Kate Sheppard’s 127-year-old argument is still valid

One hundred and twenty-two years ago today New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant all adult women full voting rights, regardless of age, ethnicity, or property ownership.

Kate Sheppard was the face of the New Zealand women’s suffrage movement, and today she stares up at Kiwis from the $10 note.

Sheppard led the campaign for suffrage as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, partly motivated by a belief that the country’s women were more likely than its men to vote in favor of prohibiting the sale of alcohol.

She also firmly believed women deserved to have a say in their nation’s decisions, and that they would cast their votes with the welfare of future generations in mind, unswayed by “party feeling,” bribery or corruption.

Sheppard detailed these and other arguments for suffrage in an 1888 leaflet that almost sounds like it belongs on Buzzfeed — ‘Ten Reasons the Women of New Zealand Should Vote.’

Kate Sheppard | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some of her 10 reasons were a bit tongue-in-cheek:

“1. Because a democratic government like that of New Zealand already admits the great principle that every adult person, not convicted of crime, nor suspected of lunacy, has an inherent right to a voice in the construction of laws which all must obey.

“2. Because it has not yet been proved that the intelligence of women is only equal to that of children, nor that their social status is on a par with that of lunatics or convicts.”

Indeed, the Penguin History of New Zealand notes that while women were denied the right to vote they were essentially “classed with ‘juveniles, lunatics and criminals.’”

Some of Sheppard’s other reasons feel a bit dated, like number seven, which references the “admitted physical weakness of women” — I bet Ronda Rousey would have something to say about that…

But reading over the list, one reason stands out to me as still incredibly relevant today, 127 years after it was first published.

“10. Because women naturally view each question from a somewhat different standpoint to men, so that whilst their interests, aims, and objects would be very generally the same, they would often see what men had overlooked, and thus add a new security against any partial or one-sided legislation.”

In other words, diversity FTW!

In New Zealand, about 31% of MPs are women — a figure that has barely changed in the past decade or so — and just 13% of board directors and 20% of officers of NZX listed companies are women. These sorts of figures are found in most governments and businesses around the world.

There are a number of different reasons for this, and no one right way to work towards closing the gap — but there’s no doubt that it’s in everyone’s best interest.

As Sheppard wrote all those years ago, the female perspective is incredibly valuable in government, and this extends to business and all dimensions of diversity.

When a group of middle aged, straight, able-bodied white men is calling the shots, they inevitably overlook things that a group of people of different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, physical abilities and ages would see.

Two (or many) heads are better than one, but when those heads all look the same and have had very similar life experiences, ideas and opportunities can be missed.

It’s not just me and Kate who think so. Several studies over the years have found that companies with diverse boards perform better.

Of course that shouldn’t be the only reason that companies embrace diversity, but as Caroline Turner writes in that Huffington Post article I linked to, businesses typically don’t change because it’s the right thing to do.

“They do it if there is a compelling business reason to do so.”

Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see companies and governments in many countries making an effort to move towards diversity. But there’s still a long way to go.