Catherine Wilson Malcolm was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, probably on 10 March 1847, the daughter of Scots parents Jemima Crawford Souter and her husband, Andrew Wilson Malcolm, a clerk. She was called Catherine after her grandmother, but preferred to use the names Katherine or Kate. Her early childhood years were spent in London, Nairn in Scotland, and Dublin. A child of outstanding intellectual ability, she was well educated and her later writings reflect an extensive knowledge of the sciences, arts and the law. Her strong religious education and her adherence to religious principle and Christian socialism is attributed to the influence of an uncle, who was minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn.
Her father died in 1862, and in 1868 her mother brought Katherine and her two brothers and a sister as saloon passengers to New Zealand; they arrived on the Matoaka at Lyttelton in February 1869. The family settled in Christchurch, where Katherine's sister, Marie Beath, was living. At Christchurch on 21 July 1871, Katherine, at the age of 24, married Walter Allen Sheppard, a grocer and general merchant. Their only son, Douglas, was born at Christchurch on 8 October 1880. During the early years of her marriage Katherine Sheppard was an active member of the Trinity Congregational Church, giving her time to church visiting, Bible classes and fund-raising. She became secretary of the Ladies Association, and was also involved with other members of her family in temperance work.
In 1885 Mary Leavitt, an evangelist delegate from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of the United States of America, commenced her mission in New Zealand and Kate Sheppard became a founding member of the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union. It was quickly realised by the union that proposed social and legislative reforms concerning temperance and the welfare of women and children would be more effectively carried out if women possessed the right to vote and the right to representation in Parliament. In 1887 franchise departments were formed within the local unions and Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department.
In this position she was responsible for co-ordinating and encouraging the local unions: she prepared and distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the press and stimulated debate within the WCTU, church meetings, and temperance and political societies. An accomplished public speaker and writer, she had a clear, logical intellect, and could also conduct argument without rancour. Kate Sheppard was motivated by humanitarian principles and a strong sense of justice: 'All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome'. Hers was a quietly determined, persuasive and disarmingly feminine voice.
Kate was accompanied on her speaking engagements by her younger sister, Isabella May, who worked with her as superintendent of the literature department of the WCTU. The pamphlets distributed by the union were sent to members of Parliament. The temperance societies, already strongly organised within the community, believed that if women had the vote there would be a national majority in favour of prohibition. The emphasis throughout the campaign, however, was on the right of women to vote; that right had previously been extended to males over 21 years. Women, in being excluded, had been classed with juveniles, lunatics and criminals.
The franchise department of the WCTU took the first of three major petitions to Parliament in 1891. The petition was presented by Sir John Hall, and strongly supported by Alfred Saunders and the premier, John Ballance. It was signed by more than 9,000 women, and the second in 1892 by more than 19,000.
In June 1891 Kate Sheppard inaugurated and began editing a women's page in the Prohibitionist, the national temperance magazine. With the formation of franchise leagues in many centres, and the increasing activity and growth of the WCTU auxiliaries in the smaller centres, the largest petition ever presented to Parliament was collected in 1893 with nearly 32,000 signatures. The small band of 600 women members of the WCTU had successfully roused public opinion to the extent that Parliament could no longer ignore their demands.
The Electoral Act 1893 was passed on 19 September and Kate Sheppard received a telegram from the premier, Richard Seddon, previously her political enemy in the House, conceding victory to the women. The governor, Lord Glasgow, honoured Kate Sheppard as a political leader, by symbolically presenting to her the pen with which the bill granting womanhood suffrage had been signed.
It was ten weeks before the election, and the WCTU set about enrolling women. Kate Sheppard emphasised that the franchise department of the WCTU was anxious for all women of all classes to enrol. Sixty-five per cent of all New Zealand women over 21 voted in the first election. New Zealand had become the first country in which all women exercised the right to vote.
In 1894 Kate Sheppard returned with her husband and son to England where she met other leading feminists and with tireless energy joined in a hectic round of public speaking and debate in support of women's franchise. New life had been infused into the women's suffrage movement in England by the success and encouragement of the New Zealand campaigners. Sheppard attended the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union biennial convention in London in June 1895 as New Zealand's delegate and met that union's president, Frances Willard. Her speeches were reported in British as well as New Zealand newspapers.
While in London Kate Sheppard was requested by the International Council of Women to form a national council of women in New Zealand. On her return to Christchurch she found that the Canterbury Women's Institute had already called a meeting of the franchise leagues and other women's societies, in order to form a federation of women's organisations. It was decided to make this April 1896 meeting the inaugural session of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, and Kate Sheppard was elected president, a position she held for the next three years.
Sheppard's absence had resulted in some disarray among her supporters in the House. A bill to include women's representation in Parliament was thwarted by her two previous stalwarts, Alfred Saunders and Sir John Hall, who wanted a separate chamber for women. Kate Sheppard had never advocated a separationist policy, and the loss of her influence meant, perhaps, that the crucial moment for women's complete political equality was also lost.
