John Clarke: Women on a roll

by Listener Archive / 06 December, 2012
Do you, too, have an ancestor among New Zealand’s first female voters?
Eliza Jane Fox
Eliza Jane Fox later in life, photo courtesy of John Clarke

The National Library of Australia is a large impressive contemporary building overlooking Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Among the documents on display at present are early maps and atlases, Cook’s Endeavour journal, records from Bligh’s unusual voyage, the original sheet music for Waltzing Matilda and the handwritten notes passed between Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in the loud and freezing cockpit of the Southern Cross as they flew across the Pacific in 1928.

Downstairs is a newspaper and microfilm reading room that holds millions of records. It’s a researcher’s dream. Some of the records are available only on site, among them a copy of the 1893 New Zealand electoral roll. Not only do you have to be in the building to view this but you need to be on a particular computer. I sat at this otherwise unremarkable device this week, opened the roll and typed in the name of my great-grandmother Eliza Jane Fox. Up she came. Eliza Jane Fox. Waiapu electorate. Gisborne resident. Married.

  • The 1893 New Zealand general election was the first in the world in which all women were allowed to vote. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a runner in this event. I also looked up Eliza’s mother, Matilda Keys. Not there. No appearance, Your Worship. Matilda was eligible to vote, but perhaps chose not to. Maybe it was too modern for her. She’d crossed the world from Enniskillen, a perilous journey of nearly half a year; she’d lived in tough circumstances, had five children, buried two husbands and survived and made her own way. But perhaps voting was a bridge too far.

  • For Eliza, as for many of her generation of New Zealand women, suffrage was a significant advance but only a beginning. She was part of the effort to get a hospital for Gisborne and played a role in other aspects of local politics. Perhaps she recognised the opportunity given to those who settle in a new land to define themselves in a context different from that of their immigrant parents. Eliza’s parents were from the old world; she was from the new. They were formed, shaped and taught in Ireland; she never left New Zealand. Her parents were Roman Catholic; she was a free-thinker who was married in the Knox Presbyterian church in Dunedin when she was slightly pregnant.

  • Eliza’s life followed other patterns of her time. Born in the Victorian goldfields in 1862, she arrived in Dunedin when the Otago gold rush was attracting people from all over the world. She married a man from Dublin who played rugby for Otago and Poverty Bay and was a New Zealand rowing champion. They brought up seven children, most of whom I knew.

  • If I were the New Zealand Government, I would publish the names of the women who voted in the 1893 election. And I’d hope anyone related to them would consider doing some research. What happened to these women and their children? It’s still only about 100 years ago. Their sons went to World War I. Eliza lost a nephew at Gallipoli. A son was gassed in France. Her grandsons went off to World War II, one with the New Zealand Division in North Africa and Italy, the other a decorated pilot and the only survivor of his original squadron. Her daughters and granddaughters included teachers, writers and organisers.

If we don’t research our own history, our great-grandchildren will have to pay to access it online or find it on a computer in someone else’s library. Most of the women who voted in 1893 would have been photographed. If we try really hard, we might find images to match the names.

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