Votes for Women

When the Governor, Lord Glasgow, signed the Electoral Act into law on 19 September 18history-Sheppard_0.jpg93, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

As most other democracies - notably Britain and the United States - did not enfranchise women until after the First World War, women's suffrage quickly became a central element in New Zealand's image as a trail-blazing, progressive 'social laboratory' of the South Pacific.

Did you know?

Women who owned property and paid rates (mainly widows and 'spinsters') were allowed to vote in local government elections in Otago and Nelson from 1867. This right was extended to the other provinces in 1876.











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A Movement Emerges

In early colonial New Zealand, as in other European societies, women were excluded from any history-women-cartoon_0.jpginvolvement in politics.

Most people - men and women - accepted the idea that there were two separate gender 'spheres'. Women, it was widely believed, were naturally suited for domestic affairs such as keeping a home and raising children, while only men were fitted for public life and the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

In the later nineteenth century, however, growing numbers of women began to challenge this narrow view of the world. New opportunities opened up for women and girls (especially those from wealthy or middle-class families) in secondary and university education, medicine, and in church and charitable work. Attention soon turned to women's legal and political rights.

The suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as a far-flung branch of a broad late-nineteenth century movement for women's rights that spread through Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe.

This movement was shaped by two main themes: equal political rights for women and a determination to use them for the moral reform of society (through, for example, the prohibition of alcohol).


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Petitioning Parliament

New Zealand's pioneering suffragists were inspired both by the equal-rights arguments of philosopher John Stuart Mill and British feminists, and by the missionary efforts of the American-based Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

A number of New Zealand's leading male politicians, including John Hall, Robert Stouhistory-petition_0.jpgt, Julius Vogel, William Fox and John Ballance, supported women's suffrage. In 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments extending the vote to women (or at least female ratepayers) only narrowly failed to pass in Parliament.

Outside Parliament, the movement gathered momentum from the mid 1880s, especially following the establishment of a New Zealand WCTU in 1885. Skilfully led by Kate Sheppard, WCTU campaigners organised a series of huge petitions to Parliament: in 1891 over 9,000 signatures were gathered; in 1892 almost 20,000; and finally in 1893, nearly 32,000 - almost a quarter of the adult European female population in New Zealand.

Autograph Hunters: A vast army of volunteers gathered signatures for the suffrage petitions throughout New Zealand. 'Even in back lanes and alleys', the Auckland Star reported, 'resolute-looking female members of the [suffrage] committee present themselves at every door, with petition in hand, and volubly explain their mission. Their enthusiasm is infectious'.














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Political Manoeuvres

By the early 1890s opponents of women's suffrage had begun to mobilise.

They warned that any disturbance to the 'natural' gender roles of men and women could have terrible consequencehistory-Tahakopa_0.jpgs for society. The liquor industry, which feared that women would support growing demands for the prohibition of alcohol, lobbied sympathetic Members of Parliament and organised their own counter-petitions.

The suffragists' arch enemy was Henry Smith Fish, a boorish Dunedin politician who hired canvassers to circulate anti-suffrage petitions in pubs. This tactic backfired, however, when it was found that some signatures were false or obtained by trickery.

The Liberal government, which came into office in 1891, was divided over the issue. Premier John Ballance had long supported women's suffrage in principle, but privately he was worried that most women would vote for his conservative opponents. Many of his Cabinet colleagues, including Richard Seddon, a friend of the liquor trade, strongly opposed suffrage.

In 1891 and 1892 the House of Representatives passed Electoral Bills that would have enfranchised all adult women. However, on each occasion opponents were able to sabotage the legislation in the more conservative upper house, the Legislative Council, by adding devious amendments.

On Best Behaviour

Suffrage opponents had warned that delicate 'lady voters' would be jostled and harassed by 'boorish and half-drunken men', but in fact the 1893 election was described as the 'best-conducted and most orderly' ever held.

According to a Christchurch newspaper, the streets apparently 'resembled a gay garden party', and 'the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully'.


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Victory at Last

In April 1893 Ballance died and was succeeded by Seddon. Suffragists' hearts sank, but following the presentation of the massive third petition, another bill was easily passed in the House.history-mccombs_0.jpg

Once again, all eyes were on the Legislative Council. Liquor interests petitioned the Council to reject the bill. Suffragists responded with mass rallies and a flurry of telegrams to members. They also gave their supporters in Parliament white camellias to wear in their buttonholes.

Seddon and others again tried to torpedo the bill by various underhand tactics, but this time their interference backfired. Two opposition Councillors, who had previously opposed women's suffrage, changed their votes to embarrass Seddon. On 8 September 1893 the bill was passed by 20 votes to 18.

The battle was still not over. New anti-suffrage petitions were circulated and some Legislative Councillors petitioned the Governor to withhold his consent. In a battle of the buttonholes, anti-suffragists gave their parliamentary supporters red camellias to wear.

Finally, on 19 September, Lord Glasgow signed the bill into law. Suffragists celebrated throughout the country, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere. For women in some of those countries, the struggle would be an even longer and more difficult one.

In New Zealand too, women still had a long way to go to achieve political equality. Women would not gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first female MP (Elizabeth McCombs) was not elected until 1933 - 40 years after the introduction of women's suffrage. At the 2002 election 34 women MPs were elected, making up 28% of Parliament.

Read more about these people - and many others - at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.


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First in the World

Although a number of other territories had enfranchised women before 1893, New Zealahistory-ladyvoters_0.jpgnd can justly claim to be the first self-governing nation to grant the vote to all adult women.

Female descendents of the Bounty mutineers were allowed to vote for their ruling councils on Pitcairn Island from 1838 and Norfolk Island from 1856 (when they settled there). The Isle of Man, an internally self-governing dependent territory of the British Crown, enfranchised women property owners in 1881.

Women in the Cook Islands, then a British protectorate, were allowed to participate in elections for island councils and a federal parliament from 1893. This law was enacted several days after New Zealand's Electoral Act was passed, but Cook Islands women got to the polls first, on 14 October.

In addition, a handful of United States territories and states had enfranchised women by 1893: the Territory of Wyoming in 1869 (confirmed on admission to statehood in 1890), the Territory of Utah in 1870 (annulled by the US Congress in 1887, reinstated on admission to statehood in 1896), the Territory of Washington in 1883 (declared unconstitutional by local Supreme Court in 1887), the Territory of Montana in 1887, and the State of Colorado in 1893.

Australia was quick to follow New Zealand: South Australia enfranchised women in 1894, Western Australia in 1899, and the Australian Commonwealth government in 1902 (except Aboriginal women).




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