Pussyhats, period poverty, and Parliament: Improving gender balance in the collections

Pussyhats, period poverty, and Parliament: Improving gender balance in the collections

Friday 8 March is International Women’s Day. Beginning in 1911, International Women’s Day is ‘a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.’ This year’s theme is ‘Balance for Better’.

Triggered by Suffrage 125 last year, Te Papa curators have been collecting objects around women’s rights, and researching our collections to better reveal women’s stories. One of our aims is to improve the gender balance in our collections. Here are some favourite examples from our curators.

Sea of pink

Our dress collection is dominated by women’s clothing, particularly ‘best dress’, such as wedding dresses, christening gowns, and evening dresses. It’s only very rarely that we have the opportunity to collect garments about women addressing imbalance in society. The pussyhat is such an item.

Two years ago, thousands of pink pussyhats were knitted around the world by protesters to wear on the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January 2017. Te Papa collected two pussyhats made and worn by protesters in New Zealand ‘sister marches’.

The Women’s March was a global phenomenon which took place on the same day throughout the world with nearly five million participants. It was timed to protest the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump on 20 January 2017, and was intended to send a message that women’s rights are human rights.

Pink pussyhat
Pussyhat, 2017, by Erin Kennedy, New Zealand. Gift of Erin Kennedy, 2017. Te Papa (GH018161)

The hat concept was created by the Pussyhat Project as a response to a 2005 recording of Trump released during the election campaign in which he claimed that as a powerful man ‘you can do anything … Grab them by the pussy’ (a claim he later put down to ‘locker room banter’). The name ‘pussyhat’ and cat ear design also aimed to reclaim a derogatory word for female genitalia and weakness.

The Pussyhat Project aspired to turn the Women’s Marches into a ‘sea of pink’, creating a strong collective visual statement of solidarity.

Photograph of three women wearing pink pussyhats
Marianne Malmstrom, Rachel Bolstad, and Chiara LaRotonda (left to right) wearing pussyhats on the Women’s March on Washington in Wellington, 21 January 2017. Photographer unknown. Gift of Marianne Malmstrom, 2017. Te Papa (O.045294)

– Stephanie Gibson, Curator NZ Histories & Cultures 

New jewellery

Over the last few decades there has been a global trend in art galleries and museums to re-dress the representation of female artists. Consequently, the identification of improving Te Papa’s holdings of female artists across all portfolio areas is long overdue.

For example, Neke Moa (Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu descent) is one of our brightest stars in the field of contemporary jewellery. One of the younger generation of Māori jewellers, Neke’s work has received international recognition through exhibitions in Munich and beyond. At the moment she is showing in Norway in the exhibition ‘Everyone says hello’ which looks at politics through international jewellery – including gender and identity.

‘Kei hea te komako e ko’ (“Where will the bell bird sing?’) highlights Neke’s love of pounamu as she references the customary Kākā pōria, the bird-tethering rings. There is a jewellery reference too, since when these rings were not used to tether birds they were worn as pendants. Neke, therefore, alludes to functionality and adornment as she brings these ideas into 21st-century contemporary jewellery.

Pounamu jewellery
Kei hea te komako e ko, 2014, New Zealand, by Neke Moa. Te Papa (2015-0016–1/A-T to T-T)

– Justine Olsen, Curator Decorative Art and Design

Female flower power

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the role of women in science, from articles that advocate for the recovery of their stories and their integration into the scientific narrative to international social media campaigns that aim to celebrate women’s contributions to the fields of natural history. Here at Te Papa, one of my favourite collections is a set of exquisite watercolours of the flowering native plants of New Zealand painted by Sarah Featon in the 1880s.

Drawer showing Featon's work
Sarah Featon’s flower watercolours in storage at Te Papa. Photo by Rebecca Rice. Te Papa

Featon’s watercolours illustrated the groundbreaking The Art Album of New Zealand Flora (1887–89), the first fully coloured art book published in New Zealand, using the relatively new medium of chromolithography.

Painting of white lily
Sarah Featon, The Shepherd’s Lily – Ranunculus Lyalli, about 1885, watercolour. Te Papa (1992-0035-2277/73)
White lily
Sarah Featon, The Shepherd’s Lily – Ranunculus Lyalli, colour lithograph. Te Papa

She had a taste for the flamboyant, which can be seen in the frontispiece – a stunning bouquet that is a veritable tribute to female flower power and surely put to rest those 19th-century rumours that New Zealand was ‘peculiarly destitute of native flowers’.

