A leap into the light
How was it that a tiny colony far from the centres of political power and influence became the first self-governing country in the world to grant its women the vote?
Opponents of women’s suffrage in late-1880s New Zealand called the movement “a leap in the dark” which would transform women from angels of the home to ill-tempered crones. The vote, they said, would unsex women and destroy their lovableness.
Newspaper critics mercilessly lampooned the suffrage campaigners, calling them “the shrieking sisterhood” and depicting them as neurotic, senseless creatures “as ignorant of needlework as a Hottentot.”
Yet as the 1893 elections came to a close, it was obvious that politics in New Zealand would never be the same again.
Contrary to the predictions of critics who had maintained that the demand for the vote came from a handful of discontented wowsers, no fewer than 90,000 women had cast their votes—two-thirds of the country’s adult women.
And there had never been a polling day more peaceful and orderly. General elections were usually rowdy affairs with much throwing of stones, eggs and flour. The pubs invariably did a roaring trade, and the police were run off their feet with drunkenness and brawls.
But on Tuesday November 28, 1893, when the women came out to cast their votes for the first time, the mood was festive, and everyone agreed that election day had been transformed.
The lead-up to the day had not been without excitement. Scarcely two months had elapsed since the legislation granting the vote to women had been signed by the Governor of the day. Lord Glasgow, and feelings about the issue still ran high. In Christchurch, a practical joker had hoisted a petticoat on a prominent flagpole to make his protest.
Nevertheless, astute politicians were not slow to detect a whiff of perfume on the winds of change. They courted their female constituents by writing letters on scented notepaper with forget-me-nots. They held “ladies” meetings—although in Reefton a Mr Collings upset the local women by scheduling his meeting for a Monday. traditionally women’s washing day. The women retaliated by denouncing Mr Collings and unanimously decreeing that their husbands should do the washing instead.
In Christchurch, Kate Sheppard, who had led the suffrage campaign to victory, noted with disgust the “bland and oily manner” of politicians who had opposed the suffrage now trying to pass themselves off as supporters of women.
The women themselves were more interested in practical matters. Amey Daldy, the grande dame of the suffragists in Auckland, led meetings at which women were treated to a demonstration of how to fill out a ballot paper. This activity was greeted with considerable alarm by some candidates who thought she must be instructing them in who to vote for. Amey, however, was simply trying to ensure a good turn-out at the polls. “Let not babies, the wash-tub, or even dinners prevent the women going,” she said.
Women responded with delight. According to the Auckland Star, reporting on the scene in Auckland, “They emerged in all the glory of their summer apparel, and perambulating the streets in numbers far exceeding the members of the coarser sex, seemed to be enjoying their new power before they took the trouble of exercising it. There was a general air of self-confidence—nay, some say an assumption of superiority in their faces, which was perfectly excusable when we consider the novelty of their position.”
The novelty of their position was not just because this was the first vote cast by women in New Zealand. Although women in some other parts of the world could vote before 1893—the Cook Islands, the American territories of Wyoming and Utah, and Pitcairn Island, for instance—New Zealand was the first self-governing country in the world to legislate for universal female franchise. It was also the first country in the world where a campaign for women’s suffrage had succeeded. The British suffrage campaign had commenced in 1866, and there were large campaigns in Australia and America, but some of these were destined to last for decades before women won the vote.
New Zealand’s campaign began in 1885, and was successful after eight intense years of struggle. When British women finally won a partial franchise in 1918, they had been campaigning for 55 years, and had resorted to increasing militancy. During the British campaign,women were imprisoned, houses and letter-boxes were fire-bombed, paintings were slashed, shop windows smashed, and Emily Davison died after throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Derby. American women won the vote in various states from the late nineteenth century, but the necessary amendment to the United States Constitution was not made until 1920.
