Discrimination on the basis of gender and unequal citizenship rights have been controversial issues since the 19th century. Gender discrimination continues to provoke public debate and political activism in the early 21st century.
The meaning of equal citizenship has been much more complex and controversial for women than for men, because it has centred on changing ideas about women and ‘women’s role’. The state and other powerful and (until very recently) solidly male institutions, such as the clergy, professional groups and trade unions, have all shaped and used these ideas in ways that have profoundly affected women. Women’s organisations and movements have had an important influence too, especially among women – and not always in favour of greater equality.
‘We are human beings as well as women, and our humanity must take precedence over our womanhood. We are New Zealanders and therefore citizens …’1 When Kate Sheppard, the leader of the women’s suffrage campaign, spoke those words in 1897, New Zealand women had won the vote, but they were not yet equal citizens in many other respects.
The use of the word ‘gender’ to describe the way in which society shapes women and men and structures their lives became common in the 1980s. Phrases like ‘sex discrimination’, which had been used in the 1970s, became ‘gender discrimination’.
Women’s place in society
Inequality resulted from the limited role women were allowed in society. From colonisation in the 19th century to the 1960s women’s role was broadly seen by powerful Pākehā institutions as private, though it had public consequences. It centred on marriage, motherhood, and taking care of husband, home and children. Men’s role was to support their wives and children financially, and to represent both themselves and their families in public affairs.
This division influenced every aspect of women’s lives, regardless of their own talents and ambitions, or their economic and social realities (such as having to raise children alone). It also had a profound effect on public culture, which focused almost entirely on men and their interests.
Differences between women and men
Women’s restricted role was justified by beliefs about innate differences between men and women. Well into the 20th century women were still being portrayed as both the guardians of morality, keeping male misbehaviour in check, and the ‘weaker sex’, unable to cope with the hardships and dangers of public and commercial life. Yet heavy physical work, low pay and exploitation were typical of women’s work in areas such as domestic service, farming and nursing.
Areas of discrimination
There has been discrimination on the basis of gender in many areas of life, including marriage and family, employment, education, culture, religion and sport. Until the late 20th century women’s participation in politics was limited in overt and covert ways.
Discrimination against men
In the 1990s and early 21st century some people argued that there was discrimination against boys and men in certain areas, including education and the custody of children after divorce. In another area – health – men became concerned about lack of action on prostate cancer and male suicide. They initiated campaigns around men’s health issues and men’s rights to the custody of their children when parents' partnerships ended and .
Responses to discrimination
For women, change between the mid-19th century and the early 21st century has been profound. There have been two periods of intense activism. In the 1880s and 1890s women and their male supporters fought for women to be able to vote, for women’s rights within marriage, and against the double standard that prevailed in relation to sexual behaviour. In 1893, as a result of efforts by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other suffragist groups, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women (Pākehā and Māori) the right to vote in national elections. Many women also worked to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, which legalised the inspection of women for venereal disease and their confinement for compulsory treatment. This legislation was repealed in 1910. Women also highlighted the need for women’s rights within marriage and as a result the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1884. Married women got the right to hold property in their own name and enter into contracts independently of their husbands.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there was another explosion of activism, this time focusing on broad cultural issues, political representation, employment issues, and sexuality and reproductive rights. Outside these periods work to bring about change continued. For example, different pay rates for women and men in the same job and low pay for women-dominated occupations were contested from the 1950s into the 21st century. Māori women have actively supported women’s and Māori rights since the mid-20th century. However, there was no steady improvement, and discrimination sometimes grew worse in certain areas.
Human Rights Commission Act 1977
These bursts of activism prompted legal change. Open discrimination on the basis of sex – for example, in employment – has been unlawful since the passage of the Human Rights Commission Act 1977. The Human Rights Act 1993 barred discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status (including living in a de facto relationship) or family status (including having or not having responsibility for the care of children or other dependants).
The 21st century
Full equality and citizenship requires much more than changes in the law, and in the early 21st century deep-seated inequalities remained. Lower pay for work typically done by women, men’s higher chance of reaching a workplace position of authority, men’s over-representation on the boards of private companies, and greater media attention to and funding of male sporting activities, were examples of continuing discrimination. There was also a surge of concern, prompted by overseas revelations, about sexual harassment of women by men in workplaces.