Tirohia Mai – Look at us now

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being shown round the ‘Tirohia Mai – Look at us now’ exhibition at the National Library. I say exhibition loosely, as it’s more of an experience which forms a wider program, looking at women in Aotearoa New Zealand past, present and (crucially) future.

2013 marks the 120th anniversary of New Zealand women gaining the right to vote through on-going lobbying and amazing collective organising in a time which viewed sexism as a naturally and spiritually ordained truth. While this milestone is the catalyst for Tirohia Mai, it goes far beyond the suffragette story.

Kate Shepherd and the temperance movement won an admirable landmark in feminism, both globally and in Aotearoa. That said, if I hear one more person summarise our struggle (and apparent “win”) with woman’s rights through a Christian lobby group who were effectively vying for prohibition of alcohol, I will fall asleep directly on you.

Our history is not as simple, not as white and not as definitive as being the first country in the world to give women the vote. And this is where Tirohia Mai fills that gap in our collective knowledge.

Put simply, Tirohia Mai filled me with relief. Walking into the space as a young woman who views feminism and solidarity as a means of survival, it is like being enveloped in a cloak of those who have gone before me, as well as being in the presence of my contemporaries. It doesn’t hide our failures and it doesn’t pretend we’ve finished. It looks forward with a richer knowledge of many of the (often invisible) women I owe it to myself and the next generation to learn about.

Tirohia Mai’s commitment to biculturalism and diversity is tangible and glorious. For anyone who’s ever read about New Zealand’s history and felt emptiness at its omission of anyone other than the white dudes some suburbs are named after, this program will be a long overdue resource.

The 13 women who signed Te Tiriti start the exhibition and from their stories grow those who fought for better working conditions, social freedoms, cultural recognition and rights, healthcare, and an end to violence and sexual oppression. In the 1970’s the historic narrative changes to a focus on perspectives from women from then to now, featured as part of a digital story wall.

There’s a humbleness to the space and the program as a whole, one that paints a picture of our battles with an acknowledgement of the good and the bad. It also doesn’t pretend that it’s possible to capture everything. Tirohia Mai invites anyone (of any gender) to contribute this program by sharing their stories either online, through their tablet on site or as part of a wall of notes in the exhibition space.

I am told there will be panels and events as part of the programme, which runs until 15 November from 8.30 am – 5.00pm, Monday to Saturday at the National Library, Wellington. For those in other parts of the country, the updated stories and blogs will help let everyone keep an eye on what’s going on.

Tirohia Mai is an amazing collection, an important resource and an inclusive and engaging statement about women in Aotearoa. I am immensely proud to have my story on the wall, and I hope you will share your stories too.

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