In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote – despite claims that families would be abandoned and the economy destroyed. Kate Sheppard, leading light of the suffrage movement, was vindicated when 65% of New Zealand women took the chance to vote in their first general election.
Born in Liverpool in 1847, Kate emigrated to Christchurch in her early twenties. In 1885 she joined the new Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated women’s suffrage as a means to fight for liquor prohibition. For Kate, suffrage quickly became an end in itself. Speaking for a new generation, she argued, ‘We are tired of having a “sphere” doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is “unwomanly”.’
Kate travelled the country, writing to newspapers, holding public meetings and lobbying members of Parliament. Opposition was fierce. As Wellington resident Henry Wright wrote, women were ‘recommended to go home, look after their children, cook their husbands’ dinners, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which Nature designed them’; they should give up ‘meddling in masculine concerns of which they are profoundly ignorant’.
In 1893 a 766-foot-long petition was unrolled across the chamber of the House with dramatic effect. With 32,000 signatures it was then the largest petition ever presented to Parliament. Despite the opposition of Premier Richard Seddon, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed by both houses of Parliament and became law on 19 September. The news took New Zealand by storm and inspired suffrage movements all over the world.
Kate continued to work at home and abroad for women’s rights – from contraception to freedom from the corset. She became president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and editor of The White Ribbon, the first newspaper in New Zealand to be owned, managed and published solely by women. In 1909 she was elected honorary vice-president of the International Council of Women.
Kate outlived two husbands, her only son, and her only grandchild. She died on 13 July 1934, a year after the first woman MP, Labour’s Elizabeth McCombs, entered Parliament. In recent years Sheppard’s contribution to New Zealand’s identity has been acknowledged on the $10 note and a commemorative stamp.