How Did New Zealand Become the First Nation to Give Women the Vote? | History Hit

How Did New Zealand Become the First Nation to Give Women the Vote?

Lily Johnson

12 Jan 2021
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The long journey towards universal suffrage began in 1893 in New Zealand, 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. But how, in a time in which women were still viewed as second-class citizens, did New Zealand achieve it?

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 19th 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 the family into politics. The bill was defeated however, with many MPs vehemently opposed to the idea.

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Kate Sheppard comes to the fore

In New Zealand however, these ideas were enthusiastically embraced by the female intellectual elite slowly 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. (Image Credit: Reserve Bank / Flickr)

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, a vastly smaller margin than had occurred in Great Britain.

Its strongest opponent, the Liberal MP Walter Carncross, continued to propose that the bill should include the right for women to stand for election to the House of Representatives, knowing that this step would likely turn the more conservative upper chamber against the reform. These tactics delayed its passing for many years.

Māori suffrage

Alongside this fight within the New Zealand government for universal suffrage, a similar was erupting within Te Kotahitanga, the autonomous Māori Parliament. Headed by Meri Mangakāhia, she became the first woman to address the assembly in 1893, submitting a motion in favour of women’s suffrage and their allowance to stand as members of the parliament.

Meri Mangakāhia, c.1890s (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Meri argued that Māori women were and had traditionally always been landowners and thus should not be barred from representation. She also argued that women in positions of power may be better able to resolve land disputes with Queen Victoria that had arisen during New Zealand’s colonisation. While awaiting change in Te Kotahitanga however, the following year brought the unprecedented vote for universal suffrage to New Zealand Government’s House of Commons once more.

The bill is passed

Growing frustrated with Carncross’ delays, in 1893 suffragette Catherine Fulton organised an enraged protest against him. After six years of the issue dominating politics, the House of Representatives at last passed the bill by a large majority, though 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 tactics cost Seddon the vote when his underhanded conduct 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, 1893.

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. (Image Credit: Public Domain)

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 universal suffrage the go-ahead on 19 September, 1893.

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.

Though Māori women could now vote in the elections of the New Zealand Government, in 1897 Meri Mangakāhia’s efforts were realised when women were also finally allowed to vote in the Te Kotahitanga.

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It took however 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 Māori 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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Lily Johnson