Only four countries in the world—New Zealand, Australia, Finland and Norway—and 11 states of America had achieved the franchise before the First World War. France, the birthplace of “Liberte, egalite and fraternite,” did not grant its women citizens the vote until after the Second World War; neither did Japan, Italy and Hungary.
So how was it that a small colonial nation, physically remote from the intellectual and political ferment of Europe, was able to achieve this democratic advance so far ahead of more established nations?
To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the kind of country New Zealand was in the late nineteenth century—its stage of development, its ideals and culture, the place of women in society—as well as to examine the feminist context which nurtured the suffrage campaign.
In fact, the campaign for the vote was just one aspect of an emerging re-examination of the role of women. In the late 1800s, women who had been confined to a domestic, private role within families were expanding their horizons and staking their claim to paid work, higher education, political involvement and physical freedoms. Suffragists, while agreeing that women’s role as wives, mothers and as the pivot of home life was important, argued that baking cakes and boiling potatoes should not be the sole purpose of women’s lives.
The “New Woman,” said Gisborne suffragist Margaret Sievwright, was “she who had discovered herself, not relatively as 0 mother, wife, sister, but absolutely . I would rather have this new woman—even in her occasional perversity, exaggeration and revolt—than the female oyster who discovers no interest in life outside the limits of her own shell.”
The movement for the female franchise first emerged in New Zealand with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. In that year, Mary Clement Leavitt, the travelling envoy for the American Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, had journeyed through New Zealand urging local women to form unions. She called on women to fight the drink trade as a source of suffering for wives and children, and went on to argue that there were no avenues of life from which women should be excluded. She advocated that women could be judges, doctors, attend universities, serve on juries, even go to war. Let men and women be treated alike,she urged. Of course, this included the right to vote. The present system, she said, “classed women with children, idiots and criminals, who were the only other classes incapable of voting.”
Her appeals fell on receptive ears. New Zealand women were ready to insist on a broader and more public role in life. When Leavitt left New Zealand to continue her global crusade, ten unions had been formed, and 600 women had been called to the ranks.
By the 1880s, the pioneering stage of New Zealand’s development was drawing to a close. Significant towns were developing, with substantial buildings—libraries, theatres, factories, multi-storied department stores and imposing churches. Some areas had gas street lighting, and at dusk men with long poles went around the streets to turn on the ‘gas and ignite the hissing fish-tail flames.
There were telegraph offices and the first telephone exchanges. A network of railways connected many areas, and in 1885 the first sod was turned for the North Island main trunk railway. Newspapers and weeklies circulated colonial news and gossip; there was even a society magazine for women, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Home Journal, which reported on the latest Parisian and London fashions and recorded what Mrs Fitzherbert wore to Mrs Baldick’s ball.
While the not-so-well-to-do found work—if they were lucky, for New Zealand was economically depressed in the 1880s—in industry, many middle-class urban dwellers lived lives of comfortable respectability, attending church and depositing their visiting cards around town.
Socially-concerned middle-class women did not just gather to drink tea and nibble Madeira cake. Although the government had passed a Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act in 1885, establishing a national system of hospitals and welfare payments under the control of local boards, women undertook the bulk of voluntary charitable work, helping the poor, the sick, the widowed and the deserted.
Much of this work was carried out under the auspices of the churches. In colonial New Zealand, the churches were a strong force. Social life, particularly for respectable women, often revolved around church affiliation. In successive censuses, 95 per cent of the population were able to nominate a religion. A survey by the Auckland Star on one Sunday in 1882 found that nearly half the population attended church, and that women outnumbered men.
Through groups within churches, and temperance groups attached to churches, women were able to play a role in their communities which was wider than their home life, but their membership of such groups contained inbuilt contradictions, for in these groups women were doomed to be always the led, and never the leaders. They raised money, took Sunday School, kept the church clean and looked after ailing parishioners, but they were barred from making important decisions.
