In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote. After two decades of campaigning by women such as the Liverpool-born Kate Sheppard, who was also a temperance campaigner, politicians believed that empowering all women in this way might have a positive effect on morality in politics or even controlling men’s drinking habits. It was another twenty five years before Britain gave its female population – and then only those over 30 – the right to vote.
So, no surprise then that the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington has just opened a striking exhibition of photographs called All Woman * by another British immigrant, Bev Short, a Plymouth-born mother of two daughters, who came here ten years ago and says her aim is to create a debate about what it means to be a real woman today.
Her exhibition was opened by Melissa Clark Reynolds, once an impoverished, teenage single mother who struggled to finish her education, became a millionaire aged 35, and now works as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and climate awareness evangelist. It features women as disparate as a tattoo artist, sheep shearer, violinist, lance corporal in the NZ infantry, fire fighter, electrician, orthopaedic surgeon and a former Miss Zealand, mostly in unexpected poses not necessarily related to their work.
According to an introduction from Helen Clark, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister who served from 1999 to 1980 and is currently administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, the UN’s third highest position: “The show is a celebration of Kiwi women in the 21st century, some of whom … are redefining our idea of family and society, while others are making New Zealand proud on the international stage.” In 2006 Forbes Magazine ranked Clark 20th most powerful woman in the world yet few people outside New Zealand have heard of her.
Bev Short said the most shocking thing she discovered while working on the exhibition was the high incidence of domestic violence – against women and children. “I think that says something about the men in this society and it’s not just lower socio-economic groups or non-whites.”
Among the most powerful images is former international equestrian Catriona Williams, who represented New Zealand until she fell from her horse aged 30 in 2001 leaving her a tetraplegic. Yet instead of picturing her in a wheelchair, Short has her fully made up, with jewellery, wearing a magnificent red ball gown lying on a white sheet, her beautiful face radiating courage to her audience. “My ambition is to be able to dance with my husband once more,” she says. On the adjacent wall is Barbara Kendall, a retired windsurfing gold medallist now a motivational speaker, posed with curlers in her hair, a phone in one hand, iron in the other, laptop open and child’s dress on the ironing board… a portrayal of multi-tasking with universal resonance for women.
New Zealand is also famous for having relatively more book buyers per capita than any other country and this week The Forrests, the eagerly awaited novel by prize winning New Zealand author, Emily Perkins, was published and immediately needed to reprint. The Forrests has already been tipped as a likely winner of the Man Booker prize – at least by the Hay Festival where she is coming to speak in June. The last New Zealander to win the then Booker prize was another woman, Keri Hulme, in 1985 with The Bone People .Perkins, who after living for eleven years in London now teaches creative writing at Auckland University, is following in a powerful tradition of female New Zealand writers from Katherine Mansfield, who believed that power, freedom and independence were more exciting than love, to Janet Frame (Angel at my Table) and my own favourite, Margaret Mahy, whose brilliantly imaginative Lion in the Meadow I read night after night to my children .
Apparently this is precisely what Rudyard Kipling predicted when he came to New Zealand on a brief visit in 1891, according to his biographer, the New Zealand-based writer Harry Ricketts. Ricketts discovered a short story Kipling then wrote for the New Zealand Herald in which his narrator says, thinking of the future of Colonial literature, “Hark to the women now. They tell the old story well.”
I am here to give a series of lectures about American women who shocked the British establishment including Wallis Simpson, Jennie Churchill and the so called Dollar Princesses, women who married into the British aristocracy trading money for titles. These women did not have careers and were often at the mercy of their parents who used them for their own social advantage. Katherine Mansfield, born in 1888, certainly shocked the establishment. She wrote to friends of how she loathed the idea of marriage as “The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting and it really is the attitude of a great many girls…” Perkins told me that although Mansfield and Frame were a major influence on her writing, “I see New Zealand’s female literature in the 21st century as a constellation rather than a linear tradition. It has opened up dramatically in the last twenty years.”
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman A Life of Wallis Simpson (Phoenix £7.99)