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Celebrating Women's Suffrage 106 Years On
Dorothy - 17/9/99

19 September 1999, a day to remember the granting of Women's Suffrage in 1893, a day to celebrate and to look forward. Christchurch women, led by "Women on Air" are doing just that!

Celebrating Women's suffrage 106 years on
The centennial of New Zealand women gaining the right to vote was celebrated on 19 September 1993, but that does not mean that we should cease to celebrate on that date, because we still enjoy the privilege granted us 106 years ago.

Women mark 19 September at the Kate Sheppard Memorial
Women mark 19 September at the Kate Sheppard Memorial
Photo source Women on Air

The Kate Sheppard Memorial on the bank of the Avon
The Kate Sheppard Memorial on the bank of the Avon (Christchurch)
Photo source Peter Hunt
Click here to view a larger version

Young people now study women's suffrage as part of their school curriculum, but those of us who are older learnt very little in our schooldays about any New Zealand history or the struggle of women in New Zealand and worldwide to gain political rights. Now many of us are reading and studying to fill the gaps.

Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft
The campaign for women's rights was not confined to New Zealand and dates from the publication in Great Britain in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" - the first publication of its kind. In the dedication she states the "main argument" of the work, "built on this simple principle that, if woman be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence or general practice."

This work was a plea for equal education, organised by the State education and offered to both sexes together. She was making a protest against the idea that women are only playthings for men. She did not attack marriage, but declared that intellectual companionship was the chief happiness of marriage.

Women's suffrage issue first raised in the USA
Agitation for equal women's suffrage started in the USA around the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1848 the first women's rights convention in the USA was held at Seneca Falls. The early suffrage movement was linked with the anti-slavery movement. After the Civil War male blacks were given the vote by 1870, and women were indignant that it was still denied to them.

John Stuart Mill in Britain
In Great Britain the philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, was known to be supportive of women's suffrage. A London Suffrage committee, encouraged by his election to Parliament, collected 1.449 signatures to a petition which he presented to Parliament in 1867. In 1868 he lost his seat in the general election. In 1869 he published "The Subjection of Women" - a statement of the case for women's suffrage.

Women's suffrage debate in British colonies
The debate about women's rights spread to the British colonies and in Australia and New Zealand in particular was linked to the temperance issue.

Why was the women's suffrage movement so early and so successful in New Zealand?
As Dame Ann Hercus commented in her speech at the celebration of the centennial of Women's suffrage:
"As New Zealand was being settled by Europeans, with a huge influx of English and Scots and Irish, and with a leavening of the loaf through a scattering of Europeans and Asians, the legal rights of women were distinctly underdeveloped! Indeed they were warranted in the law books of the time only a tiny section, sandwiched between lunatics and aliens!"

Yet these women with so little legal recognition were working hard helping their husbands develop farms or businesses and coping with real hardship in the process. They believed that in return they and their female descendants should have a better deal from this new colony.

Education of women
Education was one area in which some women were faring better in New Zealand. Girls' secondary schools were opened during the 1870s and women were admitted to universities. Kate Edger graduated B.A. from the University of New Zealand in 1877, the first female university graduate in New Zealand, and the first woman to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree in the British Empire. (A Canadian woman had gained a Bachelor of Science degree two years earlier.) Kate Edger was appointed to teach at Christchurch Girls' High School and at the same time studied for a Master of Arts degree from Canterbury College and was capped in 1882.

Women in the workforce
As women became better educated they entered the paid workforce, most as teachers, but some others as doctors, lawyers and journalists, or in their own businesses. By the late 1880s over seven hundred women who had no right to vote were the employers of men who had the vote.

Mary Ann Muller writing in New Zealand
Mary Ann Muller was an early New Zealand advocate of women's rights and suffrage. As her husband did not approve of her feminist views she wrote under the nom de plume, Femmina, and published her writings in the Nelson Examiner. Her article, "An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand", attacking some old world customs and prejudices, was published in 1869 and John Stuart Mill wrote to congratulate her. Her writings influenced a wide range of readers. Many of her views were incorporated in the Married Women's Property Acts of 1860 and 1870.

Support for women's suffrage from politicians
Early in their careers William Fox (later to be Sir William Fox) and Alfred Saunders advocated women's suffrage. Other men gave support to the cause - Sir George Grey, Sir Julius Vogel, Sir John Hall, Sir Robert Stout.

1875 - Women's right to vote in municipal elections
In 1875 women ratepayers' voting rights in municipal elections, already granted in Otago and Nelson, were extended to all the provinces.

1879 - Suffrage for all men over twenty one, but not for women
In 1879 all men over the age of twenty one were granted the vote, but the attempt to get women the vote was defeated. What was needed was for the word 'men' in the legislation to be changed to 'persons'.

1885 Women's Christian Temperance Union founded
The chief group speaking out for the same rights for women was the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in New Zealand in 1885. This movement had received strong support from American women and was introduced to New Zealand by an American WCTU leader, Mary Leavitt.

As the name suggests, the first concern of the women was the impact of excessive use of alcohol on women and their families. The women's work towards the financial security of the family was often being undermined by the abuses associated with alcoholism. They believed that if they were granted the vote they could support legislation banning alcohol.

