Tortuous struggle to win votes for women

TIES THAT BIND: International Woman's Day, celebrated at the Kate Sheppard memorial garden.
TIES THAT BIND: International Woman's Day, celebrated at the Kate Sheppard memorial garden.

This week marks the anniversary of women gaining the vote. Past Times looks at some of the coverage in the Timaru Herald during the month of September 1893.


On September 19, 1893 the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law. As a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

DEDICATED CAMPAIGNER: Kate Sheppard led the women's suffrage effort.
DEDICATED CAMPAIGNER: Kate Sheppard led the women's suffrage effort.

In most other democracies - including Britain and the United States - women did not win the right to the vote until after World War I. New Zealand's world leadership in women's suffrage became a central part of our image as a trail-blazing 'social laboratory'.

That achievement was the result of years of effort by suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard. In 1891, 1892 and 1893 they compiled a series of massive petitions calling on Parliament to grant the vote to women. In recent years Sheppard's contribution to New Zealand's history has been acknowledged on the $10 note.

Today, the idea that women could not or should not vote is completely foreign to New Zealanders. In 2012, 32 per cent of members of Parliament are female, compared with 13 per cent in 1984. In the early 21st century women have held each of the country's key constitutional positions: Prime minister, governor- general, speaker of the House of Representatives, attorney-general and chief justice. New Zealand History Online

The Timaru Herald, Saturday, September 2, 1893

We notice that in Wellington the fate of the women's franchise is still held to be very doubtful. The Premier is credited with having "a card up his sleeve", with the intention of playing it before the Electoral Bill is safely through the Legislative Council. We certainly were at one time under the impression that something of the kind was in store as a painful surprise for the "political woman" and for those who, for one reason and another, have made her cause their own. But although we still believe that the Premier would gladly let the settlement of the question stand over till after the general election, we doubt his power to bend a majority of the Legislative Council to his will in this matter. However, to show the existence of suspicion as to bad faith on the part of the Premier, we quote the following sentences from an article in the Evening Post, which was published subsequently to the passing of the interpretation clause by the Legislative Council. Our contemporary says "The division on the interpretation clause of the Electoral Bill in the Legislative Council yesterday resulted in the principle of womanhood suffrage being affirmed by the narrow majority of two. Unfortunately, this does not mean much. Last session the same clause was carried by a majority of 7, yet the franchise was not conceded, and the bill fell through. On this point the council has no hesitation in stultifying itself by refusing to practically cede that which it has theoretically affirmed to be just. The division list last night shows some curious changes of opinion on the part of members when contrasted with that of last session on precisely the same point. Dr Pollen then voted against women being included in the definition of "person" and Mr Williams paired on the same side. Last night both voted in favour of women. Mr G. McLean paired last session in favour of women, but voted last night against them. So did Mr Stevens and Major Ropata, who last year voted against Sir George Whitmore's amendment. The new members of the council were equally divided last night, six for and six against.

The Government seems to have adjusted its selection of new members so as to leave this question just where it was without them. Altogether, last night's division does not afford much reason for hoping that the franchise will be conceded to women this session. Last session it was defeated by being clogged with conditions which the House would not accept. A somewhat similar device will, no doubt, be resorted to by Ministers to bring about a like result this year. It will be seen that, according to the Evening Post, the Legislative Council are lending themselves to a sort of conspiracy to defeat the carrying of the women's franchise. There is no evidence in that direction, and we cannot admit that the conditions imposed last session by the council were put into the bill to ensure its defeat. The majority of the council were content that women should not only have the franchise but should be relieved of the inconvenience of having to go to the polling booths to exercise their right. On that occasion the Government chose to drop the bill, and made the council's amendments the excuse for so doing, but the bad faith was the Government's, not the council's. After carefully watching the situation and taking note of hints received from Wellington, we incline strongly to the opinion that a majority of the council are determined to carry the bill, and to give the Government no excuse for shelving it. Of course we may be wrong on that point, but it is evident from what has already taken place in the chamber that some of the chief opponents of the bill hold the same opinion as ourselves as to the intention of the majority. Our Wellington contemporary is not quite correct as to the distribution of the voting power of the 12 new members. It is true that, on the question of the word "person" including "woman", there were six on one side and six on the other but whilst that portion of the interpretation clause was under discussion Mr Rigg (one of the 12, and strongly opposed to the women's franchise) announced emphatically that if the council affirmed the principle of passing the clause, "he would not make one of a party to introduce any innovation or any side issue to imperil the rest of the bill". He added: "If the majority of this council now carry the female franchise, I shall do my level best to carry the bill into operation, and shall vote against any and every attempt to defeat it." The clause was carried, Mr Rigg voting against it, but we take it that, according to his announcement, he will now throw his whole weight into the other scale, and will oppose any limitations or alterations likely to be used by the Premier as a handle for casting the bill on one side. If that is Mr Rigg's attitude, there are now at least seven of the 12 new members who will exert themselves to see the women's franchise safely through the council. We believe that others will follow Mr Rigg's example.

