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Women's suffrage in New Zealand was an important political issue in the late nineteenth century. In early colonial New Zealand, as in European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. Public opinion began to change in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, and after years of effort by women's suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard, New Zealand became the first self-governing colony in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
The Electoral Bill granting women the franchise was given Royal Assent by Governor Lord Glasgow on 19 September 1893. Women voted for the first time in the election held on 28 November 1893 (elections for the Māori electorates were held on 20 December). Also in 1893, Elizabeth Yates became Mayor of Onehunga, the first time such a post had been held by a woman anywhere in the British Empire.
In the 21st century there are more eligible female voters than male, and women also vote at a higher rate than men. However, a higher percentage of female than male non-voters perceive a barrier that prevents them from voting.
In Polynesian society and European aristocracy women could achieve significant formal political rank through ancestry. However, Polynesian and by extension Māori society differed in letting charismatic women have significant direct influence. This was limited by the inability of women to speak at some meetings on marae (community houses). As a result some historians see colonialism as a temporary step back for women's rights in New Zealand.
The New Zealand suffrage movement began in the late 19th century, inspired by similar groups in the British Empire and United States. The right to vote was largely sought as a way to improve social morality and by extension improve women's safety and quality of life. Therefore the suffrage campaigns were intertwined with the prohibition of alcohol movement. This was the focus of some resistance, with the movement being often portrayed as puritanical and draconian in the local press. This also led to politicians who supported the alcohol industry opposing women's suffrage, like the MP for South Dunedin Henry Fish.
In 1869 under a pseudonym, Mary Ann Müller wrote An appeal to the men of New Zealand, the first pamphlet on the issue of women's suffrage to be published in New Zealand. In the 1870's Mary Ann Colclough (Polly Plum) was an active advocate for women's rights in general and women's suffrage. John Larkins Cheese Richardson was a keen proponent of women's equality, he was responsible for allowing women to enroll at the University of Otago in 1871, and helped to remove other barriers to their entry. Some politicians, including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox and John Ballance, also supported women’s suffrage and in 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills extending the vote to women narrowly lost in Parliament.
Women's suffrage was granted after about two decades of campaigning throughout New Zealand, by women who included Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller. The New Zealand branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led by Anne Ward was particularly instrumental in the campaign. Influenced by the American branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement and the philosophy of thinkers like Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill, the movement argued that women could bring morality into democratic politics. Opponents argued instead that politics was outside women's 'natural sphere' of the home and family. Suffrage advocates countered that allowing women to vote would encourage policies which protected and nurtured families.
WCTU campaigners and suffragettes organised and delivered a series of petitions to Parliament: over 9,000 signatures were delivered in 1891, followed by a petition of almost 20,000 signatures in 1892, and finally in 1893 nearly 32,000 signatures were presented – almost a quarter of the adult European female population of New Zealand.
From 1887, various attempts were made to pass bills enabling female suffrage, the first of which was authored by Julius Vogel, the 8th Premier of New Zealand. Each bill came close to passing. Several electoral bills that would have given adult women the right to vote were passed in the House of Representatives but defeated in the upper Legislative Council.
In 1891 Walter Carncross moved an amendment that was intended to make a new bill fail in the Legislative Council. His amendment was for women to become eligible to be voted into the House of Representatives and in this way Carncross ensured that the conservative Upper House would reject the bill. This tactic infuriated the suffragette Catherine Fulton, who organised a protest at the 1893 election. An 1892 Electoral Bill, introduced by John Ballance, provided for the enfranchisement of all women, but controversy over an impractical postal vote amendment caused its abandonment.
By 1893 there was considerable popular support for women's suffrage. The 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition was presented to Parliament and a new Electoral Bill passed through the Lower House with a large majority. During debate, there was majority support for the enfranchisement of Māori as well as Pākehā women; the inclusion of Māori women was championed by John Shera, who was married to a part-Māori. Lobbyists for the liquor industry, concerned that women would force the prohibition of alcohol, petitioned the Upper House to reject the bill. Suffragists responded with mass rallies and telegrams to Members of Parliament. They gave their supporters in Parliament white camellias to wear in their buttonholes. The Upper House was divided on the issue, and Premier Richard Seddon hoped to stop the bill.
Seddon needed one more vote to defeat the measure in the Upper House. A new Liberal Party councillor, Thomas Kelly, had decided to vote in favour of the measure, but Seddon obtained his consent by wire to change his vote. Seddon's manipulation incensed two other councillors William Hunter Reynolds and Edward Cephas John Stevens, so they changed sides and voted for the bill, allowing it to pass by 20 votes to 18 on 8 September 1893. The two opposition councillors had been opposed to women's suffrage without the 'electoral rights' safeguard of postal voting, seen as necessary to allow all women in isolated rural areas to vote, although seen by the Liberals as rendering the vote open to manipulation by husbands or employers.
Eighteen legislative councillors petitioned the new governor, Lord Glasgow, to withhold his consent in enacting the law, but on 19 September 1893 the governor consented and The Electoral Act 1893 gave all women in New Zealand the right to vote.
Further advances in women's rights
In 1893, Elizabeth Yates became the first woman in the British Empire to become mayor, though she held the post in Onehunga, a city now part of Auckland, only for about a year. In 1926, Margaret Magill, an openly lesbian teacher and school administrator was elected to serve on the Executive Board of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI). She became president of the organization in 1933, and her election to that post marked the first time it had been held by a woman.
Women were not eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives until 1919, when three women stood: Rosetta Baume (in Parnell for the Liberal Party), Ellen Melville (in Grey Lynn for the Reform Party), and Mrs Aileen Garmson (Cooke) (in Thames, as an "Independent Liberal"). None of them were elected.
Elizabeth McCombs was the first woman to win an election (to the Lyttelton seat held by her late husband, via widow's succession) in the 1933 by-election. She was followed by Catherine Stewart (1938), Mary Dreaver (1941), Mary Grigg (1942), Mabel Howard (1943), and Hilda Ross (1945). Grigg and Ross represented the National Party, while McCombs, Stewart, Dreaver and Howard were all from the Labour Party. The first Maori woman MP was Iriaka Ratana in 1949; she also succeeded to the seat held by her late husband.
Women were not eligible to be appointed to the New Zealand Legislative Council (the Upper House of Parliament) until 1941. The first two women (Mary Dreaver and Mary Anderson) were appointed in 1946 by the Labour Government. In 1950 the "suicide squad" appointed by the National Government to abolish the Legislative Council included three women: Cora Louisa Burrell of Christchurch, Ethel Marion Gould of Auckland and Agnes Louisa Weston of Wellington.
In 1989 Helen Clark became the first female Deputy Prime Minister. In 1997, the then-current Prime Minister Jim Bolger lost the support of the National Party and was replaced by Jenny Shipley, making her the first female Prime Minister of New Zealand. In 1999, Clark became the second female Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the first woman to gain the position at an election. In 2017, Jacinda Ardern became the third female Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the second woman to gain the position at an election.
The New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993 was authorised by the Queen by Royal Warrant dated 1 July 1993, and was awarded to 546 selected persons in recognition of their contribution to the rights of women in New Zealand or to women's issues in New Zealand or both.
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