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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



By the end of the nineteenth century the position of women in New Zealand society, as in all Western countries, was perceptibly altering under the influence of the feminist movement. New Zealand women were taking up public employment, had been admitted to all university degrees and to all professions, and had seen many legal injustices to their sex removed. From the time when Mary Müller of Nelson had published her pro-suffrage pamphlet in 1869, individual women began to work for political emancipation, with the result that in 1885 an organisation, with suffrage work as a principal interest, came into existence. During the year 1885 an envoy of the Women's Christian Temperance Union of the United States, Mary Leavitt, toured New Zealand and founded 15 branches of her organisation. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, formed originally as a temperance society, had acquired in the United States a markedly feminist character, and this proved to be so in New Zealand as well. As the first national body to be organised exclusively for and by women, it attracted some of the most socially active and prominent women of the country, and although it interested itself immediately in all aspects of women's status, the emphasis was, above all, political. This was apparent when the energetic and able Kate Sheppard of Christchurch became the national franchise superintendent in 1887, aided by such local secretaries as Helen Nicol of Dunedin and Amey Daldy of Auckland; the cause then gained increasing numbers of adherents. Well attended public meetings, at which women took the platform for the first time, were held in each main community, letters were sent to newspapers, and pamphlets distributed. The leaders corresponded with the leading suffragists of England, Australia, and the United States, exchanging letters of encouragement and advice. Annual petitions were sent to Parliament, culminating in the monster petition of 1893, which was signed by 30,000 women over the age of 21 years.

Women's franchise leagues were also founded, mainly to counter the suspicion of hostile liquor interests that the suffrage campaign was merely a manoeuvre of temperance agitators. By the early 1890s the movement had become a most efficient political pressure group which bombarded politicians with questions, letters, telegrams, and deputations. Even before organised suffrage agitation had begun, Stout, Ballance, Vogel, and Wallis had seriously advocated women's suffrage in Parliament. At the request of the union, Sir John Hall in 1887 undertook the leadership of the political battle and brought the question to considerable prominence. The measure, a plank of the radical Liberal platform, was passed in 1893, more, however, due to the pressure of backbench Liberals with Opposition support than to the Ministry itself, which secretly opposed the Bill by every possible means. Thus in the election of November 1893, the women of New Zealand, enrolling and voting in numbers that astonished the country, first exercised their right to use the ballot box in a State or national election.

by Patricia Ann Grimshaw, M.A., Auckland.


Patricia Ann Grimshaw, M.A., Auckland.