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Centers of Progress, Pt. 24: Wellington (Suffrage)

Blog Post | Gender Equality

Centers of Progress, Pt. 24: Wellington (Suffrage)

Introducing the city that first granted a country's women the right to vote.

Today marks the twenty-fourth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our twenty-fourth Center of Progress is Wellington during the late 19th century, when the city made New Zealand the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. At the time, that was considered a radical move. The reformers who successfully petitioned New Zealand’s parliament then traveled the world, organizing suffrage movements in other countries. Today, thanks to the trend begun in Wellington, women can vote in every democracy, except for the Vatican, where only cardinals vote in the Papal conclave.

Today, Wellington is best known as the capital city of New Zealand and the southernmost capital in the world. The windy bayside city has a population of just over 200,000 people and a reputation for trendy shops and cafes, seafood, quirky bars, and craft breweries. It has quaint red cable cars and its historic Old Government Building, constructed in 1876, remains one of the world’s largest wooden structures. Wellington is also home to Mount Victoria, the Te Papa Museum, and a wharf with frequent pop-up markets and art fairs. Young and entrepreneurial, Wellington has been ranked as one of the easiest places in the world to start a new business. It is also a creative arts and technology center, famed for the nearby Weta Studios’ work on the Lord of the Rings movie franchise.

According to legend, the site where Wellington now stands was first discovered by the legendary Māori chief Kupe in the late 10th century. Over the following centuries, different Māori tribes settled in the area. The Māori called the area Te Whanganui-a-Tara, meaning “the great harbor of Tara,” named after the man said to have first scouted the area on behalf of his father, Whātonga the Explorer. An alternative name was Te Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui, meaning “the head of the fish of Māui,” referencing the mythical demi-god Māui who caught a giant fish that transformed into the islands of New Zealand.

Noting the site’s perfect location for trade, an English colonel purchased local land in 1839 from the Māori for British settlers. A business district soon blossomed around the harbor, transforming it into a busy port. The following year, representatives of the United Kingdom and various Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which brought New Zealand into the British Empire and made the Māori British subjects. Wellington was the first major European settlement in New Zealand, named after Arthur Wellesley, first duke of Wellington—one of many tributes to the famed Prime Minister and military leader who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Interestingly, New Zealand has no widely agreed-upon “Independence Day.” Rather, the country’s sovereignty seems to have come about gradually, with key events in 1857, 1907, 1947, and 1987. It was not until that last year that New Zealand “unilaterally revoked all residual United Kingdom legislative power” over the nation.

The colonial nation’s demographics changed rapidly. By 1886, the majority of non-Māori residents were New Zealand-born rather than British-born immigrants, although the latter continued to stream into the country. While many people thought of themselves as British, the term New Zealander was becoming more common. By 1896, New Zealand was home to over 700,000 British immigrants and their descendants, as well as close to 40,000 Māori people.

Throughout most of history, women were largely excluded from politics, though it is important to remember most men were excluded as well. Political power tended to be concentrated among a small group, such as a royal family, while the majority of people, both male and female, lacked any meaningful say in political decisions. However, while history has certainly had its share of politically powerful women, from the Byzantine Empress Theodora to the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, the majority of rulers in all major civilizations have been male.

In other words, in a world with highly exclusionary political institutions that left almost everyone out, women were even more likely to be left out than men. Likewise, when a wave of democratization expanded the pool of political participation to an unprecedented share of the population in the 19th century, the voting rolls still excluded women.

Young New Zealand was no exception, and women were initially denied the right to vote. A popular belief was that women were suited only to the domestic sphere, leaving “public life” to the men. But by the late 19th century, as more women entered professional fields previously staffed solely by men, women began to be seen as more capable of participating in the public sphere.

These changes helped to galvanize the suffrage movement in New Zealand. Suffragettes such as Kate Sheppard gathered signatures to provide evidence of growing public support for female suffrage. In 1891, 1892, and 1893 the suffragettes compiled a series of massive petitions calling on parliament to enact female suffrage. The 1893 petition for female suffrage gained some 24,000 signatures, and the sheets of paper, when glued together, formed a 270-meter roll, which was then submitted to the parliament in Wellington.

The suffrage movement was aided by widespread support from New Zealand’s men. As a “colonial frontier” country, New Zealand had far more men than women. That happened, because single men were generally more likely to immigrate abroad. Desperate for companionship, the country’s men sought to attract more women to New Zealand and often romanticized the latter. Many New Zealanders believed that an influx of women would exert a stabilizing effect on society, lowering crime rates, decreasing rates of alcohol use, and improving morality.

Indeed, research suggests that highly unequal sex ratios can cause problems: societies with far fewer women than men see higher rates of male depression, aggression, and violent crime. It is most likely that those negative effects stem from tensions that arise when a large number of men in a society feel that they have little hope of ever finding a wife.

However, the popular view in 19th-century New Zealand was that women were in some ways morally superior to men, or more likely to act for the good of society. Building on that belief, suffrage-supporters cast women as “moral citizens” and argued that a society where women could vote would become more virtuous. In particular, the women’s suffrage movement was closely connected to the alcohol prohibition movement. Men who supported alcohol prohibition on moral grounds were thus highly likely to support giving women the right to vote.

New Zealand was not an outlier—the other places that granted women the right to vote early on were also typically “frontier” societies. Like New Zealand, those places had a large male surplus and were motivated by a belief that female voters were morality-minded and would rally against social ills. The most prominent of those perceived ills were alcohol and, in the western United States, polygamy—as practiced by some adherents of the young Latter-Day Saints movement. It was also believed that women would oppose unnecessary wars and promote a more dovish foreign policy. Among the earliest adopters of female suffrage in the United States were the frontier western mountain states Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1895). The frontier territories of South Australia (1894) and Western Australia (1899) followed the same pattern.

