Comment: Exercise your hard-won right to vote

By: Meryn Morrison

I’ve often thought, wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise to survey women in New Zealand about what they know about their hard-won right to vote?

How many do you think would actually know what the woman on our $10 did, or what year New Zealand women achieved suffrage? Unfortunately, I think the results would be depressingly low.

This is a real shame because the women’s suffrage movement should be a major source of pride for New Zealand. Barely 50 years after the signing of our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, we became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote when a new Electoral Act was signed into law on 19 September 1893. To put this into context, it wasn’t until after the First World War that women in countries such as Britain and the US achieved the same status.

The journey that Kate Sheppard and others took to achieve suffrage is extremely interesting and something I’d love for more New Zealand women to become familiar with.

Exercise your hard-won right to vote

Born out of the temperance movement, where women were big supporters of the prohibition of alcohol, the drive for women’s suffrage gathered momentum in the mid-1880s and saw Kate and other leaders of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union present three separate petitions to Parliament.

These petitions were huge for the times. In 1891, more than 9000 signatures were gathered, in 1892, almost 20,000, and finally, in 1893, the number of signatures rose to nearly 32,000. Remember that this was at a time well before the ease of online petitions and when New Zealand had a population of only around three-quarters of a million people. Each signature was gathered by hand and the number obtained in 1893 represented one-quarter of the adult European female population. It was a significant achievement.

Of course, the movement was not without its detractors, not in the least the liquor industry that obviously sought to prevent prohibition and considered women’s suffrage a major threat. The nature of alcohol and drunkenness in New Zealand in the late 19th Century was largely a male problem and women had long-suffered as a result. Ads were taken out in newspapers discrediting the suffragettes and misinformation and fear of how women would exercise their vote was spread across our towns and cities.

Following the third petition, though, Parliament couldn’t stem the tide any longer and passed the legislation granting women the vote.

However, the fight was not over because back then, New Zealand also had a Legislative Council that sat above the House of Representatives. Members of this Council were heavily lobbied by both sides in what was quite a divisive debate. Eventually though, and in part out of a desire to embarrass Premier Richard Seddon, the Council eventually voted the Bill through 20 to 18. 

All women who were ‘British subjects’ and aged 21 and over, including Māori, were now eligible to vote. Even so, there was still a long way to go to achieve political equality. Women were not given the right to stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female MP, Elizabeth McCombs, was not elected until 1933.

We’ve definitely come a long way. We have had three female prime ministers, two female governors-general as well as female chief justices and many other women in senior public positions. However, we shouldn’t take this progress for granted. We need to keep up our end of the bargain and that means making sure we get out and exercise our hard-won right to vote on 17 October! 

"Do not think your single vote does not matter much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made up of single drops." ~ Kate Sheppard

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