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Suffrage Day: Why the vote mattered and still does today

September 11th, 2020 By Janice Rodrigues

Not everyone had voting rights when national elections first took place in New Zealand in 1853. New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote on 19 September 1893. Women in New Zealand had to fight stereotypes and overcome many obstacles to gain the right to vote.

Recapture some of these moments, find resources and activities, stir up discussions, and find reasons why it is so important to exercise the right to vote.

3 women in the 2017 Wellington Women's March, holding up a sign that says 'Kate Sheppard sent me'
Women's March, Wellington by Dylan Owen. Some rights reserved: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

'Women and vote? Her place is in the house', they said

A dramatised reproduction of Mary Ann Müller’s Franchise Movement clearly reflects the conflicting mood of Parliament in the late 1800s. Politicians like Sir John Hall and Dr James Wallace championed women’s franchise, while Mr Henry Fish and Dr Hodgkins were aggressive in their mission to cripple the passing of the Electoral Bill that would give women the right to vote.

The general opinion was that:

  • women were naturally suited to domestic affairs — to cook, clean, and take care of the children
  • women were considered impulsive and not intellectually fit to deal with important decisions like voting
  • involvement in political affairs would be detrimental to everything that made women feminine
  • higher education was said to be destructive to women’s brains.

Sir George Whitmore went on to say that he:

...would rather see Democracy run wild, and degenerate into Anarchy and Communism, than have the country preserved on Conservative lines by the vote of its women.
Evening Post, Volume XLIV, Issue 60, 8 September 1892

The groundwork begins

Women in New Zealand looked overseas with great interest at the feminist movements that had already taken hold in Britain and Europe in the late 1900s. They, too, decided they wanted equal rights in marriage, education, politics, and employment. As significantly, they wanted lawmakers to consider the moral and social issues that pioneer women were faced with — for this to happen they had to win the right to vote!

There were a few social advancements that laid the foundations for women's franchise in New Zealand.

  • 1876 — women ratepayers had the right to stand and vote in local body elections.
  • 1878 — Robert Stout proposed in the Electoral Bill that women ratepayers be allowed to vote for members of the House of Representatives. Even though Stout was unsuccessful, it was a step in the right direction.
  • 1884 — the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act granted all married women in New Zealand, including Māori women, the right to own and control their own wages and property.

But the greatest prize was for women to be able to vote in the Parliamentary elections. They narrowed their focus to two themes:

  • suffrage — the right to vote in politics
  • temperance — use the vote to influence the moral and social reform of society.

Lobby groups, petitions, and advocacy

Women realised that to achieve suffrage, they had to organise themselves and demonstrate that they were serious about voting. They formed groups, signed petitions, made speeches, wrote articles, and distributed pamphlets.

The lobby groups

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a united social movement primarily against alcohol abuse. Soon, this became entwined with social reform for women and the right to vote. Prominent suffragist Kate Sheppard became the face of this movement in New Zealand. Many Māori women joined the WCTU for the same reasons.

The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union was set up to improve the working conditions of women in Dunedin. Harriet Morrison, a tailoress by profession and secretary of the association, influenced the number of signatures collected in the three national petitions. She wanted the suffrage vote to be leveraged against the consumption of alcohol and to improve the conditions of working women.

The Salvation Army arrived in New Zealand in 1883. They encouraged the equality of women in their ranks and came out in full support of suffrage. Many Māori women joined the Salvation Army to spread the temperance message against the evils of alcohol.

The appeals

Petitions and signatures to the Parliament requesting women’s franchise to the Parliament grew in volume from two petitions signed by some 350 women in 1887 to six petitions signed by more than 19,000 women in 1892.

The final 'monster petition', presented to Parliament on July 1893 by MP Sir John Hall, contained more than 30,000 signatures.

Pseudonyms and messages

To protect themselves from political ridicule, some famous suffragists used aliases to publish their work. Mary Ann Müller, a pioneer of the suffrage movement in New Zealand, wrote under the pseudonym ‘Femmina’ in 'The Nelson Examiner'. She wrote a pamphlet An appeal to the men of New Zealand. Mary Ann Colclough wrote under the pen name ‘Polly Plum’ in 'The New Zealand Herald'. Her article What women want considered women’s rights a 'holy cause'. Kate Sheppard used the name 'Penelope’ in the magazine 'The Prohibitionist' to publish articles on franchise and temperance. Women, take the matter up was her ardent plea that appeared on a leaflet following the 1889 WCTU Convention.

