by Sandy Myhre
The 19th September 2018 marks 125 years since New Zealand became the first country in the world to allow women to vote. The women who fought vociferously for that right, who campaigned for the opportunity to do so, who stood up not just for themselves but for all women and for future generations, are to be applauded and remembered. So, too, are the men who backed them.
In early colonial New Zealand, as in other European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. They were deemed better suited to the home, to marriage, to bearing children, and slaving in a kitchen and laundry that lacked all of today’s appliances.
Most of the men elected to the legislature were immigrants from the Mother Country and in the new colony of New Zealand they adopted the Westminster system of government they were familiar with. In the later part of the 19th century that meant politics were for men alone, they decreed, as a self-fulfilling edict.
The women who arrived in this new country found themselves without most of the ‘normal’ domestic amenities they were used to back home. Not every home had an indoor stove, for instance, or piped tap water. These pioneering women simply had no choice but to toughen up and get on with living in the colonies. And most did.
If they were ever delicate indoor flowers back home, they became hardy perennials through necessity in New Zealand and it could be argued that this resilience, the feistiness these women had acquired by the middle-to-late nineteenth century, was the catalyst for changing the opinions of the men who governed them. They were no longer conditioned not to air their own views.
It could further be argued that around the 1890s they were aided and abetted by the arrival of labour-saving devices like the copper tub that could be heated for the laundry, the bicycle for transport and the telephone for communication.
Moreover, towards the end of the 19th century an ever-increasing number of women were becoming university educated or involved in church and charitable work and, as a result, were intellectually and socially equipped to not only want to change their legal and political status, but to understand the mechanisms by which that change could be brought about.
Two primary lobby groups emerged. The suffrage movement campaigned for political rights for women at around the same time as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was advocating for moral reform through the prohibition of alcohol. A symbiotic relationship developed between the two and many women were involved with both organisations.
Several politicians were supportive of suffragists and their petitions, including those who were to be Premier at various times – Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox and John Ballance as examples – but even with their patronage, the bills or amendments extending the vote to women rate-payers narrowly failed to pass in Parliament three times (1878, 1879 and 1887).
When the Liberal government came into office in 1891 it was divided over the issue of women’s suffrage. In 1891 and 1892 the House of Representatives passed electoral bills enfranchising all adult women but, on each occasion, opponents sabotaged the legislation in the more conservative Upper House by adding tricky amendments.
The liquor industry of course countered the aims of the WCTU by lobbying Members of Parliament and organised their own petitions to prevent women voting. Henry Smith Fish, a Dunedin politician consistently described in subsequent historical literature as ‘boorish’ hired canvassers to circulate anti-suffrage petitions in pubs. The tactic back-fired when it was found some signatures were either false or had been obtained by deceit and his petition was disallowed.
The New Zealand branch of the WCTU was adroitly led by Kate Sheppard who was born in Liverpool but who had migrated to Christchurch.
“Is it right… that a mother… should be thought unworthy of a vote that is freely given to the blasphemer, the liar, the seducer, and the profligate?” she is quoted as saying.
By 1893 the signatures on their third petition to parliament numbered nearly 32,000 – almost a quarter of the adult European female population of the country. At around the same time a young 25-year-old woman from a very small settlement in the Hokianga in the Far North of New Zealand was making her own political statement.
In May 1893, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia was the first woman ever to speak to the Māori Parliament, Te Kotahitanga. She requested not only that Māori women be given the vote on the basis they were land-owners, but they should also be eligible to sit in the parliament as representatives. In this she went further than the aims of the contemporary suffrage movement as a whole.
When the massive third petition was presented to Parliament, it easily passed in the House but still had to get through the Legislative Council, the Upper House. The suffragists organised mass rallies, issued a flurry of telegrams to members, and gave their supporters in Parliament white camellias to wear in their buttonholes.
New anti-suffrage petitions were circulated and those not supporting the bill were given red camellias to wear in what became known as the battle of the buttonhole. Some members of the Legislative Council petitioned the Governor to withhold his consent and two previously ‘anti’ Councillors decided to change their vote.
Despite the negative political posturings, the bill was passed on 8th September 1893 by 20 votes to 18 and on 19th September 1893, the Governor, Lord Glasgow, signed the bill into law. All women who were ‘British’ subjects over 21 years old, including Māori women, were now eligible to vote. Those not qualifying under nationhood (Chinese women for example) were excluded.
Opponents warned that ‘delicate’ lady voters would be harassed in polling booths, but the 1893 election was described as the ‘best-conducted and most orderly’ ever held. One Christchurch newspaper said local streets on voting day ‘resembled a gay garden party’. Terminology and meaning have clearly changed since then!
Kate Sheppard’s face appears on New Zealand’s $10 note and she is memorialised in a bronze bas-relief statue in Christchurch that was unveiled on the 100th anniversary of women receiving the vote.
Alongside her are Kate Nicol, who pioneered the franchise campaign in Dunedin; Ada Wells of Christchurch who campaigned for equal educational opportunities for girls and women; Harriet Morison of Dunedin, vice president of the Tailoresses’ Union and a powerful advocate for working women; Amey Daldy, foundation member of the Auckland WCTU and president of the Auckland Franchise League; Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia was the first woman ever to speak to the Māori Parliament, Te Kotahitanga.
The right to vote, however, did not guarantee political equality. The right of women to stand for Parliament did not come about until 26 years later, in 1919. The first female Member of Parliament (Elizabeth McCombs) was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after women received the right to vote.
Still, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women an electoral franchise. September 2018 marks 125 years since this landmark legislation was enacted.