Let not babies, the wash tub or even dinner, prevent women from going. Franchise activist, Amey Daldy, encouraging women to vote in 1893
Votes for women
By Roger Childs
124 years ago women gained the right to vote in New Zealand. We were the first country to pass such a law, however in the US states of Wyoming and Utah women had been voting for over 20 years.
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.
It was one of the many achievements of the reforming 1890s Liberal government, but not a triumph for Premier Richard John Seddon. He was against such a drastic step: in his view politics was the preserve of men.
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 17th century there was a woman sheriff who inherited the job after 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 a 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.
However, American women would have to wait another 71 years before the 19th Amendment gave them the right to vote in federal elections.
Nevertheless, the Seneca Fall Declaration provided a clarion call for many women across the planet of the need to fight for equal rights.
Meanwhile down under …
It was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which spearheaded the agitation in New Zealand. The Franchise Department lead by Kate Sheppard held rallies, made speeches, issued pamphlets and in the end put together a petition which garnered 31,872 signatures by 1893.
There was considerable opposition from the male-dominated parliament, led by Premier Seddon, and the newspapers, but by the early 1890s more MPs were coming round to the view that action was needed.
However, throughout their campaign, New Zealand women’s suffrage advocates had to suffer plenty of 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 there, to change his vote. This incensed two other councillors who altered their preference from against to for. And so the bill became law.
Many sceptical males were convinced 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.
September 19 is a hugely important day in our history.