The annual conferences of the NCW, often called the 'Women's Parliament', were frequently reported with full coverage by the local daily papers, and the resolutions passed were covered by the national press. These meetings also became an arena for public debate on social issues and affairs of state. In her presidential address at the second session in Christchurch in 1897 Kate Sheppard stated: '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.'
In 1895 the WCTU began publishing its own newspaper, the White Ribbon, which was then the only paper in New Zealand to be started, owned, edited, managed and published by women. Under the editorship of Kate Sheppard this became the 'Hansard' of both the WCTU and the NCW. Its 16 pages were used to keep the branch unions informed of activities, to co-ordinate and report on organisations affiliated with the NCW and to conduct the ongoing campaign for the creation of a just society within the ideals of Christian socialism. Articles were included on health and rational dress, education, education against alcohol, women's political and legal disabilities, and equal wages for women.
Many of these articles were written by Sheppard. Often published as separate pamphlets, they reveal the coherence of her social philosophy. In lucid prose she discusses the need to make full use of women's suffrage in New Zealand, repeal the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, emphasise the responsibilities of women as citizens, promote economic independence for married women, reform government and reconsider the guardianship of children. It is clear that she regarded the family as the foundation of the state, and believed that the state should therefore serve families. With regard to the position of women in the family, she asked: 'If the mother is dwarfed, repressed, how can the children grow to their full mental and moral stature?' In her view 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.' The practical means of ending a wife's economic and legal dependence on her husband was given in the NCW proposal that there should be a law 'attaching a certain just share of the husband's earnings or income' for the wife's separate use, 'payable if she so desires it, into her own account.'
Kate Sheppard translated her political philosophy into practical proposals for reform. These largely followed the Swiss model, and were supported by Alfred Saunders. They included proportional representation, with non-party affiliation; the initiative and referendum, whereby the public would have the right to initiate or veto legislation; and the elective executive, whereby cabinet ministers would be elected by all members of Parliament. The cabinet was to be a consultative body whose members would be persons of moral character, ability and experience who would be concerned to co-operate for the common good. To prevent any individual from dominating excessively, the prime minister was viewed as a chairperson, voted in for a one-year term.
Kate Sheppard's most active years as a political leader for social reform were from 1887 to 1902. During this period she was franchise and legislation superintendent of the WCTU, convener of the economics department of the Canterbury Women's Institute, and from 1896 to 1902 president or vice president of the NCW. After eight strenuous years as editor and contributor to the White Ribbon she resigned at the Dunedin WCTU convention in April 1903, owing to ill health and the pending retirement of her husband, Walter Sheppard, who wished to settle in England. Before she departed in July 1903 to join Walter and son Douglas, who was attending the University of London, she was publicly honoured by the executive of the NCW for her outstanding contribution to the community.
She travelled to England through Canada and the United States where she met Carrie Chapman Catt and other leading feminists. With an improvement in her health she was able to attend some public functions in London where she was in demand as a public speaker. Although she wrote a number of letters to the editors of national newspapers on the debate on women's suffrage, her health again steadily declined and she was unable to attend the International Council of Women's quinquennial meeting in Berlin in 1904. Her paper, however, was read to the 19 national councils represented at the meeting.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a rest cure, Kate Sheppard was advised by her doctors that she would need to spend the winters in the south of France. She chose instead to return to New Zealand and arrived back with her husband in September 1904. In March 1905 Margaret Sievwright, then president of the NCW, died. Although an attempt was made to continue the council's work by electing new officers with Kate Sheppard as president, the council went into recess in 1906. That same year Sheppard declined the office of franchise superintendent of the World's WCTU. She lived quietly, retiring from public speaking, but continued to influence the women's movement through her writing and work with the franchise and legislation department of the New Zealand WCTU, and by acting in an advisory capacity to the White Ribbon. In 1909, at the Toronto quinquennial meeting of the International Council of Women, Kate Sheppard was elected honorary vice president, even though she was unable to attend.
On 29 June 1908 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Kate Sheppard's son, Douglas, married Wilhelmina Sievwright, daughter of her friend and co-worker, Margaret Sievwright. Douglas Sheppard died soon afterwards, on 16 March 1910. Walter Sheppard died in Bath, England, on 24 July 1915.
In 1916 Kate Sheppard, Christina Henderson and Jessie Mackay met with the intention of reconvening the National Council of Women. Personal letters were sent to women in the various centres; local branch councils were formed in the main centres. Kate Sheppard was unable to attend the first conference of the revived council in Wellington in 1919, but her address, written in her capacity as founding president, was read for her. She was made a national life member in 1923.
At Christchurch on 15 August 1925, aged 78, Kate Sheppard married William Sidney Lovell-Smith, a 72-year-old printer and author of Outlines of the women's franchise movement in New Zealand; he died four years later. Her only grandchild, Margaret Isobel Sheppard, died in 1930. Kate Lovell-Smith died at her home at Riccarton, Christchurch, on 13 July 1934, and was buried in Addington cemetery with her mother, a brother and a sister. The Christchurch Times reported her death in simple appreciation: 'A great woman has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures.'