For a nation whose population has never exceeded 4 million, it’s surprising how many heavyweight superstars have come out of New Zealand. From the music of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the Finn brothers, to the cartoons of David Low, and the films of Sir Peter Jackson, there’s something about the country alternatively known as Aotearoa that produces such talented characters. And there’s one aspect of New Zealand’s history of which the country’s citizens are so proud that only the work of a pioneering nuclear physicist has been considered more spectacular.
In a nationwide poll conducted in November 2005 by the Prime Television New Zealand channel, Ernest Rutherford was duly crowned as the nation’s Top History Maker. Just behind him in 2nd place, however, was Kate Sheppard (1847-1934).
OK, I realise having the words “The World’s Greatest Suffragette” in this article’s title may come over as a tad provocative, but Kate’s work in campaigning for all women to have the right to vote did result in her country winning the race (so to speak) for women’s suffrage. Thanks in no small way to her efforts and leadership, New Zealand became the first country in the world to do so, on 19 September 1893.
Born Catherine Wilson Malcolm (though she preferred the form “Kate”) in Liverpool on 10 March 1847, at the age of 22 Kate emigrated with her mother and siblings to Christchurch, New Zealand. Three years later she married Walter Sheppard, with their only child, Douglas Sheppard, being born in 1880. A supporter of the country’s temperance movement, she later became president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The cause of temperance was a popular one among New Zealand women, as the online periodical NZine explains:
As the name suggests, the first concern of the women was the impact of excessive use of alcohol on women and their families. The women’s work towards the financial security of the family was often being undermined by the abuses associated with alcoholism. They believed that if they were granted the vote they could support legislation banning alcohol.
They did not limit their work to promoting temperance and women’s suffrage, but established programmes to assist the destitute, young people, and those in hospitals and prisons.
The Union was an early advocate for women’s suffrage, and before long, Sheppard established herself as a skilled organiser of the movement, as well as a clear and witty speaker. The first bill for permitting women the right to vote was introduced to parliament in Wellington in 1887, but was unsuccessful. Then, in 1891, the first of three petitions demanding the extension of the franchise was presented to parliament, containing the signatures of 9,000 women. A second petition offered the following year was signed by 20,000.
Opposition to the idea of women being allowed to vote was particularly strong from the brewing industry, concerned as they were that a campaign emanating from the temperance movement would harm their trade. Nonetheless, the WCTU persisted, and after much to-ing and fro-ing between the two houses of parliament, and initial opposition from the then premier, Richard Seddon, the long-hoped-for Electoral Act received the Royal Assent on 19 September 1893.
How did New Zealand’s suffragettes manage to win their struggle before that of other nations? NZine offers a few reasons:
Education of women
Education was one area in which some women were faring better in New Zealand. Girls’ secondary schools were opened during the 1870s and women were admitted to universities. Kate Edger graduated B.A. from the University of New Zealand in 1877, the first female university graduate in New Zealand, and the first woman to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree in the British Empire. (A Canadian woman had gained a Bachelor of Science degree two years earlier.) Kate Edger was appointed to teach at Christchurch Girls’ High School and at the same time studied for a Master of Arts degree from Canterbury College and was capped in 1882.
Women in the workforce
As women became better educated they entered the paid workforce, most as teachers, but some others as doctors, lawyers and journalists, or in their own businesses. By the late 1880s over seven hundred women who had no right to vote were the employers of men who had the vote.
It also helped that the suffragettes had some useful friends in high places: among the biggest male supporters of extending the franchise were top-level politicians such as Sir William Fox and Sir Julius Vogel.
Commenting on the success of the campaign, Kate Sheppard herself struck a cautiously welcoming tone:
It does not seem a great thing to be thankful for, that the gentlemen who confirm the laws which render women liable to taxation and penal servitude have declared us to be “persons”…… We are glad and proud to think that even in so conservative a body as the Legislative Council there is a majority of men who are guided by the principles of reason and justice, who desire to see their womenkind treated as reasonable beings, and who have triumphed over prejudice, narrow-mindedness and selfishness.
Sheppard’s later work and other ideas help to underline the status of feminism as being a movement of equality rather than man-hating (as its misogynistic detractors so defame it). Her other causes included promoting Proportional Representation and binding referendums, and having New Zealand’s cabinet directly elected by parliament. Her most famous declaration is a model for fairness and justice for all:
All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.