The churches and the temperance groups—with the exception of a group called the Good Templars—did not allow women to hold office. Convention decreed that women could not lead meetings or speak publicly. The concept of woman as man’s “helpmeet” was strongly ingrained. The wife was to assist and support her husband’s work, but to stand in his shadow. In the wider life of the community, this was women’s purpose, too. It was a straitjacket from which women were chafing to escape. “There are still many men who regard woman as a thing created solely for the pleasure of man,” complained Kate Sheppard. “Woman is useful for making puddings and savoury dishes, and also performs the very necessary duty of rearing young citizens. But her sphere must be limited by her household duties, and anything like spontaneous or independent thought or action must be firmly repressed.”
When Mary Leavitt introduced to New Zealand her concept of strong, visible, women-only and women-led organisations, she met an immediate response. The WCTU offered women the opportunity to exercise real leadership, and to do so in the pursuit of an important cause.
The overt purpose of the WCTU was the control or banishment of alcohol. This was a righteous issue, as the abuse of alcohol was rife in colonial societies. In 1877, almost 26 million litres of beer were produced by local brewers; in 1880 there were almost 2000 public houses. At that time there were just over 300,000 people over 15 years of age in New Zealand, amounting to one pub per 150 adult persons. There were pubs on every corner, and the legacy of the mobile, disproportionately male frontier societies of the early years of New Zealand’s European settlement was a tradition of crude, hard-drinking habits centred on the pubs.
Women were frequently the victims of men’s alcohol abuse. Men drank their earnings away in the pubs, and drunkenness was frequently involved in cases of violence towards women and children. Mary Lee—mother of the Labour politician John A. Lee—recorded that when she remonstrated with her husband Alfredo about wasting money in the pub, “he run at me to Strike me—But the blow missed me & my Girl got it on the Side of her face.” Alcohol abuse was a women’s issue.
The WCTU worked for law changes, and crusaded among women and children to pledge themselves not to drink alcohol. (Maori women were also asked to stop using tobacco and having their faces tattooed.) The union lobbied to have temperance teaching in schools (unsuccessfully), to see the ban on the supply of alcohol to Maori women rigorously enforced, to cut down the use of alcohol as a medicine in hospitals (one convalescent patient in Wellington Hospital in 1880 drank 581 ounces of spirits, 88 bottles of port, and 696 ounces of wine), and the women set up temperance tea rooms and booths at fairs and exhibitions. The female franchise was seen as a strategy to enable women to have more say in liquor laws, as women would vote for men who shared their goal of purifying and stabilising society.
But the suffrage campaign was more complex than the focus on alcohol would suggest. The vote was also a matter of simple justice. Intelligent, educated women who were increasingly participating in the wider society lacked the most basic of civil rights, and there were a number of discriminatory laws on the statute books which these women wanted changed. Without the vote, women lacked direct influence.
It rankled with these women who wanted to uplift society that girls as young as twelve could legally consent to sexual intercourse and marriage. The infamous Contagious Diseases Act perpetuated a double standard in sex, by permitting any woman, merely suspected of being a prostitute, to be picked up off the streets, taken to a Lock Hospital and detained while she was compulsorily treated for venereal disease.
Opponents of the Act called this gross discrimination against women, as men who used prostitutes got off scot free. The act put women “absolutely in the power of the police,” said one campaigner, “for if a single policeman chooses to think he has ‘good cause for believing her to be a common prostitute’ he can cause her to appear before a Justice of the Peace who can deprive her of a woman’s most sacred right—the right over her own person.” Critics regarded the compulsory examination as medical rape; the youngest female taken into the Auckland Lock Hospital was ten years old.
Another double standard operated with the divorce law. Both sexes could divorce for adultery, but a woman had to prove violence as well, and the judges often told a battered woman to go home and patch things up with her husband. If a husband died, a woman did not automatically have guardianship of her children, for her husband had the right to appoint someone else.
There was no such thing as equal pay, even where women were doing the same work as men, such as teaching. Women could not vote or stand for local bodies unless they were ratepayers, and local authorities did not appoint women to hospital boards.
