On 19 September 1893, when the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant the right to vote to all adult women. At the time this was a truly radical change: many other democracies did not allow women to vote till decades later.
A movement for change
In the late 19th century a broad movement for women’s political rights, including voting rights, developed in Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe. Its earliest successes would come in colonial and frontier societies like Australasia and the American Midwest.
Suffrage campaigners drew inspiration from two sources. Ideas of equality were championed by John Stuart Mill and British feminists, including Barbara Bodichon and some women’s suffrage societies. With that went the missionary zeal of the American temperance movement, which believed the vote would allow women to save society from the evils of drink.
Against women’s suffrage
Offers of free drinks, trickery, bogus or children’s names, multiple signatures in the same handwriting, sometimes copied from street directories (including the name of at least one prominent suffrage supporter) were all part of the liquor-industry petition against women gaining the vote. But the hoteliers and brewers didn’t get the numbers they needed, and the tactics used meant the petitions were an embarrassing failure.
The New Zealand campaign was driven by the local branch of the American-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1885. Non-temperance franchise leagues and unions also played an important role. Led by the WCTU’s Kate Sheppard, suffragists organised a series of massive petitions to Parliament. They collected 9,000 signatures in 1891, 20,000 in 1892 and nearly 32,000 – almost one in four women – in 1893.
Opponents mobilised too. Some argued that upsetting ‘natural’ gender roles would endanger the family and society. The liquor industry feared that pro-temperance women voters would put them out of business.
Parliament was divided. In 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments to enfranchise women (or at least female ratepayers) had only been narrowly defeated. Many leading politicians supported women’s suffrage, including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel and John Ballance. Others such as Richard Seddon, who became premier in 1893, were hostile.
In 1891, 1892 and 1893 women’s suffrage bills comfortably passed the House of Representatives (the lower house). On the first two occasions they were defeated in the Legislative Council (the upper house). In 1893 Seddon tried to ensure the same result by lobbying councillors, but his meddling backfired. Two councillors changed their votes to embarrass the premier and on 8 September the upper house passed the Electoral Bill by 20 votes to 18.
The 1893 election
When the governor signed the law on 19 September, suffragists celebrated a famous victory and congratulations poured in from around the world. It was only six weeks until registration closed for the 28 November election, but 109,461 women, or about 84% of those eligible, enrolled to vote. On polling day 90,290 of them (plus perhaps 4,000 Māori, who voted on 20 December) voted – two out of every three adult women in the country.
Colonial elections were often rough-and-tumble affairs, and suffrage opponents had warned of ‘boorish and half-drunken men’ harassing ‘lady voters’ at the booths. But the 1893 election was described as the most orderly ever held. The Christchurch Press thought ‘the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully.’1
New Zealand’s early embrace of women’s voting rights has become a key part of its identity as a world-leading, progressive democracy. In 1990 Kate Sheppard was commemorated (alongside the suffragists’ symbol, the white camellia) on New Zealand’s $10 banknote. The 1993 centenary was marked by nationwide celebrations, conferences, books and memorials.