In early colonial New Zealand, as in other European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. Most people – men and women – accepted the idea that women were naturally suited for domestic affairs, such as keeping house and raising children. Only men were fitted for public life and the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
In the later 19th century, some women began to challenge this narrow view of the world. New opportunities were opening up for women and girls (especially those from wealthy or middle-class families) in secondary and university education, medicine, and in church and charitable work. Attention soon turned to women’s legal and political rights.
The suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as a far-flung branch of a broad late-19th-century movement for women’s rights that spread through Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe. This movement was shaped by two main themes: equal political rights for women and a determination to use them for the moral reform of society (through, for example, the prohibition of alcohol).
New Zealand’s pioneering suffragists were inspired both by the equal-rights arguments of philosopher John Stuart Mill and British feminists and by the missionary efforts of the American-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
A number of New Zealand’s leading male politicians, including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox and John Ballance, supported women’s suffrage. In 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments extending the vote to women (or at least female ratepayers) only narrowly failed to pass in Parliament.
Outside Parliament the movement gathered momentum from the mid-1880s, especially following the establishment of a New Zealand WCTU in 1885. Skilfully led by Kate Sheppard, WCTU campaigners and others organised a series of huge petitions to Parliament: in 1891 more than 9000 signatures were gathered, in 1892 almost 20,000, and finally in 1893 nearly 32,000 were obtained – almost a quarter of the adult European female population of New Zealand (You can search a database of the 1893 signatures here.)
By the early 1890s opponents of women’s suffrage had begun to mobilise. They warned that any disturbance of the ‘natural’ gender roles of men and women might have terrible consequences. The liquor industry, fearful that women would support growing demands for the prohibition of alcohol, lobbied sympathetic Members of Parliament and organised their own counter-petitions.
The suffragists’ arch-enemy was Henry Smith Fish, a boorish Dunedin politician who hired canvassers to circulate anti-suffrage petitions in pubs. This tactic backfired, however, when it was found that some signatures were false or obtained by trickery.
The Liberal government, which came into office in 1891, was divided over the issue. Premier John Ballance supported women's suffrage in principle, but privately he worried that women would vote for his Conservative opponents. Many of his Cabinet colleagues, including Richard Seddon who was a friend of the liquor trade, strongly opposed suffrage.
In 1891 and 1892 the House of Representatives passed electoral bills that would have enfranchised all adult women. On each occasion, though, opponents sabotaged the legislation in the more conservative upper house, the Legislative Council, by adding devious amendments.
In April 1893 Ballance died and was succeeded by Seddon. Suffragists’ hearts sank, but following the presentation of the massive third petition, another bill was easily passed in the House.
Once again, all eyes were on the Legislative Council. Liquor interests petitioned the council to reject the bill. Suffragists responded with mass rallies and a flurry of telegrams to members. They also gave their supporters in Parliament white camellias to wear in their buttonholes.
Seddon and others again tried to torpedo the bill by various underhand tactics, but this time their interference backfired. Two opposition councillors, who had previously opposed women's suffrage, changed their votes to embarrass Seddon. On 8 September 1893 the bill was passed by 20 votes to 18.
The battle was still not over. New anti-suffrage petitions were circulated, and some members of the Legislative Council petitioned the governor to withhold his consent. In a battle of the buttonholes, anti-suffragists gave their parliamentary supporters red camellias to wear.
Finally, on 19 September, Lord Glasgow signed the bill into law. Suffragists celebrated throughout the country, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere: one wrote that New Zealand’s achievement gave ‘new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation’. For women in many countries, the struggle for voting rights would be long and difficult.
Suffrage opponents had warned that delicate ‘lady voters’ would be jostled and harassed in polling booths by ‘boorish and half-drunken men’, but in fact the 1893 election was described as the ‘best-conducted and most orderly’ ever held. According to a Christchurch newspaper, the streets ‘resembled a gay garden party’ – ‘the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully’.
Even so, New Zealand women still had a long way to go to achieve political equality. They would not gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first female Member of Parliament (Elizabeth McCombs) was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after the introduction of women’s suffrage. The number of female MPs did not reach double figures until the mid-1980s and women are still under-represented in Parliament.
[Note: This page replaces an earlier more detailed account based on the introduction to The suffragists: women who worked for the vote. Essays from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993. Read the adapted introduction to this book here (pdf).]