Suffrage Day – Hot Words & Bold Retorts

Suffrage Day, 19 September, marks the 125th anniversary of those who lead the way for women’s suffrage in New Zealand. The milestone anniversary is being celebrated across the country with an array of events and exhibits showcasing the history of gender equality.

An exemplar of this is the especially commissioned short film by Gaylene Preston, Hot Words & Bold Retorts, a stand out of Auckland Museum’s exhibition Are We There Yet? Women & Equality in Aotearoa.

AucklandMuseum Standing TogetherThe inspiration for Gaylene Preston’s stunning short film in her own kitchen – a chance radio encounter with voices from the past.

The award-winning film-maker had been commissioned to make a short film for the exhibit at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, but was trying to figure out how to do it.

“I could understand how the museum didn’t just want a lot of black and white photos of rather starchy looking women,” Ms Preston says. “So I was messing around with the idea. I heard three of the interviews on the radio on the Jesse Mulligan show one afternoon. I was in my own kitchen and up came these voices, and very well recorded and so staunch and perky. I immediately pricked up my ears - and followed my nose after that really!”

The voices belonged to women recalling the general election of 1893, recorded years later and archived at Nga Tāonga Sound and Vision. And the result is Hot Words and Bold Retorts, where present day actors lip-sync the words from the recordings. It’s a simple but haunting way to breathe life into these remarkable women’s recollections.

Jean Sargent, Lucy Lawless, Chelsie Preston-Crayford and Miranda Harcourt became the “faces” of the voices. The film was shot on a single day in a process Ms Preston describes as being “a bit like making a patchwork quilt”.

The project affirmed to Ms Preston the massive achievement by the suffragists – and the men who supported them.

“In 1893, in a long skinny country, women weren’t allowed to go out on their own without someone from the opposite sex with them, so they took their 14 year old son in the horse and buggy and drove for miles and stand on a doorstep and knock, asking people to sign the petition. And they had no idea what the reception was going to be.

“We tend to think, nobody died, we didn’t have to throw ourselves under the hooves of horses or go on hunger strike or chain ourselves to railings, we didn’t have to fight for it. But actually it’s a measure of the enormous success of NZ women – and it is a tribute to them and the men who understood that equality of purpose and universal franchise was really important.”

Ms Preston pays tribute to the role of unions – particularly the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, which was particularly active in promoting the suffrage petition.

“More than six thousand signatures came through the Tailoresses’ Union. There was an MP called Henry Smith Fish who opposed them and organised an alternative petition. He did all the things he was accusing the tailoresses of doing. He tried to get people to sign multiple times, and then he tried to get 6000 signatures from the Tailoresses counted as one.”

Ms Preston also recalls the work of historian Helen Bollinger, who has researched the suffragists of the West Coast and how they celebrated casting their votes for the first time.

“Helen told me it was funny reading the newspaper reports. The women of Reefton were considered very well behaved and quiet, but the women of Hokitika showed ‘far too much bawdy and drunken behaviour’, apparently. The women of Greymouth had a race down the main street to see who would be the first to vote, ready steady go, and ran down the main street to the polling booth.”

The latest Working Life also includes a feature on Auckland Museum’s Woman and Equality in Aotearoa exhibition.

The exhibition tells the fraught story of gender equality across the 125 years since women gained the vote in New Zealand into a 21st century context.

You can view Hot Words & Bold Retorts on YouTube here.