One Giant Leap for Womankind

Friday, 8 September 1893 - Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand women marching for suffrage
The right to vote is something all women in the 27th century take for granted, but that is not how it is in the Victorian Age. Many men in this time seem to think that a smaller size body means a smaller brain, and that women are unable to understand politics. (Of course, does anyone really understand politics?)

The Victorian Age is the Age of Change, however. All over the world women are beginning to question the status quo and demanding their rights. And contrary to the brute we too often paint the Victorian male as, many intelligent men are getting their point.

Today I posed as a freelance journalist to record a turning point in that struggle. On this day the New Zealand Parliament made history by deciding women had the right to vote, making them the first modern nation to do so. (I have to say “modern” because many “primitive” peoples let women help select chiefs, proving themselves more enlightened than their “civilized” counterparts.)

Sir John Hall
At the head of the Parliament supporters for Women’s Suffrage is Sir John Hall, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and now Member of Parliament. He is nearly 70 and a staunch conservative. He argues that the ladies will make a sober, sensible and conservative voting block. They will be thinking not of their own gain but for the future good of New Zealand and their children.

Kate Sheppard
However, Sir John is merely the liaison for the movement. The real driving force is Kate Sheppard, a housewife from Christchurch. Her true vocation is social reform. She helped Anne Ward, the wife of Judge Dudley Ward, start to New Zealand Women’s Temperance Union, to try to stop the epidemic alcoholism that is rampant in this age. Men drink up their wages in pubs, then come home and beat the wife when she asks how she’s going to feed the children. The horror stories are too common.

The ladies quickly found out that without the vote, they could do little to change the laws. So this conservative group took on the radical cause of Women’s Suffrage. Mrs. Sheppard, knowing this was bigger than the Temperance Movement, made it a separate cause to bring in women outside the Union. She turned out to be a very moving speaker and gifted organizer and has gotten many to rally around the cause.

The first page of the Petition
(click to enlarge)
In 1891 Kate Sheppard and the Temperance Union presented a petition to New Zealand Parliament to give women the vote. It was voted down. Undaunted she came back with a larger petition the next year. Again rejected. This year she has collected 30, 853 signatures. She took all the petition sheets and glued them together, rolling it around a broomstick to create a giant scroll. You should have seen the looks on the Members of Parliament faces when John Hall brought in the scroll in a wheelbarrow. He then rolled the scroll out, down the center of the debating chamber. There was still enough left to hit the end wall with a resounding thump.

The bill passed the House of Representatives with a wide margin. It still has to go through the 38 men of the Legislative Council where it will squeak through. It will be found out later that Premier Richard Seddon will order one of his Liberal Party councilors to change his vote to a “Neh.” Two other councilors, enraged by his interference will change their own votes to a “Yea,” allowing the bill to pass 20 to 18. Later the Liberal Party will take bows for giving women the vote.

On 19 September, Governor Lord Glasgow will give Royal Assent, making the bill a law. Women will vote for the first time on 28 November. Although women cannot be elected to the House of Representatives until 1919, this year Elizabeth Yates will be elected the Mayor of Onehunga, making her the first woman mayor in the British Empire. And in just a little over a hundred years, in 1997, New Zealand will have a woman Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, leading the nation.

There was quite a cheer from the crowd of ladies outside when then were given the good news. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the exuberant women--everything from little girls to elderly matrons, society women standing next to scullery maids, Europeans and Maori alike--as they laughed, cried and hugged each other. It is more than just a vote to them. Their government is acknowledging that they are members of society.

Hats off to you, fine ladies of New Zealand. Bravo!

The Kate Sheppard Memorial
 in Christchurch, NZ by Margriet Windhausen
showing the leaders of the movement (left to right)
Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Taitokerau, who requested the vote for women from the Kotahitanga Maori Parliament.
Amey Daldy, a foundation member of the Auckland WCTU and president of the Auckland Franchise League.
Kate Sheppard of Christchurch, the leader of the suffrage campaign.
Ada Wells of Christchurch who campaigned vigorously for equal educational opportunities for girls and women.
Harriet Morison of Dunedin, vice president of the Tailoresses’ Union and a powerful advocate for working women.
Helen Nicol who pioneered the women’s franchise campaign in Dunedin.
and of course the famous petition in the wheelbarrow.

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage Around the World

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