120 years of women’s suffrage

'V is for vote' stamp featuring Kate Sheppard (click for image credit)

'V is for vote' stamp featuring Kate Sheppard (click for image credit)

Today, 19 September 2013, is the 120th anniversary of all New Zealand women gaining the right to vote in parliamentary elections – a world first. Most of us – male or female – don’t think about it much, or at all. Come election day, we take it for granted that all New Zealand citizens will cast their vote as they see fit. And that’s a lovely thing – one fight over and done with. The push for gender equality moved on to other issues (you can track some of them in Te Ara’s stories on the Women’s movement and Gender inequalities).

The fight for women’s suffrage is a good story though, with fierce campaigning, deep conviction vehemently expressed, conniving and cheating, money and the drive to maintain power, ambivalence on the part of some politicians despite their genuine support of the move, differences among the campaigners and conflict between men. The minor celebrations of women’s suffrage – campaigner Kate Sheppard on the $10 note, memorials of one kind or another scattered through New Zealand cities – do little to give a sense of how exciting it was, the fear women felt when they stood and spoke on a public stage, and the delight of the first election in which women could participate.

Go to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and you’ll find Kate Sheppard and Anna Stout, John Hall and John Ballance, Henry Fish (at this distance a pantomime villain) and Richard Seddon. Less well known are Lily Kirk, bright and shining star of the campaign platform, and her devoted husband Arthur (who suggested they should go into lodgings to avoid housework), Elizabeth Caradus, one of the few working class leaders of the campaign (who shunned positions of authority, perhaps because having 15 children limited her free time) or Meri Mangakāhia (who spoke to the Māori Kotahitanga parliament, arguing that women should get the right to vote and be able to stand for election).

The campaign for women’s suffrage did not stand alone – it was part of the push to get the suffrage extended to all competent citizens, regardless of property ownership or gender (for more on this, see Voting rights). But in New Zealand women getting the vote caused more controversy, generating heat in a way none of the other extensions of suffrage did.

To find out more, download the latest Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage ebook: New Zealand women and the vote, or look at NZHistory’s feature on New Zealand women and the vote, which includes a searchable database of those who signed the last of three giant suffrage petitions.

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