Berries and flowers
Sarah Featon, Wild berries and flowers, 1887-9, colour lithograph, published in The Art Album of New Zealand Flora.


  • ‘Art Album of New Zealand Flora’, Otago Daily Times, supplement, 18 February 1890, p. 2.

– Rebecca Rice, Curator Historical New Zealand Art

Ending period poverty

Last year when we had an acquisition drive for objects in line with the Suffrage 125 commemorations, my mind was immediately set on menstrual cups. Not just any menstrual cups, but cups that had a firm relationship with te ao Māori.

As luck would have it, a Facebook post caught my eye in which wāhine Māori were discussing how they navigated the cleaning of their cups, sharing tips on how to do so in ways they felt comfortable in in terms of tikanga. This was on a news article about the relationship between Tukau Legacy and MyCup.

Founded by Kimberli Schuitman, MyCup is a Christchurch-based company that sees itself as a social enterprise changing people’s lives, where the cups are also produced. Through their relationship, Tukau Legacy aims to empower women and girls, and end period poverty in their communities.

Sisters Willow-Jean Prime and Season-Mary Downs initiated the menstrual cup kaupapa in response to stories they had been told from young women missing school due to being unable to afford sanitary products, as well as other women stockpiling sanitary products for times when they might not be able to afford them. For every $25 that Tukau is able to raise, they can purchase a menstrual cup which will then be matched by MyCup NZ.

MyCup menstrual product
MyCup Menstrual Cup Multi Pack, 2018, New Zealand, by My Cup NZ Ltd. Te Papa (ME024291/1-6). Image courtesy of My Cup NZ Ltd, mycup.co.nz

Aside from the very real issues of period poverty that have a detrimental effect on Māori communities, it is also clear that attitudes toward menstruation have significantly changed since contact with Europeans. What was once a celebrated event in people’s lives has often become shrouded in shame and secrecy. The MyCup approach of giving each cup with education deftly falls in line with the tikanga of kanohi ki te kanohi, the passing of knowledge between people face-to-face.

In terms of collection objects related directly to menstrual health, the History team at Te Papa has collected widely in the area of women’s ‘hidden histories’, wherein objects related to issues considered to be women’s are underrepresented in museum collections, such as menstrual products.

When searching the taonga Māori collection, I was unable to find anything that could be considered menstruation related – it was a very obvious gap in the collection.

Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori

Women in the House

Although women gained the right to stand for election in 1919, for most of the 20th century they were vastly underrepresented in politics. At the end of the 1970s women had never held more than 6.3% of seats in the House, and only four had served in cabinet.

In the 1990s the proportion of female MPs jumped dramatically, and it now sits at 38%. This is the highest proportion ever, but as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked in Parliament on the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, ‘is that enough?’

Ardern argued that Parliament should welcome diversity. It should welcome having 50% female MPs, and more diversity in its representation of age and career. To achieve those milestones, though, change is needed.

As part of Te Papa’s Suffrage 125 collecting project we sought to better represent the achievements of women in politics, but also to highlight some of the enduring barriers to balanced political representation in New Zealand.

An object that reveals one of those barriers is a breast pump donated by former Green Party MP Holly Walker. The pump enabled Holly to continue giving her daughter breast milk when she returned to work in 2014, but the long hours demanded of her as a Parliamentarian made breastfeeding very difficult. Balancing motherhood with her parliamentary duties took a serious toll on Walker’s mental health, and she resigned in 2014.

Since then Parliament has made changes to support members of Parliament with babies, but as Ardern suggested last year, more change is needed for a gender-balanced and diverse House of Representatives.

Breast pump set
Breast pump, (Unimom Allegro# Electric), about 2012, South Korea, by Unimom. Gift of Holly Walker, 2018. Te Papa (GH025334/1-14)


– Katie Cooper, Curator NZ Histories & Cultures


  1. I enjoy your blog. Alan in Victoria BC, Canada

  2. Great to mark international women’s day with this window onto women’s lives seen through Te Papa’s collections.

  3. Congratulations on the Blog, I don’t often read them, but this one’s special.
    Well done for starting to highlight the serious imbalance in the collecting of the Nation Museum and bringing in more Herstory.

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