The Turning Point of Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Zealand

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The remarkable struggle and success of New Zealand’s suffrage movement spread worldwide. Many people saw New Zealand as a splendid experiment, as an example of progress taking place before their very eyes, an example to be emulated.

A ten-dollar bill of New Zealand with the image of Kate Sheppard, the leading suffragette of the country.
Kate Sheppard’s image is imprinted on the ten-dollar bill of New Zealand owing to her role in the suffrage movement. (Image: AngeloNZ/Shutterstock)

Women’s votes were achieved in New Zealand in ways that both resembled and diverged from the more familiar pattern that was seen later in the United States or Britain, where large movements were organized for the struggle. In New Zealand, women achieved the vote after eight years of hard organizational work, and did so much sooner than in the United States or Britain.

This had to do with the social context. In this frontier setting, women and women’s work were seen as vital to the establishment of the new society. As a result, women’s education took on a sense of normalcy that was really quite unusual for the times elsewhere in the world.

The Opening of Education for Women in
New Zealand

In 1871, the first girls’ high school opened in Dunedin, New Zealand. Soon, young women were applying to New Zealand’s new universities. Kate Edger, in 1877, became the first woman in the entire British Empire to earn an undergraduate degree. Helen Connon did so too and then went on to earn her master’s degree. Others soon followed, and by 1893, over half the university students in New Zealand were women!

Many New Zealanders were, infact, proud of these achievements. New Zealand women became famous internationally for their independence and for carving out a new way of life for themselves.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in New Zealand

The key person who had organized the women’s movement was Kate Sheppard of Christchurch. Sheppard was motivated to action by tremendous and deeply felt moral conviction. She declared: “All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex is inhuman and must be overcome.”

She and other women first became active in New Zealand’s temperance movement, to do something about the abuse of alcohol which was a common feature of many settler societies worldwide, and which was wreaking damage on families and society at large.

A monument dedicated to women suffragettes of New Zealand, with flowers growing in the foreground.
The success of women suffragettes became a source of pride for all New Zealanders. (Image: Lavinak/Shutterstock)

These women were inspired by the American Temperance Union. They founded the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand in 1885. Many activists were Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists, but what was really key here was that there was no doctrinal requirement to join and work in the organization. So, it drew women of different backgrounds and convictions together for a common cause.

As they set about drafting a reform program with temperance in mind, it occurred to many of these women that the best way of making their voices heard, on the issue of temperance as well as other issues, was to secure what had been denied to them before: the right to vote

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Borrowing from the Abolitionist Movement

The organization borrowed tactics pioneered by the abolitionist movement against slavery. These women wrote tracts and published pamphlets. They spoke at public meetings and used their informal influence in society as well. Their meetings drew women of different classes together in a really remarkable alliance.

A tactic that had been most powerful for the abolitionists against slavery was also used to great effect by the women activists: the mass petition. Since, as in the case of abolition, even if one did not yet have the vote, the very act of signing a petition demanding reform was already a form of having a political voice. The suffrage activists organized a series of petition drives, and the petitions were to be signed by New Zealand women.

In 1891, the first petition had 10,000 signers. In 1892, the second petition already had double that number—20,000 signers. Then, the petition of 1893 had 31,871 signers, which was a quarter of all the adult women in the entire country!

This was the largest petition ever submitted to the Parliament. When it was brought in to the New Zealand Parliament and unrolled, it was over 300 yards long, a visually impressive act!

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The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage Movement

However, at the same time, opposition to women’s suffrage also was being organized. Some were alarmed by the increasing support shown for this measure. Some of the opposition was actually sponsored and funded secretly by the alcohol industry and tavern keepers in New Zealand. They were anxious, with pretty good reason, about the mobilization that had grown out of the temperance cause.

These critics asserted that the natural division of society was in danger of being violated or transgressed. They argued that if this measure went through, women and men would become’unsexed’ and ‘degenerate’, leading to the collapse of society. Some critics also claimed that women would vote only as their ministers or priests told them to.

The anti-suffrage organizations tried to organize a counter-petition of their own, but it was ultimately not very convincing, especially when news spread that free drinks were being offered to those who would sign such a petition.

