It struck me as significant that on International Women’s Day (8 March) I should hear so many capable women make eloquent and stirring speeches about New Zealand women’s achievements, especially those of the suffragists who helped us become the first country to obtain the vote for women. The speakers were equally passionate that the suffragists’ hard-won achievements are given the recognition they deserve within the public domain. As each woman finished speaking, the applause was deafening.
Was I listening to a radical student feminist action group on the university campus? No, I had been invited to spend the evening with the Auckland Branch of the National Council of Women at its meeting in a church hall in Remuera. I must admit I hadn’t expected such radicalism from the good matrons of the NCW, but that was before I realised that the1993 Women’s Suffrage Centenary Memorial in Khartoum Place was on the agenda. The turnout was huge and so was the outrage.
While there were a fair few white heads in the room, these are no armchair feminists. All are strong campaigners who, only four years ago, organised Auckland women to oppose the last threat to remove the Memorial from Khartoum Place. They fought the Council and won the right to keep this valuable piece of feminist history there permanently - or so they thought.
Over two hours, woman after woman stood tall to express indignation at the attempts to remove the Suffrage Memorial and consign it to Myers Park or some other city backwater.
There were wonderful reminiscences from attendees at the memorial’s unveiling ceremony by Irish Prime Minister Mary Robinson and Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard in 1993. There was recollection of the celebratory march on that day and the overwhelming joy of the hundreds of women who swept down Queen Street singing and waving banners.
Then came the war stories from the women who faced the last attempt to have the memorial re-sited. In 2006, the Auckland art fraternity claimed the memorial lacked artistic merit and tried to have it removed. The NCW urged the women of Auckland to respond and a dazzle of four dames led the feisty fight back: Dame Cath Tizard, Dame Georgina Kirby, Dame Dorothy Winstone and Dame Thea Muldoon. The Auckland City Council backed off and resolved to keep the Memorial in Khartoum Place. $2.2 million was budgeted for its upgrade. It was a great feminist victory.
Speakers expressed shock and anger that another attempt is currently being made to re-site the Memorial. The attack this time is being spearheaded by the Advisory Panel for Public Art (APPA) - a group of architects, art consultants and artists appointed to advise the Auckland City Council.
Women questioned why Council would seek advice from the APPA on removing the Memorial after spending $2.2 million on a revamp of lower Khartoum Place which includes the memorial?
Many speakers suggested that the same arguments for the memorial’s removal are being presented as last time, but they are now dressed up in the language of urban design. In 2006, the arguments were put by the arts fraternity and Dame Jenny Gibbs. This time it is Trish Clark of the APPA, the arts fraternity and Dame Jenny Gibbs.
At the end of my evening with the NCW women I was left with several lasting impressions. First, there is a clear bond between the NCW women of today and the suffragists of yesterday. Second, the NCW’s belief that the Suffrage Memorial should remain in Khartoum Place is unshakeable. Theirs is a clear feminist argument that has nothing to do with art or urban design.
The Memorial, designed by artists Jan Morrison and Claudia Pond Eyley celebrates the suffragists’ achievements using symbols that women can relate to – for example the suffrage petition and the white camellia. The petition, a central feature of the staircase, represents the 30,000 signatures that were presented in a petition to Parliament in 1893. Kate Sheppard pasted together the sheets of names and wrapped it around a broom handle. The white camellias which adorn the memorial are important because during the 1893 campaign for women’s suffrage those MPs who supported the Electoral Bill were presented with a white camellia to wear in their buttonhole. Red camellias were sent to those MPs who opposed it.
In addition to the symbols, the Memorial also bears the names and the images of the suffragist women themselves. It is these women and their histories that the NCW is prepared once again to fight for. As one articulate woman put it:
“Brian Rudman the Herald columnist is right. They wouldn’t dare move a memorial to an ANZAC hero like Lord Freyberg so what makes them think they can drive out heroic women like Kate Sheppard, Elizabeth Caradus, Amey Daldy, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Lizzie Rattray, Annie Jane Schnackberg, Anne Ward, Elizabeth Yates and Mary Anne Colclough?”If the arts fraternity in Auckland think that they can remove the Suffrage Memorial from Khartoum Place, they better think again. They might find a red camellia in their mailbox.
The photos (top to bottom) show: View of the Suffrage Memorial from the square in front of it; detail of the artwork with the main logo; picture from the revamp plan that keeps the Suffrage Memorial where it is. Thanks to Cathy for the pics too.