As Kiwis we look at the possibility of Helen Clark becoming the first female Secretary General of the UN, and Hillary Clinton, the first female President of the US. What’s all the fuss about, we wonder? We all know Helen would be exceptionally competent in the role, so why are some other countries so fascinated? Perhaps it’s because NZ had such a big head start.
The Auckland mayoralty race is heating up with Phil Goff and Vic Crone the leading contenders. Recently though, I was surprised to learn that Elizabeth Yates became the first “lady” mayor in the British Empire – in Onehunga 1873.
It was the day after the general election – the first time that women had been able to vote in New Zealand. Mrs Yates got congratulated by Queen Victoria and Richard Seddon. It was ironic because Seddon had resorted to dirty tricks to try and block the enfranchisement of women.
King Dick’s manoeuvres backfired and two councillors in the Upper House changed sides and voted for the Bill. Then even legislative councillors petitioning the Governor General could not stop it being signed into law.
Elizabeth Yates’ time in office provided plenty of material for the papers. Her husband had retired from the mayoralty due to ill health, so name recognition would have helped her to win with a 13 vote majority from 227 votes cast. On taking office, by virtue of being mayor she also became a J.P. – another first for women.
Some of the men were not amused. The town clerk and four councillors immediately resigned. Others opposed every initiative that she proposed. During her term, spectators crowded into the council chamber to see what would happen next.
The next election Yates was defeated by 90 votes. It would be 63 years before another woman became mayor in any town in New Zealand.
Yates did make a comeback as a councillor in 1899 for a two year term, which made the meetings quite lively once more.
Despite fierce opposition, she is regarded as one of the most effective mayors of Onehunga. Her legacy included upgraded roads, footpaths and sanitation, elimination of Borough debt, establishment of a sinking fund, re-organisation of the fire brigade and she lobbied the government to allow the Waikaraka cemetery to be re-opened.
She had been active in the women’s suffrage movement, but said she entered public office “simply in the interests of the ratepayers.” What an interesting period in history – and so close to home.
Another local connection to those times is Rose Park in Three Kings, which is dedicated to the memory of those suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote. Mayoress Enid Hay unveiled the sundial in the park when it was first dedicated by the Mt Roskill Borough Council in 1972. Steel sculpture and plaques were added in 2013 to mark the 160 year anniversary.
BEACON asked Mayoral Candidate Vic Crone for comment: "New Zealand should be proud of its pioneering characteristics. We've come a long way in judging people by their capabilities rather than gender. However, we must remain restless pioneers. Our Auckland political system is not yet a reflection of our diverse city. We need strong, inclusive and open minded leadership to encourage and unlock the true benefits that diversity offers".
Politics is still a complicated business. It is now unremarkable for women to be in senior positions as they have built on the history of those who went before them.