It’s been 120 years: women and the vote

Thursday 19 September 2013 | Published in National


Jaewynn McKay is a communications practitioner based in Rarotonga.

Twenty years ago during the NZ Women’s Suffrage Centenary McKay was a government relations executive in Wellington and was involved in events celebrating Women’s Suffrage. Here she reflects on the work of the most prominent member of New Zealand’s women’s suffrage¬ Kate Sheppard and how Cook Islands women, like their New Zealand counterparts, first exercised their right to vote in 1893.

Ever had a close look at the NZ ten dollar note?

On the front is Kate Sheppard. Born Catherine Wilson Malcolm in 1847 in Liverpool, England to Scottish parents, Kate immigrated to Christchurch in 1869 with family members. In 1871 she married Walter Sheppard.

On this very day – September 19 – 1893 (120 years ago), New Zealand became the first nation in the world to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Kate Sheppard had a very major part to play in achieving this world first.

An establishing member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union, part of the larger temperance movement, Kate discovered that much of the support for moderation came from women (not that much has changed in 120 years!) and so the Temperance Union (in particular Kate) became active in advocating women’s suffrage.

Kate’s work and views were made very clear with her statement:

"All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome."

Powerful words that unfortunately are not universally abided by even 120 years after they were said, not even close.

In 1891 the Temperance Union presented a petition in favour of women’s suffrage to Parliament. A second petition, larger than the first, was presented to Parliament the following year, and a third, larger still, was presented in 1893.

That year too, a women’s suffrage bill was successfully passed, granting women full voting rights. Kate, widely acknowledged as the leader of the women’s suffrage movement did not stop with this victory, rather, as the 1893 election was only a matter of weeks she turned her efforts to getting women registered as voters.

Despite the short notice, nearly two thirds of women voted in the general election on the 28th November, 1893.

Although a number of other territories enfranchised women before 1893, New Zealand can justly claim to be the first self-governing country to grant the vote to all adult women.

Female descendants of the Bounty mutineers were allowed to vote for their ruling councils on Pitcairn Island from 1838, and on Norfolk Island after they settled there in 1856. The Isle of Man, an internally self-governing dependent territory of the British Crown, enfranchised women property owners in 1881.

Women here in the Cook Islands, then a British protectorate, were allowed to participate in elections for island councils and a federal parliament from 1893. This law was enacted several days after New Zealand’s Electoral Act and Cook Islands women first went to the polls on 14 October 1893 – yes, our Cook Islands women beat their New Zealand counterparts in exercising their right to vote.

By comparison, Ireland gained full suffrage in 1922; the United Kingdom in 1928; South Africa (white women) 1930; Turkey in 1930; in 1962 discrimination against Aborigines ended in Australia; Switzerland in 1971; and in South Africa discrimination ended in 1994.

Today women of the Cook Islands and New Zealand should be celebrating the early “rights” to “wrongs” that were achieved on our behalf and where ever possible we should be exercising those rights. For the women on the Murienua roll your next opportunity is today.

In case you were wondering about the flower pictured next to Kate on the $10 note, it’s a white Camellia. The Camellia is the symbol for universal suffrage for New Zealand, and the bird on the back is called a Whio or Blue Duck, an endangered species in New Zealand.

Kate Sheppard died in Christchurch on 13th July, 1934, she was 87.