women indefinitely, the WSPU decided that more radical forms of protest were necessary.

Militant suffragettes destroyed contents of letterboxes and smashed the windows of thousands of shops and offices. They cut telephone wires, burned down the houses of politicians and prominent members of society, set cricket pavilions alight and carved slogans into golf courses. They slashed paintings in art galleries, destroyed exhibitions at the British Museum and planted bombs in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and near the Bank of England.

Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George’s horse and died four days later from a fractured skull.
Hulton Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

The film features the most famous act of the militant suffragettes – Emily Davison’s disruption of the Derby at Epsom by throwing herself under the King’s horse.

It is estimated that their campaign of destruction caused between £1 billion and £2 billion worth of damage to property in 1913-1914.

The suffragettes aimed their violence against property, not people. Nevertheless, their actions satisfy common definitions of “terrorism”. The Australian Criminal Code, for example, defines a terrorist act as an action done with the intention of coercing and intimidating a government that causes serious damage to people or property.

Pankhurst, a canny political operator, knew that their cause had to be kept in the news if it were to succeed:

You have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, fill all the papers more than anybody else if you are really going to get your reform realised.

The militant acts of the suffragettes filled the papers but many supporters of the suffrage movement thought they were counter-productive. Public support for women’s suffrage declined even though many people deplored the way suffragettes were treated in prison.

The prominent politician Lloyd George, generally a supporter of votes for women, thought that the actions of the militants were ruinous to their cause. Some members of parliament declared that the militant acts proved that women were unstable, hysterical and not to be trusted with the vote.

When World War I began the WSPU suspended its militant activities and joined the war effort. In 1918 the British parliament recognised the contribution of women to the war effort by giving the vote to women older than 30 who also owned some property. Ten years later all women in Britain gained the vote.

Historians are divided about whether militancy helped the cause of women’s suffrage. Some believe the achievement owes more to the non-militant wing of the suffragette movement led by Millicent Fawcett. But the official justification for giving women the vote does not exclude the likelihood that many parliamentarians were moved by the fear that suffragette militancy might resume.

Even if militancy was a factor in bringing about reform, moral question marks hang over the actions of the WSPU.

Policeman leads an arrested National Woman’s Party protestor away from a woman’s suffrage bonfire demonstration at the White House in 1918.
Everett Historical.

The moral acceptability of the campaign depended on the fact that they avoided actions that could cause harm to people. Except for Emily Davison, who chose her manner of death, no one was killed. The destruction of property caused loss of money and inconvenience, but no serious harm to the public. Suffragettes attacked cricket pavilions and letterboxes, not hospitals or military installations.

But arson and bombs have the potential to hurt innocent people. A police inspector points this out in Suffragette. He asks the women suspected of burning down a country property, “What if a servant girl had unexpectedly returned to the house?”.

Whatever good the suffragettes thought they were accomplishing has to be weighed against the risk that they posed to members of the public.

There is another reason to be critical of the actions of the militant suffragettes. The aim of the movement was to allow women to play a role in the government of their country. There is a tension between this aim and the violent law-breaking activities of the WSPU. Those who want to participate in making laws ought to distinguish themselves from revolutionaries who want to destroy a government or force it to serve their will.

Civil disobedience has a role to play in a democracy. The Selma freedom march led by Martin Luther King Jr. defied the law and the political authorities of the segregationist South. But King and his followers thought it was important to show respect for democracy and the rule of law by demonstrating peacefully.

The parliamentarians who declared the militant actions of the suffragettes showed that these women were unfit to have a vote were, of course, serving their own political purposes and pandering to the prejudices of many of their constituents. Nevertheless, they had a point.

The Conversation

Janna Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Non-Violence and Peace Movements in the 20th Century

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