The Passing of the Law

Many New Zealand men, including established political leaders of very different political backgrounds, supported women’s right to vote. In fact, some thought that it would advance the fortunes of their own political party: liberals expected women to vote liberal, while conservatives felt that women’s votes would be helpfully conservative.

On September 8, 1893, the New Zealand Parliament finally enfranchised women over the age of 21. This became law 11 days later, granting women the right to vote.

In the election that followed, more than 80 percent of the women who were eligible to vote did so. They were eagerly taking up a right that had been denied to them for so long.

Photograph of women's suffrage envoys from different states standing at the East Steps of the Capitol.
The success of the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand inspired the rest of the world. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Effect of New Zealand’s Success

The effects of the success of New Zealand’s suffrage movement were worldwide. When women gained the vote, telegrams were sent to women’s suffrage movements internationally from New Zealand to share the good news. Later, Kate Sheppard traveled around England, Canada, and the United States, lecturing about how this success had been achieved.

Moreover, those first parliamentary elections of 1893, when women for the first time could cast their ballots, also had a crucial effect. The very fact of heavy voting by women refuted a longstanding argument that had been advanced by opponents of women’s suffrage; their claim had been that most women didn’t want the vote, were indifferent to it, and that allegedly, it was only a loud and clamorous minority that was pressing this demand forward.

Worldwide, many people saw New Zealand as a splendid experiment, as an example of progress taking place before their very eyes. Many New Zealanders, men and women, were tremendously proud of being identified with a new equal status for women.

Kate Sheppard, who had been a prime mover of the cause (and today is to be seen on the New Zealand ten-dollar bill), reflected afterward on what they had accomplished. She said, “Things have not been turned upside down. The country has not been brought to dire destruction, nor have all wrongs been righted. There has simply been an evolution.”

However, this turning point did not bring about overnight changes. In 1893, New Zealand women had won the vote, but the first woman in New Zealand was elected to Parliament 40 years later, in 1933.

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The Role of First World War in Women’s Voting Rights Movement

Even with the example of New Zealand, women’s votes were slow to come in other parts of the world. Only four countries enfranchised women before the First World War broke out in 1914. First was New Zealand in 1893, then neighboring Australia in 1902, Finland in 1906, and Norway in 1913.

In many countries, the experience of the First World War had a catalytic effect because it transformed views in a way that the suffrage movement’s principled arguments had not been able to do.

The First World War was a true total war in which entire societies were mobilized for total victory, or to stave off total defeat. It was a war in which industrial warfare made factory production as important as the movement of soldiers on the battlefield; and increasingly, the lines between the war front and home front blurred. Women on the home fronts took on new roles, as munitions workers, drivers, and clerical workers.

This total war made vividly clear that the women’s right to vote simply couldn’t be denied anymore after the role they had played. In the United States, for example, President Woodrow Wilson, who had opposed women’s votes earlier, endorsed women’s suffrage as a measure for victory. In this new context, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enfranchising women, became law in 1920.

The Progress Curve of Women’s Voting Rights

Similarly, after the First World War, other countries did likewise, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Elsewhere, the process took longer. French women gained the right to vote in 1944. Switzerland only allowed women to vote in federal elections in 1971, and the last restrictions on women’s votes at the local level in Switzerland were removed only in 1990.

Women gained the right to vote in Kuwait as late as 2005. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, women are still not allowed to vote today.

Even as the completion of this turning point, the enfranchisement of half the human race, has not been fully reached yet, its effect has been tremendous. The authority of equal rights for women was a historic and profound step, changing how women and men viewed their world and themselves.

Common Questions about the Turning Point of Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Zealand

Q: In which year were women in New Zealand granted
the right to vote?

New Zealand became the first sovereign country to grant women the right to vote on 19 September 1893.

Q: When and where was the first high school for girls opened in New Zealand?

In 1871, the first girls’ high school opened in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Q: What all inspired the women in New Zealand?

The women in New Zealand were inspired by the abolitionist movement against slavery and the American Temperance Union.

Q: What is Suffrage Day?

New Zealand celebrates its Suffrage Day on 19th September of every year, the day Kiwi women were finally allowed to vote.

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