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How NZ women won the right to vote first: The original disruptors & spiteful MPs

A poster promoting the suffrage movement.

Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it? - Kate Sheppard

What was it about New Zealand that led to women winning the right to vote on this day in 1893?

New Zealand women were disrupting the status quo in the 1800s: They enrolled in university, they sought more rights in marriage and as part of the new colony, worked alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands.

From 1884, 24 petitions calling for women to be able to vote were collected, inspired by efforts overseas in the UK and the US. Women's suffrage ramped up a few years later with three major petitions, eventually resulting in the Women's Suffrage Bill being passed on 19 September 1893. But why was New Zealand first country in the world to grant women the right to vote?

A tough life in the colony

While marriage was considered the main 'occupation' of New Zealand colonial women in the 19th century, it involved more than it did in the UK, according to The Colonial Helpmeet: Women's Role and the Vote in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand by Raewyn Dalziel.

Some women worked unpaid on their husband's farms, for example, Jessie Campbell, the wife of a Wanganui dairy farmer in the 1840s. Proceeds from her sales of fresh and salt butter and milk were for some years the sole cash income from their land. Bearing in mind women were also responsible for all domestic duties – doing the laundry could take a whole day of physical work – it was a hard way of life.

"New Zealand still had quite a small population at the time and women had been in the minority up until that time, so it was more obvious that women were working hard at home," says Megan Hutching, an Auckland-based historian and author of Leading the Way: How New Zealand Women Won the Vote.

Various things had also been happening to empower New Zealand women, she says. Laws had passed that allowed women to divorce more easily, have more rights in marriage, allow them to be elected to school boards and vote in local body elections.

"Once that sort of thing happened and men realised that it wasn’t actually the end of the world if women had these responsibilities, it made it easier for women to be able to vote in parliamentary elections as well."

Not just an 'absurd fad'

The Liberal Party government in the 1890s played a key role, too.

"New Zealand had been in a long economic depression but it was kind of coming out of the other end of it and the Liberal government had not long been elected," says Hutching. "The party was quite progressive for its time and some of the members were supporters of women's suffrage."

Politician Sir John Hall, an ally of leading suffrage campaigner Kate Sheppard, argued during a debate over the bill that many women in his electoral district worked and paid rates and taxes, so they too should have a voice in legislation.  

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"Twenty-four women are managing their own farms... furnishing employment to a large number of men; and yet, while every one of the men who are dependent upon these women for employment and for wages, assists to make the laws and to fix the taxation of the country, the women whose capital, industry, and enterprise give them work and wages are excluded from any voice in the matter."

Of course, there were politicians against it, who considered it an "absurd fad" and believed women did not even want the right to vote.

Henry Smith Fish said giving women the vote would have an "evil effect upon society" and cause "domestic unhappiness".

"I say great harm can arise from women having the vote... we shall presently see the man going home and boiling the tea, frying the chops, washing the babies... where is this outrageous mix-up of the sexes to stop when once you begin it?"

Unfortunately for Fish, the bill did not go away.

Introducing the bill again to Parliament, Hall presented a couple of small petitions to the sound of sniggering, but it fell silent as he unfurled the 30,000-strong petition that had been pasted together and sent up to Wellington by Sheppard.

Voting on the bill followed and for a rather petty reason – two politicians annoyed by the Premier, Richard Seddon, who tried to manipulate the vote to go against it – voted in favour instead of their original plan to go against it, allowing the bill to pass. At the time, The New Zealand Herald commented: "It is hardly too much to say that the enfranchisement of the women has been accomplished by her enemies".

The persistent women 

Persistent efforts of campaigners like Sheppard, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, Mary Ann Müller and Harriet Morrison were integral to getting women to sign the petitions. Campaigners set out on bike, on horse and on foot, door knocking and spreading the word.

They also held public meetings, which were important as many places in New Zealand were quite isolated, says Hutching.

"That was the way they kept people thinking about it – public meetings were a big thing in those days."

Many women who fought for the vote were also driven by the temperance movement borne out of the US, to prohibit alcohol. Alcohol was cheap and abundant at the time, which led to problems like men spending all their money on drink and women suffering domestic abuse, says Hutching.

"When the Women's Christian Temperance Union was set up [in NZ], it was an opportunity for women to get together to try to do something about it – if they had the vote they could influence who was elected to Parliament to get laws passed that restricted the sale of alcohol."

The campaign was an incredibly well executed by Sheppard, says Hutching.

"She kept in touch with lots of people around the country and kept up networks. She was engaging. I think when people met her they felt a lot of empathy with her, and she did a lot of work with male politicians."

The suffragettes were also quietly persistent, continuing to gather petitions as the bill failed to pass the first two times. "They didn’t get downhearted, they knew they were close, and they kept at it."