Mary Muller was one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights in New Zealand. Drawing on her own experiences of a disrupted childhood, a failed marriage and the loss of property, she developed a critique of society based on the exclusion of women from property rights, education and the franchise. In 1869 she published anonymously a pamphlet appealing to the men of New Zealand to enfranchise women. When her authorship was publicly revealed in 1893, she was recognised as a foundational figure in the campaign for the suffrage in New Zealand.
Mary Anne Wilson was born in London, England, on 22 September 1819. Her father was James Norris, an insurance and stock broker, and the oldest son of a London surgeon. His mother’s family, the Bogle Frenchs, were well-off merchants connected to the West Indies. Little is known of the background of her mother, Mary Cott. James Norris and Mary Cott do not appear to have been legally married. For official purposes, such as when her two daughters were belatedly baptised in 1832, and the 1841 census, Mary Cott provided the name Wilson.
In 1824 James Norris, identifying as a bachelor, made an advantageous marriage to another woman. In turn, Mary Cott married Job Jeves, a schoolmaster of Deptford, in late 1828. This marriage broke up in the 1830s when Jeves, working as a tax collector, was imprisoned for default. Mary’s older daughter, Leonora, married in 1834. By 1841, Mary and her younger daughter were living in the London suburb of Camberwell. James Norris’s brothers continued to have contact with the family, even after his death in 1838, and helped support them financially.
Mary married James Whitney Griffiths, a chemist, in London on 16 December 1841. They had a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Mary (known as Lizzie), but separated in November 1845, on account, according to the later divorce suit, of his cruelty. A second son, Norris, was born in March 1846 and the divorce was confirmed in the Arches Court in London in February 1848. In August 1849, Mary Griffiths and her two younger children left England on the Pekin, accompanying Stephen and Mary Muller and their four children. The families had been neighbours in Camberwell and Stephen Muller was the ship’s surgeon on the Pekin. His wife died on the voyage to New Zealand.
The Pekin arrived in Nelson in January 1850. Sometime after this, Stephen Muller made a return journey to England while Mary Griffiths looked after his children. Muller arrived back in New Zealand in June 1851. Although she was divorced from James Griffiths, Mary did not have the legal right to remarry. Having reason to believe Griffiths had died, she married Stephen Muller in Nelson on 5 December 1851. In fact, Griffiths was still alive and lived in Worcester in England until his death in January 1855.
The couple and the children from their prior marriages first lived in Nelson, where Muller worked as a doctor. Mary and Stephen had no further children. Stephen became involved in provincial politics. He was elected to the Nelson Provincial Council in 1855 and again in 1857. He was appointed a justice of the peace, served as the provincial secretary and was elected to the Board of Education. In 1857 the family moved to Blenheim, where Stephen Muller took up an appointment as resident magistrate. In October 1861, Mary’s elder son, Christopher, joined the rest of his family in New Zealand. Her daughter Lizzie’s journal, written in the 1860s, records church attendances, informal visits to friends, shopping, walking and various household tasks. It also records times when Mary took to her bed with headaches for days on end. Lizzie, an epileptic, died in her early twenties at her parents’ home in 1868.
Mary Muller had a keen sense of the legal and political disabilities of women, based on personal experience. In 1864 she met a women’s rights advocate, Maria Rye of the English Female Middle-class Emigration Society, who was visiting New Zealand. From then on she closely observed the course of the women’s rights movement in Great Britain and the United States.
In 1869, using the pseudonym Femmina, she published New Zealand’s first pamphlet on the women’s vote, An appeal to the men of New Zealand. In this pamphlet she argued that women should not be discriminated against in law or politics on grounds of sex, that they had as just a claim to the vote as men, and that without political rights they could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation. ‘How long’, she asked, ‘are women to remain a wholly unrepresented body of the people?’1 She urged men to take the initiative in electoral reform and made a special plea to parliamentarians: ‘Women’s eyes turn in hope – nay trust – on some leading spirits who will not fail them.’2 Charles Elliott, the proprietor of the Nelson Examiner, whose son was married to Mary’s step-daughter, advertised the pamphlet and supported Mary in her views. Newspapers around the country carried reports of the publication of the pamphlet and it was cited and quoted in debates on women’s suffrage in the following decades.
In 1870 Mary Muller received a letter of congratulations from the philosopher John Stuart Mill, to whom she had sent a copy of her pamphlet; he sent her a copy of his book, The subjection of women, which had been published in England only two months before her work appeared. Mill urged her to form a committee to work for the vote, but she was unable to act publicly. Much later, Mary wrote that her husband, though ‘a good & a learned man’, was ‘prejudiced’; because of his views, she had to work ‘like a mole’.3
Mary Muller’s wish for women was for more than the suffrage; it was for ‘the complete emancipation of my sex’.4 As she wrote and published anonymously it is not easy to know which other causes she took up, but two for which she used the Femmina pseudonym can be identified. The first was the protection of married women’s property. When the member of the House of Representatives for Grey and Bell, James Crowe Richmond, promoted the Married Women’s Property Protection Bill, Femmina praised his efforts in a letter to the editor of the Nelson Examiner published on 3 August 1870. She later wrote that the Married Women’s Property Protection Act was to her an ‘even greater’ triumph than women’s suffrage, ‘for I had suffered greatly – & this effort will give us freedom that thousands yearn for.’5 The second women’s rights issue she advocated for was access to higher education. In May 1871 she praised the Examiner for its support of a local college for girls and university degrees for women.
Stephen Muller died in 1891. On 5 October 1893, just weeks after women won the vote in New Zealand, Mary wrote to leading suffragist Kate Sheppard, revealing her early advocacy of women’s suffrage: ‘I am an old woman now, but I thank God I have been able to register myself an Elector and I now look forward with hope.’6 Sheppard asked permission to make Mary Muller’s authorship of the Appeal public, and it was in this way that her role in the suffrage movement became known. In 1898 she wrote to Sheppard: ‘Old & failing, it is cheering to watch the efforts of the younger and abler women striving bravely to succeed in obtaining rights so long unjustly withheld’.7 That year an article in the White Ribbon, the magazine of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union, described her as ‘the Pioneer Woman Suffragist of New Zealand.’8
Mary Muller died at Blenheim on 18 July 1901.
This replaces an earlier entry on Mary Anne Müller by Raewyn Dalziel, published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. Please note research indicated that the umlaut used in her surname in the original essay was not a correct spelling.