Votes for Women! - 4wardthinkinghistory

New Zealand in the 19th century
Topic C Society and Attitudes
Focus Question - What was the nature of Maori and Pakeha
population, social organisation, settlement and views of the world? How did they change
over the 19th century?
The right for all New Zealand women to vote was a major issue in 19th century New Zealand. We
will learn about the Suffragist movement and the part it played in obtaining that right.
Votes for Women!
When the Governor, Lord
Glasgow, signed the Electoral
Act into law on 19 September
1893, New Zealand became
the first country in the world
to grant women the right to
vote in parliamentary
elections. In most other
democracies – notably Britain
and the United States –
women did not win the vote
until after the first world war.
Why did women need to vote?
In early colonial New Zealand, and in other European societies, women were
excluded from any involvement in politics. Women, it was believed, were
suited to domestic tasks. Only men could handle politics
The law of the land stated that the husband or father was the head of the household.
On marriage, a woman lost what few civil rights she had. Her property and wages were
controlled by her husband. The man of the house represented the family in public life,
as only men had the right to vote until 1893. In society where males settled disputes by force
the home was no exception. Domestic violence was common and was not acceptable as
grounds for divorce.
What does this image tell you about the popular view of women
A movement emerges
The suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as a far flung branch of a late 19th century
movement for women’s rights that spread throughout Britain and its colonies, the United
States and northern Europe. The movement was shaped by two main themes: equal
political rights for women and a determination to use them for the moral reform of
society (e.g. The prohibition of alcohol) . In the USA the Women’s Christian Temperance
Union was formed.
The WCTU was organized by
women who were concerned
about the destructive power
of alcohol and the problems it
was causing their families and
Women’s Christian Temperance Union
The Women’s Christian Temperance
Union established a branch in New
Zealand in 1885. Led by Kate
Sheppard, WCTU campaigners
organised a series of huge petitions to
Parliament. 9000 signatures were
gathered in 1891, 20,000 in 1892, and
finally in 1893 nearly 32,000 - this last
representing almost a quarter of the
female population of New Zealand .
Temperance may be defined as:
moderation in all things healthful;
total abstinence from all things
A number of New Zealand’s leading male politicians, including John Hall, Robert Stout
Julius Vogel, William Fox and Tom 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.
Political Manoeuvres
At the start of the 1890’s,
some men started to resist
the idea of women’s suffrage.
They felt that to disturb the
natural balance of the
genders would be
catastrophic for society. In
addition, the liquor industry
feared that women would
demand the prohibition of
alcohol. Their response to this
perceived threat was to lobby
sympathetic MP’s and
organise their own counterpetitions. Henry Smith Fish, a
Dunedin politician, posed a
particular problem for the
suffragists by circulating antisuffragist propaganda to
However, it was found that some of the signatures were false or obtained by
dubious means and so the campaign failed.
The Liberal Government of 1891 was divided over the issue. Premier John
Ballance was a suffrage supporter, but thought that women might vote for the
Conservatives as many of his own party, including Richard Seddon, supported
the liquor trade and opposed suffrage.
In 1891 and 1892 the House of Representatives passed bills which would have
enfranchised all adult women. On each occasion opponents sabotaged the
legislation in the more conservative upper house, the Legislative Council, by
adding amendments.
Victory at last
Seddon came to power after Ballance’s death in 1893 and the Suffragists’ hopes
waned. A third petition, bearing the signatures of almost 32000 (almost one third of
eligible women in the country), was presented and passed in the House, but the battle
wasn’t over yet. New
anti-suffrage petitions
were circulated and Seddon
tried some dubious
methods to stop the bill.
These tactics back-fired
when two opposition
Councillors, previously antiSuffrage, changed their
Votes to embarrass Seddon
and the bill was passed by
20 votes to 18 on
September 19th 1893. The
franchise (the right to vote)
was granted to women in
New Zealand.
Women at the polls
Opponents of women’s suffrage had protested that women voters might be hurt
or insulted at the polling booths by male voters. However, the 1893 election was
reported to be the most well conducted on record. A Christchurch newspaper
stated that the streets ‘resembled a garden party’ and that the women’s smiles
and dresses ‘lit up the polling booths.’
New Zealand women still had a long way to go to achieve political equality. They
would not have the right to stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first female MP
was not elected until 1933, her name was Elizabeth McCombs. The number of female
MP’s did not reach double figures until the mid 1980’s. A third of all members of
Parliament elected at the 2005 general election were female. In recent years, women
have held the country’s key constitutional positions: governor-general, speaker of the
house of Representatives and chief justice. To date there have been two female Prime
Ministers of New Zealand, Jenny Shipley 1997 - 1999 and Helen Clark 1999- 2008.
More about Suffrage
1. ‘Standing in the Sunshine’ by Sandra Coney published Penguin Books NZ Ltd Chapters 1 & 2
2.‘Century of Change’ (2nd Ed) by Marcia Stenson & Erik Olssen published by Longman Paul 1997 Chapters
3.‘Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand’ by Patricia Grimshaw published by Auckland University Press 1972
4.‘The Woman Question – writings by women who won the vote’ selected by Margaret Lovell published
New Women’s Press Ltd 1992.
5.‘Women’s Suffrage: a short history of a great movement’ by Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett published
by TC & EC Jack ca 1912 available to read on line
6.‘Frontier of Dreams’ Ed Bronwyn Dalley & Gavin McLean published by Hatchette Livre Nz Ltd 2005
7.‘Maud and Amber: a New Zealand mother and daughter and the women’s cause 1865 – 1981’ by Ruth
Fry published by Canterbury University Press 1992
8.Kate Sheppard: the fight for women’s votes in New Zealand by Judith Devaliant published Penguin 1992

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