They did not limit their work to promoting temperance and women's suffrage, but established programmes to assist the destitute, young people, and those in hospitals and prisons.

Kate Sheppard becomes leader of the political thrust

Kate Sheppard
Kate Sheppard - Photograph courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington, New Zealand.
Kate Sheppard, a remarkably intelligent and well educated immigrant from Britain, became the leader of the group in the WCTU involved in political campaigning. They campaigned for equal divorce laws, the raising of the age of consent (twelve at that time), pre-school education, soup kitchens and night shelters, and they strongly opposed the wearing of corsets which symbolised the restrictions on women!

Kate Sheppard (born Catherine Malcolm) was married to a Christchurch business man older than she was. She had the means and the freedom to travel and speak at meetings around the country, and wrote and published articles and enlisted the support of men who sympathised with the cause of women's suffrage. She persuaded some to speak at some of the meetings she organised around the country. Most importantly she had the skill of inspiring other women round the country to join the cause and to take action - and to remain loyal and continue taking action.

1887-1893 - Six years of intense struggle and dedication
It was six years between the presentation of the first Suffrage Bill in 1887 and the successful Suffrage Bill in 1893, and it required intense dedication by the leaders of the movement to keep the momentum going through meetings, letters to the editors, pamphlets and books. The best way to get action on the issue in Parliament was through petitions and three petitions were presented to Parliament between 1891 and 1893.

The first major petition, signed by 9,000 women, was presented in 1891, and the second with 20,000 signatures was presented in 1892. The courage of New Zealand women and the support for women's suffrage was growing.

The opposition
However the opposition was strong. Those who had vested interests in the liquor trade saw the women's vote as a threat to their profits. Churches were either divided on the issue, and the Roman Catholic Church was in strong opposition to increasing the rights of women. The conservatives right through the country thought that the agitation about suffrage was a threat to family life and traditional values. A number of politicians, including Richard John Seddon, expressed strong opposition to women's suffrage.

1891 Legislative Council defeat of women's suffrage legislation
At that time bills before Parliament had to be passed by the upper house, the Legislative Council. In 1891 Sir John Hall's bill for women's suffrage and an amendment giving them also the right to sit in Parliament passed through Parliament but was defeated in the Legislative Council.

1893 Parliament supports women's suffrage bill.
In 1893 the third petition signed this time by over 30.000 women was presented to Parliament by Sir John Hall and his bill for women's suffrage was passed in the lower house.

Richard John Seddon as premier
The women's suffrage movement suffered a setback when the premier, John Ballance, who supported their cause, died in April and Richard John Seddon, vocal opponent of women's suffrage, became the new premier. However, under his leadership a government electoral bill passed through Parliament. It included the right for Maori women to vote.

Legislative Council passes the women's suffrage bill.
Seddon relied on the Legislative Council to defeat the bill. He appointed to the Council twelve new members, at least half of whom were know to oppose women's suffrage. He tried to influence one of the members to change his supporting vote. This had the opposite result as two members then decided to vote in support of the bill which was passed by the Legislative Council.

White and red camellias
Efforts were made by some members of the Council to persuade the new Governor, Lord Glasgow, not to sign the Bill. The suffragists moved into action with telegrams and in Wellington on September 8 in a very visible gesture white camellias were sent to all members of Parliament who had supported women's suffrage. The opponents were sent red camellias. The Governor signed the bill.

Women's suffrage becomes law.
On September 19 1893 the Electoral Act 1893 gave women the vote.

Kate Sheppard spoke about the result soon afterwards.

"It does not seem a great thing to be thankful for, that the gentlemen who confirm the laws which render women liable to taxation and penal servitude have declared us to be "persons"...... We are glad and proud to think that even in so conservative a body as the Legislative Council there is a majority of men who are guided by the principles of reason and justice, who desire to see their womenkind treated as reasonable beings, and who have triumphed over prejudice, narrow-mindedness and selfishness."

Election in November
Women were granted the vote just ten weeks before the next election. The WCTU conducted a massive drive to get women of all classes to enrol and vote. This was successful in getting sixty five per cent of eligible women to use their right to vote.

Honouring the achievement
This happened 106 years ago, but its significance is not forgotten. In Christchurch each year on September 19 at 12.30 p.m. women wearing a white camellia gather at the Kate Sheppard Memorial on the Avon River bank near the Information Centre to honour the occasion.

Women on Air's September Festival
The weekend, 18 and 19 September, is a time of celebration of the work of women and a focus on important issues through the Christchurch Women on Air's September Festival.

The wide ranging programme includes sessions on women in business, health and fashion, Genetically Modified Food, healthy living before during and after menopause, the art of Edith Collier, cooking with well known cooks, being a lesbian parent, and Beryl Fletcher talking about her book "The Bloodwood Clan".

On Saturday morning, 18 September, at 10 a.m. the Women on Air programme on Plains FM 96.9 will feature women from the past in stories and interviews as well as current happenings.

The changing roles and rights of New Zealand women
Further articles on these topics will appear in NZine in the next few months. The granting of the suffrage was an immense achievement but was a beginning, not an end to work on women's rights.

Have you read this earlier article on women's suffrage?


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