But New Zealand led the way as the first country to give women the right to vote. Moved by the suffragettes’ tireless efforts and their numerous male allies, the government embarked on a radical experiment. In Wellington, the governing Lord Glasgow signed a new Electoral Act into law on September 19th, 1893. The Act gave women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Ever since then, women have taken an active role in governing the country from the capital of Wellington. New Zealand has not only had three different female prime ministers, but women have held each of New Zealand’s key constitutional positions in government. At times, New Zealand has had a female prime minister, governor general, speaker of the House of Representatives, attorney general, and chief justice. The country remains proud of the pioneering step toward legal gender equality enacted in Wellington, even featuring suffragette Sheppard on the $10 banknote.

After her legislative victory, Sheppard and her allies toured several other countries and helped to organize suffrage movements abroad.

While women voting and running for office may seem commonplace now, at the time, it was revolutionary. For perspective, the United Kingdom did not grant women fully equal voting rights until 1928. Spain only granted women universal suffrage in 1931. France did so in 1945. Switzerland waited until 1971. Liechtenstein held out until 1984. And Saudi Arabia refused to budge until 2015. Today, women can vote almost everywhere.

As New Zealand’s seat of government, Wellington was at the center of the first successful campaign to grant a country’s women the right to vote. For playing host to a groundbreaking legislative victory for women’s suffrage, Wellington is rightly our 24th Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

Blog Post | Violence

Our Ancestors Thought Domestic Violence Was Hilarious… and Necessary

An old folk song provides a window into how attitudes on wife beating have evolved.

Attitudes toward domestic violence have changed over time and across cultures. This article explores how practices that were once considered normal and even humorous are now condemned as abhorrent and criminal. It also argues that this moral progress is a result of growing prosperity.

Music can act as a window into humanity’s far more brutal past. Consider “The Cooper of Fife,” or “Wee Cooper o’ Fife,” a traditional Scottish folk song that inspired a country dance and similar English and American folk ballads. The contrast between the lyrics (which tell a tale of domestic violence) and the song’s cheerful tune is jarring to a modern listener. (Listen here). As with most old folk songs, there are many variations of the lyrics, but this is a typical version:

There was a wee cooper [barrel maker] who lived in Fife,
Knickety, knackety, no no no.
And he has gotten a gentle [noble-born] wife [. . . .]
She would not card [untangle wool] and she would not spin,
For the shaming of her gentle [noble] kin.
So the cooper went to his wool shack
And laid a sheepskin on his wife’s back.
“I would not thrash you for your gentle kin,
Knickety, knackety, no no no.
But I will thrash my own sheepskin!”

The lyrics go on to relate how as a result of the beating, the highborn wife resigns herself to doing housework. The message of the song is clear: the singer believes that the Cooper of Fife is fully justified in thrashing his wife, and the audience is meant to sympathize with the husband and howl with laughter at the uppity wife being beaten into submission. The song ends by advising, “So ye who has gotten a gentle wife [. . .] Just send for the wee cooper of Fife!”

While “The Cooper of Fife” is merely a song, it captured beliefs that affected actual women’s lives. In 1939, a Chicago woman named Mary Kuhar petitioned for divorce on the grounds that her husband often slapped her. The presiding judge, Philip J. Finnegan, opined that wife slapping was perfectly legal as long as the wife survived, and he suggested that such violence was good for marital harmony. A newspaper reported on the ruling this way:

“Under the law”, said Judge Finnegan, “cruelty must consist of violence great enough to endanger life. A slap does not endanger life. A man may slap his wife as hard as he wants to if he doesn’t kill her. If more wives were slapped there would be fewer divorces.”

Such attitudes remained common for decades. The late Scottish actor Sean Connery, best known for portraying James Bond, spoke for many of his contemporaries when he told Playboy in 1965, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman.” He added that he’d be willing to hit a woman under various conditions, such as “if a woman is a b****, or hysterical” (please pardon the language, as the choice of words was his, not mine). The idea that slapping a frantic woman was often necessary to calm her down was a well-known trope, lampooned in a memorable scene in the 1980 comedy film Airplane.

In 1968, nearly 17 percent of men in the United States approved of a husband slapping his wife. By 1994, that figure had mercifully fallen, but was still too high – just over 6 percent of U.S. men.

The fable of the noble-born Cooper of Fife’s wife notwithstanding, much research suggests that higher socioeconomic status tends to decrease women’s risk of suffering “intimate partner violence,” the term researchers use for a woman’s husband or romantic partner beating her. It is perhaps unsurprising that as Europe and the United States have grown wealthier and many of their people—including women—have escaped poverty, the social status, bargaining power in society, and general treatment of women have improved alongside their material conditions.

In many poorer countries, acceptance of wife beating remains far higher to this day than in rich countries. The latest wave of the World Values Survey (2017–2022) found that even in wealthy and highly developed Germany, nearly 4 percent of respondents answered that a husband beating his wife is justified at times, while in impoverished Tajikistan, a dismayingly large majority—over 77 percent—voiced approval of domestic violence. In fact, a majority of respondents in Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Morocco, the Philippines, and Vietnam also indicated that a husband is sometimes justified in beating his wife. Note that each of those countries is relatively poor.

Rwanda, also poor, was not surveyed in the latest wave of World Values Survey data, but in 2015 a shocking, near-unanimous 96 percent of Rwandans answered that wife beating is occasionally justified.

Songs like “The Cooper of Fife” can help us understand the extent of moral progress, but it is important to remember that progress is often uneven, and in many places the abhorrent attitude at the heart of the song is still tragically widespread.