Hail Aotearoa New Zealand! In 1893, New Zealand was the first independent country to give women the vote in modern times. Pitcairn Island did in 1838, but was not self-governing; nor was the Isle of Man which enfranchised female ratepayers in 1881, nor the Cook Islands which passed women’s suffrage days after New Zealand but held their election a month earlier. Various American states and territories also enfranchised women before 1893. Franceville enfranchised women when it declared independence in 1889, but was soon under colonial rule.
See above right: the Suffragettes memorial in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand (the figures from left to right are Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Amey Daldy, Kate Sheppard, Ada Wells, Harriet Morison and Helen Nicol).
As in Australia, suffrage itself did not lead to immediate huge strides in New Zealand. Women were not eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives (lower house of Parliament) until 1919, nor eligible to be appointed to the Legislative Council (upper house) until 1941. Meanwhile the first Maori female MP (Iriaka Ratana) had to wait until 1949. Yet New Zealanders helped break the mould and their experience was drawn on elsewhere. They highlight both the significance of earlier movements such as temperance and the international character and networking of the women’s movement.
Katherine (Kate) Wilson Sheppard (1847-1934) was the most prominent member of New Zealand’s suffragists. Born in Liverpool to Scottish parents, she received a good education, and was noted for her intellectual ability. For a time she also lived with her uncle, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn. His influence, and that of her mother, helped shape her active religious conscience. Then, in 1869, several years after her father’s death, she emigrated her family to Christchurch, where she subsequently married.
Kate Sheppard’s career is an outstanding example of the story of many typical Christian women of her generation. During the early years of her marriage, she was active in membership of the Trinity Congregational Church, including church visiting, Bible classes and fund-raising. Her ministry took a new public form however with the arrival of the women’s temperance movement in New Zealand. From this, Kate was drawn into political campaigns.
Temperance had been a strong force and an active breeding-ground for the women’s movement as a whole in the United States of America. Founded in 1873 in the USA, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the major driving force. When, in 1885, Mary Leavitt, an evangelist delegate from the American WCTU, arrived in New Zealand, a local version quickly came into being, with Kate Sheppard as a founding member. As in the USA, the New Zealand Union soon recognised that proposed social and legislative reforms concerning temperance and the welfare of women and children would be more effective if women could vote and enter Parliament. In 1887 franchise departments were formed within the local unions and Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department, using her formidable organisation, speaking and writing abilities. At the heart of all was her humanitarian principles and strong sense of justice, reflected in her credo:
All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.
Kate Sheppard herself thus played a considerable part in securing the vote, building on the mass movement of temperance women. Indeed the Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, in the passing of the suffrage, honoured her as a political leader, by symbolically presenting to her the pen with which he had signed off on the suffrage bill. She then returned to the northern hemisphere for a short time, where she met prominent British and American suffragists and gave a number of speeches, as well as attending the World Conference of Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions. Back in New Zealand. she was then elected president of a new National Council of Women (NCW) of New Zealand. and later headed up the council’s newspaper, the White Ribbon (an international WCTU name and symbol which has a new dynamic role today in the worldwide, male-led, White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women). Such work added a new level of dynamism to the New Zealand women’s movement. For the annual NCW conferences were often called the ‘Women’s Parliament’. An arena for debate on many public issues, it was widely covered by local and national papers. As Kate Sheppard put it, in her presidential address in 1897:
In Wellington is every year assembled a National Council of men, which holds a session lasting several months.…From that Council women are excluded.…Under these circumstances a National Council which largely represents the thinking and working women of the colony (and which, it may be remarked, costs the country nothing) becomes a necessity. I trust the day is not far distant…when the necessity for men’s councils and women’s councils, as such, will be swept away.’
Sheppard’s social philosophy was expressed in the plethora of articles and pamphlets and she developed. A variety of issues were taken up, including: repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869; the responsibilities of women as citizens; economic independence for married women, education about alcohol; equal wages; reform of government; and the guardianship of children. In this, the family was seen as the foundation of the state, with the state’s duty therefore being to serve families. This involved supporting married women’s development. For, as she remarked:
If the mother is dwarfed, repressed, how can the children grow to their full mental and moral stature?’ (There was) no greater anomaly than the exaltation by men of the vocation of wife and mother on the one hand, while, on the other, the position is by law stripped of all its attractiveness and dignity, and a wife and mother is regarded not only as a “dependent” on her husband’s bounty, but even the children of her own body are regarded as his legal property.
In 1903, Kate Sheppard stepped down from her positions at the National Council of Women due to ill health. She moved to England, intending to retire there, briefly stopping in Canada and the United States. In London, she was active in promoting women’s suffrage but again began to flag due to failing health. In 1904 she therefore returned to New Zealand, remaining relatively inactive in political circles, but continuing to write and exercise influence. Indeed, in 1916, she and a group of other prominent suffragettes were able to revitalise the National Council of Women, which had gone into recess.
Kate Sheppard is a vital element in Aotearoa New Zealand’s progressive heritage. Her work remains an inspiration, not only there but in the wider world she touched. She appears on the $10 note in Aotearoa New Zealand, but her better legacy is her continuing feminist challenge:
We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’. We want to be natural just for a change … we must be ourselves at all risks.”
God beyond borders,
we give thanks for Kate Sheppard and the women of New Zealand,
and for all female pioneers who empowered others.
Grant that we may treasure all those who have broken new ground
and opened up pathways for others to tread.
May we, and all who long for freedom today,
be strengthened by the good examples of those who have gone before us.
that you will may be done,
and your kingdom come, in every land.
In the power of that love which unites all that is wrongfully separated, Amen.