On all these issues, the suffragists wanted action. They wrote pamphlets and letters to newspapers, and held public meetings. Some had to work incognito because of the opposition of husbands or children. Mary Muller of Nelson, whose husband was the resident magistrate of Marlborough, wrote secretly, “like a mole,” under the pen name Femina.
In the early 1870s, Auckland schoolteacher Mary Colclough, alias Polly Plum, succeeded in stirring up strong feelings at lectures with titles such as “The Subjection of Women.” Satirical poems were written about her, cartoons drawn, and letter-writers and newspaper editorialists predicted the death of womanliness were Polly’s ideas for emancipation to take hold. The Waikato Times thundered that “the majority of women are unfit even to have authority over their children . . . To make them legally equal to their husbands would be disastrous in the extreme . . . Woman’s power is her weakness, her tenderness, and her ability to love deeply . . . May the day be far distant when the agitation in favour of ‘Women’s Rights’ shall destroy the charm of English home life.”
This diatribe was published in 1872, but such opposition was reiterated once the campaign for suffrage proper got under way in 1885. There were still many who thought that women should be confined to the domestic sphere, and that the comfort of home life would be ruined for men were women to escape. But in the intervening 13 years the lives of New Zealand women had undergone significant change.
Although most girls, on finishing their schooling, stayed home to help their mothers, a steadily growing band of women was entering the paid workforce. Most worked as domestic servants and in manufacturing, primarily in the clothing industry. They stitched all day, and sometimes into the night, or stood in laundries with their arms in tubs full of hot water, or wielded irons weighing eight or nine pounds.
In 1881, nearly 12,000 women worked as domestics, and 4,594 worked in the clothing industry. Only a very few women worked as shop assistants (237) or in offices (14). These latter employment categories did not really open up for women until the early years of the twentieth century.
Women in the clothing industry were usually paid far less than men, and they were often paid by the piece, rather than by the hour. Although the law said that no person under 14 could work in a factory, 12-and 13-year-old girls and boys were apprenticed, often on no wages. In 1889, after a public outcry about such conditions, a Tailoresses Union was formed in Dunedin. Dunedin was at the time the most industrialised city in New Zealand: 27 per cent of the city’s workforce were employed in the clothing industry, and 80 per cent of these were women. The following year, a Sweating Commission was established by the government to investigate workplace abuses; its report led to reforming factory legislation in the early 1890s.
Harriet Morison, a young dark-haired Irish tailoress who was a key figure in the Tailoresses Union, also tried to start a union for domestic servants. This never got off the ground, but there were fiery public meetings at which the servants aired their grievances and chastised mistresses for their harshness. “The domestic servant of to-day.” complained one Christchurch servant, “is more a slave than the niggers were [which] the British helped to free. The niggers could go to their cabin at sundown, but does 10 p.m. finish a servant’s day? Seldom so.”
Servants worked 16-hour days, and were lucky to be given a Sunday afternoon off. There were good reasons why the servant was colloquially known as “the slavey,” but none of the Liberal government’s labour force reforms applied to them. When a Domestic Servants Half Holiday Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1896, allowing for one afternoon off a week, it was laughed out of Parliament. Later, the registrar of unions decreed that a servant was not even a “worker.”
Despite their industrial problems, the existence of working women who were self-supporting, who might even be supporting families where the mother was widowed or deserted, or the men of the family unemployed, challenged the Victorian concept of the dependent, helpless daughter who had to be provided for by her father until her own marriage. Women’s presence in the workforce also supported the claim for civil rights for women. The maxim “No taxation without representation” could be used by New Zealand working women as it had been by working men in suffrage campaigns overseas.
