How New Zealand Became the First Nation to Give Women the Vote

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The long journey towards voting equality began in 1893 in New Zealand, which became the first country in the world to give women the vote on an equal footing. Though this distant colony still answered to Queen Victoria in Britain, it had enjoyed de facto independence since the 1860s, and on 19 September 1893 the bill to enfranchise women met with royal approval.

Today this moment is seen as a watershed for the history of women’s rights, as it set a working precedent to be emulated around the world over the next century.

A rising movement

The idea that women might have a useful role to play in the political as well as domestic spheres had been gaining prominence in the English-speaking world throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

Its first influential exponent had been the British philosopher, politician and libertarian John Stuart Mill, who had argued for voting reform in the House of Commons. Aside from the “negative” argument that it was unfair on women to treat them unequally, Mill and his influential wife Harriet also argued that women would bring greater morality, calm and focus on families into politics.

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Kate Sheppard comes to the fore

In New Zealand, these ideas were enthusiastically embraced by a female intellectual elite which was growing in confidence. Its most famous member, Kate Sheppard, had moved to the country from England in the 1860s and been introduced by the campaign for women’s suffrage in 1885, when a speaker from the famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in America had arrived in her native Christchurch during a tour of New Zealand.

After this, Sheppard, who possessed a formidable intellect and skill as an orator, quickly became the most well-known suffragette in New Zealand, setting up a New Zealand branch of the WCTU and famously declaring that “all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.” In 1887, her WCTU sent a petition to the Premier, Sir Julius Vogel, asking him to support a Female Suffrage bill in parliament.

Kate Sheppard’s face now decorates the ten dollar note in New Zealand.

Delaying tactics

Vogel’s support made a difference and the bill made it to the upper chamber of parliament – the Legislative Council – where it was defeated by just one vote. Its strongest opponent, the Liberal MP Walter Carncross, kept proposing that the bill should include the right for women to stand for election to the House of Representatives, knowing that this step too far would likely turn the more conservative upper chamber against the reform.

These tactics delayed its passing for several more years until 1893, when the suffragette Catherine Fulton, organised an enraged protest against Carncross’ tactics. After that and six years of the issue dominating politics, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a large majority, but the Legislative Council was divided almost exactly in half over the issue.

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The new premier, the stern, autocratic and imperialistic Richard Seddon, was a strong opponent, and managed to convince a junior party councilor, Thomas Kelly, to vote with him against the bill whilst claiming to support it in public.

Eventually these underhanded tactics cost Seddon, when they convinced two other councillors, William Reynolds and Edward Stephens, to change their minds and support the bill, meaning that it was finally passed by 20 votes to 18 on 8 September.

The powerful figure of Richard Seddon. Despite his sketchy behaviour over women’s suffrage, he is regarded to be one of New Zealand’s greatest leaders.

Victoria gives the go ahead

In these years before New Zealand became an entirely self-governing dominion of the British Empire (which would happen in 1907) one more obstacle remained, the consent of the Queen-Empress and her governor Lord Glasgow, who finally gave Female Suffrage the go-ahead on 19 September.

That same year, Elizabeth Yates became the first woman in the history of the British Empire to win elected office, as she became the (by all accounts very effective) mayor of Onehunga, a suburb of Auckland. This made international news, and she received personal letters of congratulations from William Seddon – who was now claiming credit for women’s suffrage – and Queen Victoria.

It took until 1919 – after thousands of New Zealanders had fought and died in the Great War – for women to be admitted to parliament, which had its first female representative in 1933, and its first indigenous Maori women member in 1949.

In 1999 Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister, and had a successful nine-year spell in power before a new career working for the United Nations. Since 1893, virtually every nation on earth has followed New Zealand’s lead and introduced female suffrage.

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