Lily May Kirk was born at Auckland, New Zealand, on 29 March 1866, the daughter of Sarah Jane Mattocks and her husband, Thomas Kirk, a surveyor. In early 1874 her family moved to Wellington where Thomas Kirk, by this time a botanist, took up a position as lecturer in natural sciences at Wellington College (then affiliated with the University of New Zealand). Lily was educated at the Greenwood sisters' Terrace School. At home, she acquired Baptist convictions and a commitment to social service. With her mother and sisters she taught English to Chinese immigrants and reading skills to factory girls. Although she was never to leave the colony she spoke French and German fluently and read widely.
Lily Kirk joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union shortly after its inception in New Zealand in 1885. She supported total abstinence, stating that the 'slight pleasure that indulgence brings to the respectable modest drinker is as a feather's weight against the load of woe that drink lays upon numbers of our fellow creatures'. Her involvement in the temperance movement went hand in hand with advocacy of women's suffrage.
Throughout her life Lily Kirk held a variety of offices within the WCTU: dominion recording secretary (1887–1901), president of the Wellington branch (1896), and dominion president (1901–6). She was a dominion vice president for a period after 1906 and became recording secretary again shortly before her death. As a member of the legal and parliamentary department of the WCTU she was frequently in the gallery of the House of Representatives, and her 'intimate acquaintance with parliamentary usage' was invaluable to the union. She gave briefs on all bills which affected women, children or trade in alcohol, maintaining that women must take an intelligent interest in politics before advocating vigorous action.
She had a firm belief in the ability of women to effect change, and held that in the home, the nursery and the social circle the influence of women was supreme: 'If her power to mould the minds of the young and the social customs of the adult…were exerted…constantly and strenuously…women might, without for a moment leaving the private sphere to which some old-fashioned critics would confine her, effect a glorious and bloodless revolution, the like of which the world has never seen.'
During the WCTU campaign for women's suffrage, Lily Kirk addressed audiences throughout Wellington province. She was always a popular speaker – in the backblocks as well as the city – delighting her listeners as much by her 'bright and racy manner' as by her persuasive earnestness. She capitalised on the camaraderie which flourished in the union, addressing her audiences as 'beloved comrades' or 'sisters', and urging them on as 'crusaders', so that, as a West Coast secretary reported, 'The appearance on the platform of Miss Kirk…was the signal for an outburst of hearty greeting.'
From 1894 Lily Kirk was on the executive committee of the New Zealand Alliance, a prohibition organisation, and from 1895 until 1921 she was a vice president. In that organisation she worked closely with a Wellington barrister, Arthur Richmond Atkinson, who was prominent in the New Zealand Alliance, the Forward movement and the campaign against Richard Seddon. Arthur described Lily when she was his betrothed as a 'prodigy of talent, public and private…a beautiful platform speaker & as strong off the platform where so many good platform hands are weak'. They were married at the home of a Wellington friend on 11 May 1900 and moved into a house in Wadestown. The following day Lily Atkinson resumed the campaign trail. She fitted easily into the formidable Richmond–Atkinson clan, many of whose members were also involved with the WCTU or the alliance. Within that family she was known, affectionately, as 'the waterlily'.
Lily Atkinson's identity was not swallowed up in marriage; in fact she and Arthur regarded themselves as colleagues engaged in a crusade rather than simply as husband and wife. Their favourite term for each other was 'agitator'. When Lily once apologised to her husband for finding housekeeping burdensome, he wrote in reply: 'The year has been a glorious one but for your weariness from domestic drudgery. We must better that at once, or else go into lodgings.' There were two offspring from the marriage: a boy, Tom, born in 1902 who lived for a few days only, and a daughter, Janet, born in 1904.
As Lily Kirk she had been present at the convention of the National Council of Women of New Zealand held in Wellington in 1898. During the conference, she had moved an amendment seeking recognition of the money value of a woman's work as wife and mother. At the 1901 conference, as Lily Atkinson, she was elected a vice president, and at this and later conferences spoke up for the rights of illegitimate children, urging state provision for their maintenance and education. She also expressed concern that divorce laws discriminated against women.
Lily Atkinson belonged to the Plunket Society, the Kindergarten Schools Society and the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, of which she was president from 1903 to 1911 and vice president thereafter until her death. With her husband she promoted compulsory military training, and at the time of her death was a member of the Dominion Council of the National Defence League of New Zealand.
Lily Atkinson's robust and militant Christianity was as characteristic of her life as was her sense of humour and zest for campaigning. Asked on one occasion why she was on the platform and not at home darning stockings, she replied that she was 'fired with the true spirit of fair battle'.
After a brief illness, compounded by overwork, Lily Atkinson died suddenly at her Wadestown home on 19 July 1921, aged 55. In paying tribute to her, the editor of the White Ribbon proclaimed, 'Now that the torch has fallen from her nerveless hand, another must snatch it up, and waving it wide, send forth the ringing call to arms'.