Educationally, New Zealand women began challenging stereotypes of women from a very early date.although a minority of girls entered secondary schools before the Free Place system was introduced in 1903, a growing number of girls went on to university. Unlike their hide-bound counterparts overseas, all New Zealand universities were open to women from the beginning, and it was not long before women took advantage of that opportunity. When, to deafening applause, shy, fair-headed Kate Edger mounted the platform in the Choral Hall in Auckland to accept her Bachelor of Arts in 1877,she became only the second woman in the British Empire to have earned a degree, and the first BA. “Let us hear no more of the intellectual inferiority of women,” trumpeted the New Zealand Herald when reporting her graduation ceremony.
Kate had studied at the Auckland College and Grammar School, then a boys-only school. A condition of her enrolment was that she enter the classroom with eyes downcast.
Later, when she applied to study for a degree, she did not mention her sex, stating only that her age was “within the specified limits” and that she had studied the required subjects. The senate of the University, not wanting controversy, quietly accepted her enrolment.
By the end of the nineteenth century, women were making up a significant proportion of students at universities in New Zealand, and an intrepid few had begun to move into faculties other than the arts. Ethel Benjamin graduated as a lawyer in 1897, the first woman in the British Empire to do so. Her achievement was the more remarkable in that during her years of study the Otago Law Society denied her access to the Supreme Court Library, and she was excluded from the Society’s annual Bar dinners.
The first New Zealand woman to enrol as a medical student was “hounded out” through lack of support. A teacher from Gore, Mary Tracey enrolled in 1884, but withdrew the following year. Emily Siedeberg persevered, and graduated in 1896, despite being asked to absent herself from lectures on certain aspects of anatomy (these were delivered to her alone), and despite the fact that her male colleagues sometimes threw pieces of flesh at her in the dissecting room.
Kate Edger and other women prominent in educational circles played key roles in the suffrage campaign. The president of the Feilding branch of the WCTU, Learmonth Dalrymple, a Scottish immigrant woman, had fought for the establishment of Otago Girls’ High School—the first state secondary school for girls in Australasia—and for the admittance of women to Otago University. She was inspired to do this by her own experience of being prohibited from studying mathematics by her father.
These women who were breaking the boundaries in work, education and politics also sought more personal and physical freedoms. As a student at Canterbury College (university) in 1894, Alice Burn shocked authorities by appearing in knickerbockers, even though they were discreetly hidden by her undergraduate gown. She was asked to provide a photograph of the offending costume to the university authorities, who promptly banned the wearing of such outfits.
There were rational dress associations in Europe and America, and Alice and other Christchurch women—and some men—founded their own Rational Dress Association. They lambasted women’s regular dress, with its tight waist and voluminous heavy skirts. They pointed to cases where women’s livers had been cut in two by tight lacing, and maintained that Victorian dress shackled women, making them lethargic and unhealthy. “When I see a ruddy, romping school-girl in her first long dress,” said one critic, “afraid of the stone walls in the fields, or standing aloof from the game of ball, or sadly turning away from the ladder which her brother is climbing to the cherry-tree . . . I feel that I have ceased to deal with blunders in dress, and have entered the catalogue of crimes.”
The dress reformers advocated loose woollen undergarments, covered by a “bifurcated” costume—divided skirts or knickerbockers. Alice Burn supplied patterns and later designed the costumes for the famous reform dress wedding between James Wilkinson and Kate Walker, where the entire bridal party wore pants. Victorian society was shocked at this brazen display of women’s legs—usually kept well covered—and the cartoonists had a field day.
It was no accident that the home of the short-lived Rational Dress Association was Christchurch. One letter-writer to a local newspaper called Christchurch of the period “the happy hunting ground of eccentric persons and the hot-bed of all new and uncanny ideas.” This judgment may have been somewhat unkind, but Christchurch certainly was the focus of feminism and advanced ideas in the late nineteenth century. Kate Sheppard was based in Christchurch, and the Canterbury Women’s Institute (formed 1892) in which she was a leading light was probably the first specifically feminist society in New Zealand. Through Sheppard’s editorship of the women’s pages in the temperance paper The Prohibitionist and later the WCTU magazine The White Ribbon, the most radical views on women’s roles were circulated widely around New Zealand.
