When history is made into drama, they often end up taking the drama out of it.
TV One’s recent programme What really happened: votes for women was a case in point. The most dramatic moment in this docudrama was when Kate Sheppard in Christchurch opened a telegram from Wellington saying the suffrage (voting rights) had been won for women.
In real-life 1893 the most dramatic moment came when Edward Stevens got up in the Legislative Council, the old upper house, and, having outlined why he was against the Suffrage Bill, suddenly started giving the reasons why he was for it.
His colleague William Reynolds did the same – and when the vote was taken it passed by 20–18.
This was a complete surprise in a string of surprises – the earlier ones being when members of Parliament who had been aligned with the Liberal government and expected to vote for the bill were suddenly against it.
The other contender for most dramatic moment was when the news was taken down to the lower house. Premier Richard Seddon’s face apparently showed how horrified he was.
Seddon had been confident the bill would not pass – because he’d made sure it wouldn’t. Thomas Kelly had left himself paired to vote for it, and gone off to Taranaki. Seddon had telegrammed asking him to change his vote – and he had. This is what sparked Stevens and Reynolds to change their minds and put women’s suffrage through – ‘to embarrass’ Seddon, as Te Ara puts it.
The television programme told us Seddon had ‘bullied’ an unnamed man into changing his vote, and that he had ‘declined’. This is a strange mistake – because if Kelly had not changed his vote, the two men would not have changed theirs, and women’s suffrage would not have gone through.
As the Evening Post reporter put it, ‘The Ministerial plot had failed. The intrigue had come to nought.’
Seddon had let the bill which gave women the vote through the lower house, but only because he was certain it would not go through the upper house. He thought voting women would endanger his Liberal government as wealthier women would vote for the opposition while the wives of their own working class supporters might not vote at all. He would also have been on the side of the enemies of women’s suffrage in New Zealand: the Licensed Victuallers Association – he’d been a liquor seller himself. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), of which Kate Sheppard was suffrage superintendent, wanted the vote to push for the prohibition of alcohol. That was the big thing on their agenda.
The names of Stevens and Reynolds were not even mentioned in the docudrama that Sunday night – and yet we owe to them our spot as the first country in the world where women could vote in national elections. Had they not switched their votes that day, we probably would not have got women’s suffrage until Britain did – 25 years later – because Seddon, who in September 1893 had only been premier for five months, soon came to rule the roost as the sobriquet ‘King Dick’ suggests.
Also, there was a backlash against feminism by the 1900s – clearly seen in the way women did not push to be able to become MPs. This did not happen until 1919, and we didn’t get our first until 1933 (while Britain elected two women in 1920).
This blog is a plea for any information on Stevens and Reynolds. What did they really think of women’s suffrage? They said they were holding out for ‘electoral rights’ (postal voting) for women. But were they? Those who put in amendments for electoral rights often only did so to wreck the bill.
It is also a plea for recognition for the two unlikely heroes of the suffrage story. Edward Stevens has a Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry, but it makes no mention of his role in women’s suffrage. William Reynolds does not have one, but his wife Rachel does. It says she was a suffragist - but does not mention her husband’s role in achieving suffrage.
The television programme did well in putting the spotlight on other leaders of the suffrage movement apart from Kate Sheppard and other groups apart from the WCTU. But Stevens and Reynolds should have been there too.
Jane Tolerton is a biographer, journalist and former Te Ara in-house writer.