Kate Sheppard’s Legacy: 127 Years of Women’s Suffrage

This article marks one year of She’s Right’s operation.

By Jessica Sutton.

“All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”
– Kate Sheppard[1]

Extremely intelligent, dedicated to activism and hopeful for progressive change, Kate Sheppard was an unstoppable force in 19th Century New Zealand, playing a key role in the country becoming the first nation where women gained the right to vote. Kate was born in Liverpool on 10th March 1848 and, after her father’s death, travelled to New Zealand with her family to begin a new life – surviving a three month voyage on the ship Matoaka. Kate’s religious upbringing had a clear influence on her throughout her life, and she was active in the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a movement against alcohol consumption, from 1885. In 1887 she gained the position of National Superintendent for Franchise and Legislation, and swiftly became embroiled in the fight for universal suffrage. The connection between advancing prohibition of alcohol and campaigning for women to have the vote may seem tenuous – but ultimately Kate realised that women’s activism was disregarded by Parliament due to their lack of voting rights. In order for women to be heard by Parliament on any pressing issue, women needed to be recognised as full citizens of New Zealand, with all the rights and privileges that entailed. Soon, Kate’s passion for women’s rights far outstripped her original work towards alcohol prohibition, and universal suffrage became her key goal in and of itself.

What was the suffrage movement like in New Zealand?

Although universal male suffrage had been instigated in New Zealand from 1879, women continued to be excluded from public affairs, subject to minimal rights regarding local body elections. A Female Suffrage Bill failed in 1887 by one vote, leaving campaigners disheartened. However, Kate was described as a passionate and compelling speaker, as well as a smart administrator and organiser of her campaign. Her natural flair for persuasive verbal and written advocacy through speeches, pamphlets, and leaflets, pushed the fight for universal suffrage along at an outstanding rate. Her most famous pamphlet was distributed to all members of the House of Representatives – entitled “Ten Reasons why the Women of New Zealand should Vote”. Her other skills included a keen understanding of negotiation and the importance of networking – she forged a friendship with Sir John Hall, Premier and member of the House of Representatives, which would prove long-lasting and essential to the cause. Sir John Hall became a staunch advocate and ally of the movement, noting that “Women have quite as much brains as and, in many cases, more than men have, and they have quite as much interest in the colony.”[2]

 “Is it right that your mother, your sister, your wife, or your daughter should be classed with criminals and lunatics, or treated as aliens from a foreign country? … 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?”[3]
-Kate Sheppard

Who opposed universal suffrage, and why?

The suffragists endured constant backlash and misogynist rhetoric from politicians, male members of the public and a proportion of women who feared the disruption of the status quo. MP Richard Seddon could be termed the nemesis of the suffrage movement, seeming to block Kate’s efforts at every turn. It was Seddon who so strongly opposed the 1887 Female Suffrage Bill, and continued to rail against the suffragists, or the “shrieking sisterhood”[4] as some termed them, attacking both them personally, and the movement they represented. Seddon arguably was responsible for covertly lobbying in Parliament for the ultimately successful Electoral Bill of 1893 to be voted down.

Dunedin politician Henry Fish was another key antagonist, stating that allowing women to vote would be the antithesis of “that refinement, that delicacy of character, which has been her greatest charm ­hitherto”.[5] This is the same man who termed higher education and bicycles the most pressing threats to women’s mental, physical, and reproductive health. Other popular reasons for opposing suffrage included promoting the misconception that women had smaller brains than men and were incapable of comprehending politics, that their domestic duties would suffer if they were distracted by the ‘burden’ of voting, and that their husbands represented the political views of the family in any case.  This reflects Seddon’s view that “all domestic felicity would be destroyed once ladies commenced to dabble in politics”.[6]

However, New Zealand suffragists still faced fewer obstacles than women in the UK – where women protesting via hunger strike were subjected to abhorrent treatment including force-feeding, police brutality, and sexual assault, all to silence the movement.[7] It was in this context, and in response to this brutality, that UK suffragette Emily Davison’s final desperate charge in front of the King’s horse became a legendary symbol of the struggle for universal suffrage.[8]

Success

After multiple failed petitions and amendments to the Electoral Bill 1888, and the failure of the Electoral Bill 1892 which aimed to guarantee women’s suffrage, Kate organised a final petition to Parliament in 1893, along with a team of dedicated women and men. This would total approximately 32,000 signatures – the largest petition New Zealand’s Parliament had ever seen. Women and men had crossed the country collecting the necessary signatures. The petition was unrolled in Parliament in a symbolic gesture still recognisable in popular culture today, and the ultimate result was the Electoral Act 1893, signed by the Governor on the 19th September 1893. Women at last claimed the right to democratic participation.

Following the success on the passing of the Electoral Act 1893, Kate’s activism continued. She became Editor in Chief of “The White Ribbon”, the only newspaper in New Zealand fully owned and controlled by women, and was also elected the first President of the National Council of Women. She died peacefully on the 13th July 1934 at the age of 86, having lived to see the first woman elected to Parliament in 1933.


[1] https://www.ncwnz.org.nz/suffrage-125-a-milestone-year-for-the-national-council-of-women/

[2] https://www.noted.co.nz/archive/archive-listener-nz-2015/the-f-word

[3] https://quotes.yourdictionary.com/author/kate-sheppard/104538

[4] https://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/107059425/the-day-nzs-shrieking-sisterhood-forced-the-vote-on-womenly-women#:~:text=On%20September%2019%2C%201893%2C%20NZ,the%20women%20of%20New%20Zealand.

[5] https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/women-on-a-roll/

[6] https://www.noted.co.nz/archive/archive-listener-nz-2015/the-f-word

[7] https://www.stylist.co.uk/visible-women/suffragettes-force-fed-imprisoned-uk-tactics-punishment-history/188085

[8] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/international-womens-day-suffragette-emily-davison-women-suffrage-death-epsom-derby-kings-horse-throw-herself-a8812551.html


Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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