Rational dress was a shocking idea at a time when women were literally swaddled from head to toe in clothes, but it provides a good example of the radicalism of some late nineteenth century social reformers.
It is usual to think of the Victorians as puritanical and stuffy, but many educated middle-class Victorians were intellectually curious people. Major changes in thought and belief were afoot. Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution challenged accepted Biblical versions of creation, and although Victorians were highly religious, they were exploring other forms of spirituality, including magic, spiritualism and Eastern religions.
When Annie Besant, the controversial English theosophist and radical exponent of birth control, visited New Zealand in 1894, she drew packed crowds to hear her describe her “Spirit Masters” and the doctrine of karma and rebirth.
The ideas of the French and English philosophers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the French Revolution had given birth to ideals of rational thought, equality, democracy and personal freedom which resonated through the nineteenth century. Women’s rights were espoused as part of a wider movement towards rights for groups such as slaves and working people. In New Zealand, such ideals of democracy and egalitarianism were widely held.
A social climate favouring experimentation and new ideas had practical outlets, too. In Christchurch, the Canterbury Women’s Institute taught the new skill of photography and the use of the darkroom. A leading member of the Institute, Ada Wells, roundly condemned conventional medicine in favour of alternative healing methods. These included hydropathy (water cures), vinegar washing and vapour and sitz-baths. Alternative healers offering a range of cures were readily available in colonial society. The suffragists wrote about vegetarianism, food reform and the benefits of wholemeal bread. They had a new view of the female body which emphasised healthy normality rather than weakness and morbidity.
Cycling was also promoted, not just as a sport but as a symbol of emancipation, for it induced vigorous good health and provided a reason for donning knickerbockers. The “New Woman,” as the feminist of the 1880s and 1890s was called, was synonymous with the bicycle.
As women questioned traditional conceptions of femininity, and increasingly violated ideals of proper female behaviour, other sports were adopted. Gymnasium work, golf, swimming and bowling were first taken up by women in the 1880s and 1890s, but the greatest innovation was in team sports, hitherto an exclusively male preserve. Rowing and boating teams were formed, cricket was first played at Motueka in 1886, and hockey appeared in the 1890s.
There was even a rugby team in 1891. In that year Aucklander Nita Webbe announced she would tour a women’s side through New Zealand. The response in the media to this plan was ferocious, and it is not clear if the tour ever went ahead.
The suffrage campaign was largely an urban, Pakeha movement. Only a handful of signatures of Maori women have been found on the suffrage petitions, although more might be identified in time. The Prohibitionist does record visits of WCTU women to Maori communities seeking signatures and leaving franchise literature.
Nevertheless, Maori women were advancing similar ideas within their own communities. In doing so, they did not have the same barriers of propriety and femininity to break down. Maori women had always enjoyed more sexual freedom and fewer rigid controls on their personal behaviour, and Maori history contains many examples of powerful chiefly women who adopted leadership roles. Even so, feminism was a European concept which could not have the same meaning for another culture, and feminism contained strands of individualism and individual rights which did not mesh readily with a communally-based society.
In the late nineteenth century, Maori women—and men—were an almost exclusively rural people, preoccupied with issues of survival and land. The Waikato and Taranaki wars were not long over, large tracts of land had been alienated, and introduced diseases continued to ravage communities. Maori women’s principal interests were with their communities, rather than with other members of their sex across the racial divide.
Traditionally, Maori women could inherit land rights and control their inherited land. There are many examples of Maori women who argued cases in the Land Court once this was established in 1862.
In fact, before the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act 1884, some Maori women were outraged to learn that if they married under European law, their husbands gained control of their land. In the 1870s, Mr Williams of Hawkes Bay reported that some local Maori women were declining to marry for this reason. Indeed, the favourable position of Maori women was used in debates on married women’s property law within the New Zealand Parliament to argue that European women should be put on the same footing as their Maori sisters.
