The slight heel of her shoes echoed across the mahogany floor. The high vaulted ceiling stretched into the air and the stain glass windows amplified the click of her step. The building rose from the ground like a beehive, carved from cement and fortified with wood from the natives. It was a sturdy building, one that would become the centre of this young nation's government. But this one woman's march would rattle the very foundations of the structure, it would cut through the stale air of the government building, it would cause heads to turn, it would change the world. What should have been another day at the office, was suddenly shattered. It was shattered by the click of one woman’s heels.
Maybe she was lost? After all, a government building was no place for a woman. Or maybe, just maybe, this lone woman had something important to say. She wore a dress, one that choked tight around her neck and clung to her ankles. The buttons pulled against her body, determined to trap her, to limit her movement, to slow her down. She was without a corset, this was the 1890s and she would need all the air in her lungs for this battle. Her clothing was stained blue; it was the colour of man, and yet, she wore it like it was a shade made for woman. She lived in hope that maybe one day it would be.
Under her arm she held tight to a bundle of wallpaper. She had done this walk once before already, and she was told then, that she did not have enough names signed to her piece of paper. This time she did. This time she was 25,519 women strong. This time she had a quarter of the entire female population of her country standing behind her. The shadows of woman loomed larger than they ever had before and she felt the weight of its power in her hands. With knuckles turning white and her stride speeding up under the weight of carrying such a burden she did not falter. The men in this building told her that her dream was a foolish one. That it couldn’t be done. Would never be done. That she should go home and find joy in cooking and cleaning and being in the kitchen. They told her she needed a hobby, that she could decorate the house with new wallpaper perhaps? After all, that was what woman did. They looked after the home. They picked out wallpaper. So she took their advice, she went home, she bought some new wallpaper and she decided to show these men just what a woman could do when she was left at home.
At the end of a long hallway, an open door waited for her. It wasn’t left open as a gesture of welcome, it was open because they knew she was coming. A grin pulled at her lips, change was on the horizon and she was blazing the trail. She paused at the door frame, took a deep breath and stepped into a room where women weren’t welcome. Parliament was in session and she was ready to take her seat at the table of government. Heads swivelled, eyes rolled, scoffs filled the room. Her hands trembled, but she spoke her mind anyway.
“To the Honourable, the Speaker, and Members of the House of Representatives in Parliament assembled.”
Silence. This hall was not used to the sound of such a voice, to the sound of a woman.
“The last time I was here, you asked me to go home and pick out wallpaper. I took your advice, I hope you like what I picked.”
With that, the woman in blue loosened her hands and let the wallpaper unfurl. It fell to the ground, the weight of it making a thump against the mahogany floor. It would be a thump heard around the world.
“This wallpaper is special. It has the signatures of 25,519 woman, and they all want the same thing. Now, before you tell me to go home again, I will remind you that this wallpaper represents a quarter of this nation's female population. We will no longer be silent. We will be heard.”
Silence. This hall was not used to the sound of such a voice, to the sound of a woman. That all changed with the efforts of this woman. She won the right for woman to be able to vote, for woman to have a say in who made laws, for woman to help decide on the future of this country called New Zealand. She would not be the last woman to effect change, many more would follow in her footsteps. Many women would rise to the challenge that society put in their genders way. Many women continue to rise today. They rise because of a woman in blue, a woman named Kate Sheppard. A woman, that when men saw her coming would whisper; “here comes that bloody woman.”
And she would keep coming, again and again and again, demanding equality for women everywhere. Can you see it yet? Just beyond the horizon there is a woman dressed in fire, blazing a path that will scorch footprints into the earth beneath her. They whisper trail blazer in her wake, her silence demanding change. Many ask for her name, but none can get close enough to see her face.
She is all the woman who have fought for change, and she is all the woman who will continue the fight. For she is you, and she is me.
Today, 125 years ago New Zealand women changed the world by being the first nation to achieve universal suffrage. To find out more about how this momentous occasion visit Suffrage 125’s website, and follow them on Facebook.
In the Waikato, we are proud to celebrate and honour the accomplishments of our wāhine. Waikato125 is an initiative that specifically celebrates instrumental women in the Waikato today; recognising those who display values much like the great Kate Sheppard. To find out who these women are (odds are you will know a few!) visit their website.
Kendyl is Seed Waikato's Head of Learning and Development.