Women hold up half the sky. Mao Zedong
By Roger Childs
We have come a long way in New Zealand in giving women their rightful place in society.
Today we have women as Prime Minister, Governor General and Chief Justice.
125 years ago women gained the right to vote in New Zealand.
We were the first country to pass such a law, and British and American women would have to wait until 1918 and 1920 respectively.
The first Women’s Franchise Bill had gone before the New Zealand parliament in 1878, but it would take another 15 years before the deal was finally done.
A long battle for franchise equality
Voting in England and the United States was for centuries based on owning property. Women were not allowed to vote or hold political office, however there were occasional quirks which provided exceptions.
In Stuart England in the early 17 the century there was a woman sheriff who performed very capably after inheriting the job when her husband passed away.
Then in New Jersey in the 1790s and 1800, women who owned enough property actually voted, until 1807 when the male-dominated Congress excluded all members of the female sex from casting ballots.
In 1848 there was a famous gathering of American feminists of the time at Seneca Falls. In their Declaration of Sentiments they used the Declaration of Independence as their model and stated We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal ..
And in their final statement made demand: … we insist that they (women) have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
It would take American women until 1920 before the 19th Amendment gave them the right to vote in federal elections. However the Seneca Fall declaration provided a clarion call for many women across the planet on the need for equal rights.
Meanwhile in the South Pacific
It was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) that spearheaded the agitation in New Zealand. The Franchise Department lead by Kate Sheppard (pictured alongside), held rallies, made speeches, issued pamphlets and in the end put together a petition with had 31,872 signatures by 1893.
(The National Library is wanting to do biographies of the women who signed, so if you have ancestor in that category, get in touch.)
Sadly only a handful of men signed.
There was huge opposition from the male dominated parliament led by Premier Seddon, and newspapers, but by the early 1890s more and more MPs were coming round to the view that action was needed.
However, the New Zealand women’s suffrage advocates had to suffer much abuse, satire and ridicule. (See alongside.)
The 1893 bill passed in the House of Representatives, but then had to go to the Upper House.
Seddon put pressure on a new councillor to change his vote.
This incensed two other councillors and they altered their preference from against to for. So the bill became law.
Exercising their right
Let not babies, the wash tub or even dinner, prevent women from going. Franchise activist, Amey Daldy, encouraging women to vote in 1893
Many sceptical males thought that large numbers of women wouldn’t bother to vote.
How wrong they were!
In the October 1893 election 82% of the women enthusiastically cast their ballots, while just 70% of the male of species went to the polls.