Drawing strength from humanitarian history

UC lecuturer in women’s and feminist history, Katie Pickles writes about participating in the Women’s March on Saturday 21 January.

Christchurch is a global hotbed for women’s rights as human rights, and for the promotion of social reform, diversity and strong communities.

On the edge of the UC campus is the house where Kate Sheppard lived when she led the campaign that resulted in New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to allow women to vote. And all women were enfranchised in 1893, not just white or rich women, as would happen later on and elsewhere around the world.

Sheppard was part of an important radical strain in Christchurch’s history that is now a firm tradition. We share in, and are connected to, the spirit of the Women’s March on Washington.

As I explore in my recent book Christchurch Ruptures, there are many people in this city who have advanced human rights including Kate Sheppard, Elsie Locke, Ettie Rout, Rewi Alley and Harry Ell. And there are many, many more who go unnamed.

University of Canterbury foundation professor Alexander Bickerton was an important mentor for a generation of students, and the university can boast Apirana Ngata as the first Maori graduate and Helen Connon as the first women with an honours degree in the former British Empire. Humanities and Fine Arts at this university enjoys a long and strong tradition of excellence, questioning the status quo, and seeking truth and new knowledge, that society needs more than ever in 2017.

I marched to remember this proud humanitarian history and to draw strength from it in 2017.

I teach women’s andKatie feminist history here at UC. In particular, I am interested in heroines in history. At the march, my daughter Clara and I read out inspirational quotes from American leading humanitarian, author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller (1880-1968). Helen overcame being deaf and blind to smash previous barriers for disabled people, and to advocate for and improve the lives of countless people in society. Some examples are: ‘the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision’, and ‘until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained’.

Keller’s dignified words of wisdom stand in solidarity for tolerance, equality and diversity. She believed that women’s rights were human rights, that diversity is the strength of our communities, that all voices deserve to be heard and that we are stronger together – much like many of our local citizens here in Christchurch through the ages.