Māori women and the vote

In the late 1900s, many Māori women landowners were increasingly dissatisfied at not being able to have a direct say on issues that were important to them and their communities. They had also made the connection between the growing alcohol consumption, destruction of their communities, and land loss. It is for these reasons that Māori women were involved in two suffrage movements:

  • the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to campaign for the right to vote for the members of the House of Representatives
  • the right to vote and stand as members of the Māori Parliament — Te Kotahitanga.

Meri Mangakāhia of Te Rarawa (wife of the Māori Premier, Hāmiora Mangakāhia) was, in 1893, the first Māori woman to address Te Kotahitanga. Her motion was that Māori women be allowed to vote and have a seat in the Māori Parliament.

The fight is won!

After years of petitioning, campaigning, and struggle, the day arrived — 8 September was when the Legislative Council would vote if the Electoral Bill should have its third reading.

Days before this, the Auckland Women’s Council Franchise League sent telegrams and white buttonhole camellias to likely supporters in the Legislative Council reading:

Understand the fate of franchise depends on your vote. Oh, fail us not!!
Women's vote

At the same time, Premier Richard Seddon and many of his supporters indulged in their last bit of political manoeuvring to derail the bill.

When the day arrived, the debate went on — then the doors of Parliament were locked, the votes were counted and before long, the Speaker announced that the bill has passed by 20 votes to 18.

This was one of the most significant moments in New Zealand's history, but it barely made frontline news. 'The Thames Star' ran this news on 19 September 1893 as News in a nutshell:

To the ladies.
Governor assented to Electoral Bill.
Women vote at next general elections.

On 19 September, Lord Glasgow signed the Electoral Act into law. Now all women who were British subjects, including Māori women over the age of 21, could vote in the forthcoming Parliamentary elections.

On 28 November 1893, 90,290 women cast their votes in the Parliamentary elections, a far higher turnout of registered voters (82%) than among male voters (70%).

It was only in the early 1900s that Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States enfranchised women. Saudi Arabia is the most recent country to enfranchise women in 2015.

Keep the suffrage movement alive in class

Here are some activities to help students cast their minds back to the history of the suffrage movement in New Zealand and around the world.

Votes for women — New Zealand Curriculum level 4 — a range of activities to help students understand the suffrage achievement and encourage voter participation today.

Suffrage Day quiz — 15 questions to test how much you know about women's suffrage in New Zealand.

History of women's suffrage: A women's suffrage activity — students learn how women fought and won the right to vote through these activities and quiz.

Women's suffrage: Their rights and nothing less — a lesson plan helps students understand the importance of primary sources, reforms women wanted, and compare methods used by suffragists to implement change.

Visit He Tohu — see the monster petition!

This is a permanent exhibition of three iconic documents that shaped the history of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Use the learning activities and social inquiry resources, and watch videos to explore concepts related to women's suffrage in New Zealand.

Online resources from the National Library

Topic Explorer has comprehensive and up-to-date curated sets on the history of women's rights and famous women of New Zealand:

Many Answers entries will guide you to safe and reliable websites to source information about topics related to women's suffrage and famous women in New Zealand.

Curiosity cards have fertile questions to prompt enquiry and discussion around the social and historic role of women in New Zealand.

You can also borrow books about suffrage and political participation from our lending service. Our skilled librarians will put together a tailored loan for your school according to your interests and school community.

Why vote? What does it mean for young people now?

Back in 1888, a leaflet published by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was sent to every member of the House of Representatives. It listed 10 political, legal, and social reasons why women should be allowed to vote.

Today, women vote in larger numbers than men, but young people are under-represented. They could learn from, and be inspired by, those who campaigned so hard to secure the vote for women.

Here are some questions for you to get young people thinking about their role in politics today:

  • Why do young people need to vote today?
  • List the qualities of people in Parliament that you admire or that you feel represent you.
  • What changes would you like your vote to make for young people today?
  • What kind of politician would you like to be if you entered politics?
  • Which portfolio would you choose if you were a politician? What changes would you introduce for young people in that portfolio?
  • Trace the name of the first person in your family to cast a vote. How old were they? Why do you think they voted?
  • What are some issues that are common or different comparing younger and older voters?
  • Why do you think young people are less likely to vote than people over 30?
  • What do you think the minimum voting age should be, and why?
  • What responsibility do governments have towards people not yet old enough to vote or unable to vote for other reasons (ie prisoners)?

For more information about voting in Aotearoa New Zealand, read our Election 2020 blog post.

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