When Piwakawaka Fly

Ko te pakanga roa mo Whakatu Wahine

The Long Battle for Suffrage

The long battle for suffrage overtly began in 1869 in the South Island of New Zealand when Mary Ann Műller, under the pen name Femina, wrote and published An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand, urging them to encourage votes for women.

Two years later in 1871, Mary Colclough, well-known writer and activist in Christchurch, gave her first public lecture on the rights of women, including their right to vote.

Their voices reached parliament, shown when J.C. Andrew in the House of Representatives (the elected house of Parliament) spoke out in favour of women having the vote, urging the House to act.

Four years later, in 1878, Robert Stout prepared an Electoral Bill in which he proposed that women who paid rates be eligible for the vote and to be elected to the House of Representatives. His Bill was discarded because of a disagreement which had nothing to do with suffrage.

In 1879, The Qualifications of Electors Bill was introduced by John Hall. It proposed that women property owners should have the vote. But those parliamentarians who wanted all women to be enfranchised were joined by those who opposed such reform and the Bill was defeated.

A year later, James Wallis introduced the 1880 Women’s Franchise Bill, which lapsed after the first reading.

James Wallis introduced a second Women’s Franchise Bill in 1881, but this too was withdrawn before a second reading.

By 1885, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an American organisation whose primary purpose was to end the use of alcohol as a beverage, was established following the visit of experienced campaigner Mary Leavitt.

The following year, at its first annual convention in Wellington, the WCTU, presided over by Anne Ward, resolved to work for women’s suffrage.

In 1887, in Christchurch, WCTU member Kate Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department of WCTU New Zealand. In that year, two petitions requesting the vote for women were signed by some 350 women and presented to the House of Representatives.

Julius Vogel, a skilled politician, introduced in the same year A Women’s Suffrage Bill, giving the franchise to women and also the right to sit in parliament as MPs. Due to political manoeuvrings, this was withdrawn at the committee stage.

Women wait to cast first ever votes

By 1888, two petitions asking for votes for women were signed by 800 women and presented to the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament). No action followed this presentation.

By 1889, the Tailoresses’ Union of New Zealand was established in Dunedin. Their working conditions were extremely poor and this Union of women saw the vote as a way to empower their workplaces. Their vice-president, Harriet Morrison, became very active in the suffrage campaign.

John Hall, a parliamentarian who supported women’s claim to the vote, presented two further Women’s Franchise Bills in 1890, but each time objections to various clauses forced its postponement. It was later defeated because its supporters were absent from the House when the vote was taken.

By 1891, the number of petitions submitted to Parliament supporting votes for women had reached eight, signed by over 9,000 women and together presented to the House. In this year, the WCTU got a new editor of a woman’s page for its magazine, the Prohibitionist, Kate Sheppard, strong promoter of the vote for women.

The WCTU’s connection with votes for women alarmed those members of parliament who had financial interests in the commercial aspects of selling alcohol. One owned three pubs.  They feared pub closure if women got the vote and had a greater say in the laws of New Zealand.

Despite this, many other members supported women having the vote.  A Female Suffrage Bill was introduced , again by John Hall, won favour with the House but was defeated in the Legislative Council because of a slyly inserted amendment. This favoured women becoming MPs, which the Legislative Council could not support.

In 1892, John Balance introduced the Electoral Bill, which gave all women the vote but his clumsy plan to use postal votes as the method of voting meant this Bill, too, was abandoned.

By 1893, the number of petitions requesting the vote had risen to 13, with nearly 32,000 signatures gained, a meaningful percentage of all  women in Aotearoa.  In June, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia spoke to Te Kotahitanga, the Māori Parliament, asking it to support women having the vote and becoming MPs.

The Meri Mangakāhia New Zealand Women's Temperance Union Kotahitanga Parliamentary Chest

The 1893 petitions were glued together, forming a great wheel. It was rolled into Parliament on a wheelbarrow.

Then-prime minister Richard Seddon, long an opponent of women having the vote, could see the way the wind was blowing and bowed to the inevitable. His Electoral Bill (June, 1893) provided women with the right to vote. The legislative debate prior to the Bill’s passage proved overwhelming support for this provision, and further, said no woman should be barred from exercising this right as a citizen of this country.

Seddon’s Electoral Bill was passed by the Legislative Council on September 8, 1893. It was consented to by the Governor General (Aotearoa was still a colony) and passed into law on 19th September, 1893, twenty four years after Mary Ann Muller’s appeal.