Colonial context behind suffrage

Last updated 08:52 19/09/2013

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OPINION: A new Electoral Act became law 120 years ago today, making New Zealand the first self-governing country to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Dr Katie Pickles looks at how this happened.

Of all places on the planet, 120 years ago New Zealand was the first nation to grant women the right to vote.

Christchurch was a hotbed for the hard work that it took to get the elected male politicians in Wellington to narrowly pass a bill that pragmatically allowed women to have a say in the governance of the nation, and that symbolically signalled the equality of women and men in society.

What happened here in 1893 was orderly, largely good-willed and fusty compared with the awful events to come elsewhere.

We escaped the militant desperation of the hunger strikes, bombs and martyrdom that women around the world would resort to in later decades as they attempted to catch up to the rights and respect that New Zealand women enjoyed. Writing letters to newspapers and MPs, holding meetings, distributing leaflets and signing a massive petition actually worked here.

And in enfranchising all New Zealand women from the outset we transcended the race, class and age divisions that often accompanied the gradual attainment of the vote for women in England, America and Canada.

There were Maori women's voices present in the New Zealand suffrage campaign, and there is plenty of evidence that the dominant white middle class women actively sought to include Maori perspectives.

But why was New Zealand able to pull off this momentous first? Leading the charge of explanations was the colonial context.

With more men than women migrating to the new colony there was the mythology of a "surplus of men". These were the young, lively, visible and unruly specimens living a frontier lifestyle of alcohol, violence and vice. Why should these men have the vote when respectable middle and upper class women did not?

Importantly, the relative scarcity of women put a premium on women as wives, mothers and moral guardians. Add to this the importance of the family economy, and increasingly flattering ideologies of women's maternal worth, and women's value in New Zealand was on a high. The colonial context was right for granting women the vote.

It is very telling that it was the liquor barons who opposed votes for women. A vote for women was widely considered a vote for the settler family man against the "loafing single men". The men who supported women's suffrage believed that women's votes would have an orderly, conservative effect on society. In the colonial setting, women's part as maternal, civilising agents was especially needed.

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Demonstrating the clear connection between alcohol and the vote, the New Zealand campaign was run through the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a part of an international women's maternal feminism dedicated to improving family life through ridding the world of alcohol and its attendant problems.

The colonial context leads to a second important factor that explains why New Zealand was first: the political structure of society. In contrast to old world Europe, New Zealand lacked the obstacles that impeded the progression of women's rights.

In particular, it did not have a centuries old entrenched conservatism, but rather was a place of rapid change and new ideas, and one that that liked to consider itself "God's own country" and a utopic paradise. Women's rights clung on as part of a liberal progressive package of late 19th century causes.

The remaining ingredient important in clinching votes for women in 1893 was individual agency. There was a bounty of local women who seized the moment and had the resources necessary to agitate for the vote. Here Kate Sheppard reigns as the iconic leader and there is no questioning that she was talented, dedicated and articulate.

But there were many other impressive women too.

In Christchurch, Ada Wells stood out, and spread out around the country were Amey Daldy, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Harriet Morison, Mary Ann Muller, Helen Nicol, Annie Schnackenberg, Margaret Sievwright and Anna Stout, just to mention a few formidable and capable women.

And while we can focus on individuals, the women's suffrage campaign was a mass movement, with three petitions in 1891, 1892 and 1893 that one quarter of adult New Zealand women signed. Clearly, getting the vote was considered an important way by many women to improve their lives and get equal with men.

But at the end of the day it was the men in Parliament who had to vote for the women's suffrage bill. And because of the moral and civilising value placed on women in the colonial context, Kate Sheppard found vital support in advocate Sir John Hall, the conservative politician from Hororata, who presented the mass petition to Parliament.

Why New Zealand lead the world becomes clearer by looking internationally.

Other places that shared the winning cocktail of unruly colonial context, flexible social structure and local talent were the wild western states of America. Women's suffrage was granted in Wyoming in 1869, Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1895. As in New Zealand, women did the campaigning and the men legalised their dreams. And similar to New Zealand, for these men the promise of a more settled society was the carrot.

Across the Tasman women got the vote in South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899. Ahead of the game, New Zealand was the only nation to implement women's suffrage in the 19th century.

But have we stayed ahead? There are many measures and indicators that can be manipulated to argue yes and no. And the maternal platform that was so important in 1893 has waxed and waned in the intervening years. We're still a small country that can experience intense periods of rapid change. And an egalitarian spirit, however battered and bruised, marches on.

So in celebrating 120 years of women's suffrage it's important to reflect on why New Zealand was first in the world, and how understanding where we have come from can assist plans for where we'd like to go next.

Katie Pickles is Associate Professor in History at the University of Canterbury where she teaches and researches women's history.

- The Press

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