The Speaker
Monday, 24 June 2024 – 08:27

Women Suffragettes – New Zealand’s Place in History

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

The Commonwealth Games, which have entertained the nation lately, have become an important platform where viewers across the world can see countries united in the name of sport. The competing countries are happy to compete as members of the Commonwealth, despite their past relationship with Britain. All 53 countries were once ruled by Britain during its empire days – but are all completely unique. The modern Commonwealth is meant to represent a consistency of ideas regarding the rights of citizens. However many differ in their progress regarding civil liberties, particularly their views on women’s rights. New Zealand was the first country on the planet to give women the vote way back in 1893. As part of the British Empire/Commonwealth this could have initiated a movement across the empire, however, South Africa didn’t give all women the vote until 1994.

New Zealand citizens are proud of the fact that they granted women the vote long before any over the self-governed country not only regarding Commonwealth countries but all countries across the globe.  New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of their image as forward thinking democracy with the highest standards of civil rights and liberties.

Women in New Zealand got the vote after years of effort by suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard. Unlike Britain and the United States, there was no waiting until after the First World War to get the vote or by breaking windows and causing destruction. Instead, Sheppard produced a number of petitions calling on Parliament to let women have the vote. The petitions gathered in 1893 were signed by almost a quarter of the adult female population of New Zealand.

The suffrage movement in New Zealand initiated huge waves of women fighting against the stereotypical narrow image that women should be kept in the house, raise children and not have any involvement in politics. The New Zealand movement was shaped by two main themes: equal political rights for men and women and the determination to use these rights to introduce social reform. A key difference between New Zealand and Britain in terms of getting the right to vote is that key male politicians supported the suffrage movement. Amongst the supporters were William Fox (Second Premier of New Zealand), John Hall (Prime Minister of New Zealand 1879-1882)  and Julius Vogel (eighth Premier of New Zealand).

Surprisingly, the liquor companies presented the biggest resistance against women getting the vote. They believed that allowing women to have the vote would lead to the prohibition of alcohol as females were not as interested in alcohol. I guess in these time alcohol production was restricted to liquor and ale and the mass consumption of wine by females was yet to materialize. Was this a missed opportunity to tie the vote to an expansion of wine production?

The Liberal government, which came into office in 1891, was very much divided over the issue. The Premier, John Ballance, supported the suffrage movement. But behind closed doors, he was worried that women would vote for the conservative counterparts and was therefore reluctant to give women the vote. Many of Ballance’s cabinet colleagues, including Richard Seddon, who was a friend of the liquor trade, strongly opposed the suffrage movement.

In April 1893 Ballance died and was succeeded by Richard Seddon. This appeared to be the end of the suffrage movement but following the presentation of a third massive petition, another bill was easily passed into the House. Seddon and others tried to destroy the bill through various underhand tactics but it backfired. Two opposition councillors – who previously opposed women’s suffrage, changed their vote with the pure intention to embarrass Seddon. Finally, on the 19th September, Lord Glasgow the Governor of that time signed the bill into law and suffragettes rejoiced across the country.

Even though New Zealand did give women the right to vote first, they still have a long way to go until they achieve political equality. Women didn’t gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female MP was not elected until 1933 – a long time after women were entering Parliament in the UK. Even today women remain underrepresented in Parliament and only makeup just over 30% of MPs elected (2014). 

Skip to content