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125 Years of Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand

Today, September 19, 2018, marks the 125th anniversary of the signing of the Electoral Act 1893 into law, after it was narrowly passed by the New Zealand Parliament on September 8, 1893. With this Act, New Zealand “became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.” Sure, Wyoming granted this right in 1869, and a couple of other U.S. territories followed suit in the next fifteen years or so. Various other places around the world had also granted some women the right to vote or only in some elections, but we New Zealanders are very proud of our “firsts” (see also, Sir Ed Hillary climbing Mt. Everest). Indeed, “New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of our image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’.”

The 1893 Act stated, in addition to persons aged over 21 years with freehold title to land being able to register to vote,

[e]very person of the age of twenty-one years or upwards who has resided for one year in the colony and in the electoral district for which he claims to vote during the three months immediately preceding the registration of his vote, and is not registered in respect of a freehold or residential qualification for the same or any other district, is entitled (subject to the provisions of this Act) to be registered as an elector and to vote at the election of members for such district for the House of Representatives. (Electoral Act 1893, s 6(2).)

The Act specifically defined “person” as including “a woman,” and furthermore stated “[w]ords and expressions in this Act importing the masculine gender include women, except where otherwise expressly stated.” (Id. s 3.)

However:

No woman, although duly registered as an elector, shall be capable of being nominated as a candidate, or of being elected a member of the House of Representatives, or of being appointed to the Legislative Council; and every nomination-paper of a woman as a candidate shall be absolutely void and of no effect, and shall be rejected by the Returning Officer without question.

It was not until 1919 that women were able to stand for election to the Parliament, following the passage of the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act. No woman won a seat in the House of Representatives until 1933.

Of course, as in other countries, the battle to gain voting rights for women was hard fought. There were speeches and campaigns, several failed bills (e.g. in 188018871891, and 1892), and multiple petitions. The New Zealand History website states that

the movement gathered momentum from the mid-1880s, especially following the establishment of a New Zealand WCTU in 1885 [Women’s Christian Temperance Union, based on the organization of the same name in the United States]. 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.

The website provides access to a digitized version of the main 1893 petition, containing the names and addresses of more than 24,000 women. There is a searchable database of all the names, and biographies of some of the women have been added, with members of the public able to contribute additional details. The original petition is now on display at the National Library of New Zealand, along with other important constitutional documents.

The 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition (Archives New Zealand Flickr account, March 24, 2015). Used under Creative Commons License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

The National Library’s Papers Past site, containing digitized newspapers and other documents, is also interesting to explore with respect to women’s suffrage and associated people and events. In addition, Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand, provides a detailed biography of Kate Sheppard, a prominent leader in New Zealand’s suffrage movement. It includes a line from the Christchurch Times upon her death in 1934: “A great woman has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures.” I certainly learned about her at school in New Zealand, and she remains in clear view to the New Zealand public (and to visitors): her image is on the ten dollar note. The flower on that note relates to women’s suffrage: suffragists gave white camellias to members of Parliament who supported the 1893 Electoral Bill and the flower “has become a symbol of the fight for the vote by New Zealand women.”

Also, near the Parliament in Wellington, a silhouette of Kate Sheppard has replaced the “green man” in pedestrian “cross now” lights.

I recall the centennial celebrations in 1993, and it’s interesting to look over the many events and celebrations that are happening this year for the 125th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. New Zealand’s female politicians have had some international news coverage over the past year – particularly the current Prime Minister. Looking back and remembering the work and people that preceded them will be the focus today and at events associated with the anniversary around the country.

The Library of Congress holds a number of items related to women’s suffrage in New Zealand, including:

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