Maori women clearly had no problem with the idea of women voting and exercising political power. During the campaign for the first election in 1893, Maori women formed committees to support candidates and held large meetings to review the policies of candidates.
The Maori voting day was December 20, and newspapers record that women “took a very keen interest in the matter, recording their vote and emulating their Pakeha sisters in the satisfaction which they manifested in the exercise of the franchise conferred on them for the first time.”
So if Maori and Pakeha women alike supported the acquisition of the vote—and enthusiastically exercised it in 1893—the question remains as to why New Zealand was in advance of much of the rest of the world in enfranchising women.
The answer lies in an intermeshing of historical and social factors. Urbanisation and industrialisation had led to new roles for women outside the domestic sphere. But women could still call on their essential helpmeet role in the pioneering period in support of their claim to equal voting status. Women had been vital to the strength of families and in the building of homes and communities; they had played a key economic role, and consequently had earned a measure of respect for their hard work and stamina. Women believed their role in society had earned them the right to equal voting status with men.
In frontier societies, men’s uncontrolled use of alcohol was a major social problem, threatening family life and women and children. Unlike the British suffrage campaign, the New Zealand campaign—and those in other frontier societies such as Australia and America—was closely tied to temperance. This connection undoubtedly assisted the cause by drawing on a general concern about the damaging effects of alcohol abuse.
The rise of an urban middle class provided women with the motivation and time to fashion a campaign. Most suffragists were members of Protestant churches—Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans. These respectable matrons believed that God had instructed them to cleanse society and banish the demon drink. No amount of opposition from mere mortal men could countermand the divine word. For their part, most of the churches wholeheartedly supported female suffrage.
The newness and fluidity of New Zealand communities also laid the ground for the acceptance of new ideas. Most of the towns in New Zealand were only a few decades old, and people and their institutions were not yet set in their ways. Many of the new settlers prided themselves on the opportunities New Zealand presented; the ability to cross class boundaries, and for the ordinary person to make his or her way. This was the promise which had lured many of the new settlers into emigrating. While they held dear many of the values of their homeland, they congratulated themselves for having broken away from the social rigidity and economic evils of Europe, and there was consternation at anything resembling Old World practices appearing in the New.
New Zealanders wanted to make a new start in how they organised society, and even in the nineteenth century the idea of New Zealand as a social laboratory which led the world was appealing. The new settlers were willing to experiment with social and political change.
Within this climate, the concept of women having the vote, although bitterly fought against for ideological, pragmatic and economic reasons by some powerful interest groups, was not considered beyond the pale. Ultimately, it became a popular cause, supported by men as well as women. It was fear of punishment at the polling booths in 1893 at the hands of men that led some wavering politicians to support the passage of the Electoral Bill.
Even at the time, there was tacit acknowledgement that conferring the vote was more than just a civil right, but a benchmark in the social progress of women. Said the Canterbury Times: “The acquisition of the vote is nothing compared to the effect its possession will have upon women’s minds . . . All the great principles that should rule a people will be studied by them; all the diseases that attack and fester in the body politic will become known to them. Wider and wider will expand their education until they are capable of grasping that ideal that now faintly glimmers on the horizon, the federation of all nations and ‘peace on earth’ . . . women, thus becoming educated by the possession of a real power, though that power is itself but small, will in time prove themselves a great motor force in the onward march of the nation.”
In hindsight, this triumphant eulogy seems something of an overstatement. Women’s political progress in the past hundred years has been steady, but slow, and women’s political emancipation has not transformed the nation. But the suffrage campaign of the 1880s and 1890s set in motion changes which see women one hundred years later leading lives which are unrecognisable compared to those of their Victorian counterparts.
It was the effect on women’s minds, as the Canterbury Times so sagely prophesied, which probably made the greatest difference.