Fémmina: The story of NZ's unsung suffrage provocateur Mary Ann Müller

by Cathie Bell / 19 September, 2018
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Mary Ann Müller. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Under the pseudonym Fémmina, Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived in New Zealand, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.

A middle-aged woman married to an establishment figure in a small South Island settlement led a secret life, igniting the campaign for women’s rights while staying hidden from the view of a disapproving spouse.

With a household to run and a respected husband – the first resident magistrate for the newly established Wairau district in Marlborough – Mary Ann Müller campaigned in secret, corresponding with politicians and lobbying for the cause through newspaper columns and pamphlets.

Working diligently but anonymously, she’s credited with writing the first pamphlet on the women’s vote to be published in New Zealand.

Yet her story is little known, even in Blenheim where, with her husband, she was one of the earliest settlers. The only reference to her name in the town is a road named after her husband.

Her grave is not easy to find in Blenheim’s historic Ōmaka cemetery; the wording added to her husband’s headstone reads, “Dearly loved wife of the above”.

She was a nationally syndicated columnist but her work appeared under a pen name and her identity wasn’t revealed until years after her husband died.

Most of the leadership for women achieving suffrage is attributed, rightly, to Kate Sheppard, but Müller started her advocacy for women’s rights – publishing An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand in 1869 – before Sheppard emigrated to New Zealand later that year.

Various accounts in collections about memorable New Zealand women are not clear about Müller’s early life, other than her birthdate of September 22, 1820.

At 21, she married James Whitney Griffiths, a chemist, in London and they had two sons and a daughter. Eight years later, she and her two younger children left England on the Pekin, bound for New Zealand.

Kate Sheppard. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The then Mary Griffiths was described on the ship’s passenger list as a widow but it has been suggested by several writers that her husband was still alive and that she had left him because of domestic violence.

She and her children arrived in Nelson in January 1850, and in December 1851, she married Stephen Lunn Müller, a widowed doctor with four children, who had also come here on the Pekin.

Mary Anne Müller had looked after his children with her own while Dr Müller had to travel, and the pair were married only after it was confirmed her husband had died.

Six years later, the family moved from Nelson to Blenheim, where Stephen Müller took up the position of resident magistrate. There, they were joined by Mary’s elder son.

Based on her personal experience, Mary Müller had a keen sense of the legal and political obstacles faced by women. Her first and greatest concern was that, on marriage, women lost all rights to own and control property. Her second concern was that women were not able to vote.

Suffragists demonstrating in London in 1912. Illustration/Getty

The birth of Fémmina

After meeting English women’s rights advocate Maria Rye during her 1864 visit to New Zealand, Müller began to closely watch the course of the women’s rights movement in Britain and the US. This spurred her into writing articles as “Fémmina” for the Nelson Examiner.

W Sidney Smith, in his 1905 book Outlines of the Women’s Franchise Movement in New Zealand, wrote that her husband was “heartily shocked” by his wife’s views.

“A good and learned man, an affectionate husband, he was rigid in his views as to the impropriety of women manifesting an interest in politics,” Smith wrote.

“Mrs Müller was confronted with a choice between domestic discord and the advocacy of views she felt to be both just and urgent. In this painful dilemma, Mr Charles Elliott, a relative by marriage, came to the rescue. Not only a member of Parliament, he was the proprietor of the Nelson Examiner, which at that time was probably the most influential newspaper in the colony.

“Carefully preserving Mrs Müller’s anonymity, he received and forwarded her correspondence, placed the column of his own newspaper at her disposal, and procured publication for her articles in other parts of the colony.”

Her influence soon extended well beyond the top of the South Island, when her pamphlet calling for the women’s vote was published.

In it, she argued that women should not be discriminated against in law or politics on grounds of their sex, that they had as just a claim to the vote as men, and that without political rights they could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation.

New Zealand women at a suffrage march in London in 1910.

New Zealand women at a suffrage march in London in 1910.

“How long,” she wrote, “are women to remain a wholly unrepresented body of the people?” She urged men to take the initiative in electoral reform and made a special plea to parliamentarians: “Women’s eyes turn in hope – nay trust – on some leading spirits who will not fail them.”

It attracted great interest at home and overseas and prompted a congratulatory letter from British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who was deeply interested in justice and equality for women.

Despite her husband’s view that women should not be involved in politics, Müller met with many prominent political leaders of the time, including Edward Stafford, Alfred Domett, Sir William Fox, Sir John Hall and Sir David Monro, and was an influential networker and lobbyist.

The fight for rights

In the mid-19th century, a married couple was a single financial and legal entity controlled by the husband. All of a wife’s money and property, whether acquired before or after marriage, was her husband’s. A wife had no right to a share of her husband’s (or their joint) earnings or property during marriage, or to part of his estate after he died.

Before then, it was not unknown for men to go to the West Coast to dig for gold, leaving their wives and children without support. The husbands, on their return, had every right to seize everything saved by their wives, to actually sell the furniture from the house, and return to the diggings leaving their families destitute again.

Home ownership was near impossible for married women before 1884 and it remained unusual for them to own property for decades afterwards.

Parliament passed laws in 1860 and 1870 to improve the position of wives deserted by their husbands, and in 1867 to allow divorce.

Women walking to the polling booth on election day in Auckland in 1899. Photo/Auckland Libraries/ 7-A12353/(Beattie & Sanderson)

Women walking to the polling booth on election day in Auckland in 1899. Photo/George Grey Special Collections/Auckland Libraries/7-A12353/(Beattie & Sanderson)

In 1884, the Married Women’s Property Act gave women within marriage a legal existence for the first time. It let them hold property and make contracts in their own right, and allowed them to sue and be sued.

In 1893, women won the vote. In Marlborough, about 200 women had signed the suffrage petition and about 1000 women registered to vote – Müller was among them.

She witnessed these reforms with pleasure and, in March 1898, wrote to Sheppard to thank her as she “liked to feel in touch with those carrying on this struggle”.

“‘Old and failing, it is cheering to watch the efforts of the younger and abler women striving bravely to succeed in obtaining rights so long unjustly withheld.

“It was a triumph to obtain the suffrage; the Married Women’s Property Act was, to me, even greater, for I had suffered greatly. The effort will give us a freedom that thousands yearn for.”

In December 1898, seven and a half years after her husband’s death, her identity as Fémmina was finally revealed in a notice in White Ribbon, the newsletter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

University of Auckland emeritus professor Raewyn Dalziel has written about Müller, notably for the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

She says that Müller’s advocacy of women’s rights grew out of her personal experience and her wide reading of contemporary affairs and debate.

“There is a lot we will never know about her – just what happened in her first marriage, why she came to New Zealand, her relationship with the Müllers, and so on.”

Is she still relevant?

“In the way that all writers on women’s rights are relevant – we are not there yet.”

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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