New Zealand Law Society - 125 years of activism

125 years of activism

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After an exhaustive campaign during the 1800s, New Zealand suffragists handed over one of the most important and historically groundbreaking petitions in both this country's and the world’s history.

19 September 1893 was the day the women of Aotearoa New Zealand were given the right to vote through the introduction of the Electoral Act 1893. The Act defines a ‘person’ as including both genders instead of just men.

It’s well known that New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow both settlers and indigenous women to vote in general elections.

This was due to the fearless petition campaign led by a group of determined women who fought for their right to be equals alongside the country’s men.

‘Monster’ movement

Suffragists door-knocked and protested in the face of pushback from many opponents who felt women had no right to involve themselves in affairs of the state, but their efforts were rewarded.

The submitted petition (below) was bursting with the signatures of around one-quarter of the adult women in New Zealand at the time - around 32,000. Kate Sheppard, the movement’s main organiser, called it “a monster” when referring to its size.

1893 Suffrage Petition

During the suffragist movement, Dunedin woman Ethel Benjamin was studying to become a lawyer at Otago University, much to the dismay of the school’s male law students.

Four years after the Electoral Act was passed, in 1897, Ethel Benjamin was admitted to the bar, showing the male-dominated profession and the country that women were good for more than just cooking, cleaning and raising children.

2018 - a new wave of activism

125 years later, this is an ideal time to consider all that has happened, and still needs to happen, in the fight for gender equality in the legal profession.

In February of this year Newsroom writer Sasha Borissenko along with journalist Melanie Reid and the law clerks they interviewed, helped propel a wave of modern activism by very publicly exposing harassment within the legal profession.

In the wake of the story, activists around the country went from strength-to-strength bringing attention to both the rampant sexual harassment within the legal profession and subsequently highlighting other gender inequality issues; the lack of retention of women in the profession, a lack of diversity, lack of advancement of women and gender pay gaps.

This year the New Zealand Law Society released its Gender Equality Charter, an important first step addressing, specifically, the retention and advancement of women lawyers.

As of writing, 75 firms have signed to the Charter; over 1,700 lawyers committed to the reform of gender equity issues in New Zealand.

In January this year, the number of women lawyers finally outnumbered male lawyers.

What you can do to help

On this suffrage day, we encourage law firms to seriously consider signing on to the Gender Equality Charter and join the modern movement to end gender inequality within the legal profession, just like the suffragists ended inequality in the fight for their right to vote.

The Charter is open to the whole legal profession. Law firms, in-house legal teams, sole practitioners and barristers’ chambers can all sign up and pledge to their commitment to gender equality and inclusion.

“All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”

– Kate Sheppard.