The Timaru Herald, September 28, 1893

Wellington: At a meeting of the Women's Association, called to discuss the franchise question, Mrs O. M. Diminer presided. The hall was crowded. A resolution was carried, thanking Sir John Hall, Sir Robert Stout, the Hon B. Oliver, Mr A. Saunders, and other members of the legislature. Sir John Hall and Sir Robert Stout replied, referring to the great social reform, and urging women to have their names placed on the roll. The Premier and Mr Oliver sent letters of apology. Mr Saunders moved a resolution, pointing out to women the necessity of having their names placed on the roll without delay. Mr Meredith seconded the motion, which was carried. Among the speakers were Messrs Sandford, M H R McLean, M H R and T Kennedy McDonald. The utmost enthusiasm was shown.

About 1700 claims from women, for enrolment on the city roll, had been received up to 3 o'clock this afternoon.

Christchurch: Up to the present 3500 claims for enrolment have been received from women.

Oamaru: Arrangements were in progress to make a thorough canvass of the Oamaru district for the enrolment of women, but today five men were put on by the Registrar to do the work, which is expected to take a week.

History of the movement in New Zealand

The Parliamentary correspondent of the Dunedin Star wired down an interesting summary of the history of the women's suffrage movement in New Zealand, as told by Sir John Hall and Sir Robert Stout, at the banquet to the former at Bellamy's last week:

The author of The Subjection of Woman, John Stuart Mill, as member for Westminster in the House of Commons, presented petitions signed by some 1400 women praying that they might be admitted to the franchise.

This petition and the newspaper discussion which it evoked attracted wide attention to the subject, and when a copy of Mill's work was sent by its author to Judge Chapman it was lent to Sir Robert Stout, upon whom it produced a decided impression. Sir Robert urged the reform in various newspaper articles, but it did not reach the public platform, so far as we can remember, until early in 1871, when, as one of Mr Bathgate's committee, he attended one of that gentleman's political meetings in Dunedin to further his candidature. Sir Robert there raised the question of the admission of women to the electoral franchise. His advocacy was received with laughter and applause. After this the question cropped up at various meetings from time to time. Sir Robert spoke in favour of it in the Otago Provincial Council, and strongly urged it in the press. It was not until 1878 that its parliamentary history commenced. In that year the subject was introduced by Dr Wallis, a member for Auckland, who moved: "That in the opinion of this House the electoral disabilities of women should be entirely removed, and the same political rights and privileges should be granted to women as to men." The debate was adjourned, and when it came up again the motion was met by "the previous question", and Dr Wallis was defeated by 44 to 8. The eight were Sir Robert Stout, Mr Bowen, Mr George, Mr Morris, Mr Bees, Mr Barth, and Drs Wallis and Henry, and the division was taken on August 15. Dr Wallis was persistent, and on September 16 he moved to omit the word "male" in clause 15 of the Government Electoral Bill of the day. His motion was lost by 36 to 26, and of those who voted only three are at present in the House - viz Sir R Stout, Mr Saunders, and Mr Hamlin. Of the three; only Sir Robert voted for the motion. In the division list for the motion there appear the names of Sir W Fox, Messrs Atkinson, Ballance, and Macandrew now, alas! no more. The next day there was another division on the same subject when it was proposed to insert the word "male" before person in the 17th clause of the bill. This time the advocates of women's suffrage gained an unexpected victory, for they kept the word out by 41 to 23. Here we find voting for equal electoral rights to both sexes Messrs Atkinson, Ballance, Oliver, Ormond, Shrimski, and Swanson, Sir W Fox, and Sir Robert Stout. The victory, however, was a snatch one. Many did not see its significance when they voted, and so the word was ultimately re-inserted. The question was next seriously mooted in Parliament in 1879, when in the Qualification of Electors Bill, introduced by the Government, Mr Ballance carried, by 34 to 28, an amendment (for which Sir John Hall voted) affirming the principle of woman suffrage. It was, however, subsequently thrown out by 27 to 19. In the following year Dr Wallis introduced a bill for extending the franchise to women. This was read a first time, but went no further, and it was not till 1887 that Sir Julius Vogel introduced his women's suffrage bill which was at last read a second time by 43 to 11. In committee clause 2 - the operative clause - was thrown out by 21 to 19. The bill was not gone on with further, and was discharged. Three years later, on August 6, 1890, Sir John Hall proposed a resolution affirming the justice of granting the franchise to women which, after considerable discussion, was carried by a majority of 26 (Ayes 37, Noes 11). A bill was thereupon introduced and read a first time, but owing to the late period of the session it was not possible to proceed further with it. This brings us down to the present Parliament, in the first cession of which (1891) Sir John Hall again introduced his bill. It was read a second time by 33 to 8 and passed the House of Representatives. In the council it was read a first time, but the second reading was negatived by a majority of two, which included the two Maori members. Next year, however, saw the reform figuring in a Government Bill - the Electoral Bill of Mr Ballance, which was passed after some opposition in the House by 43 to 26. It was also passed by the council, but with amendments providing that women might be allowed to send their votes by post. Upon this question an irreconcilable difference of opinion arose between the two Houses, and the bill was consequently wrecked. Sir John Hall, also in that session, introduced a bill for conferring the franchise on women, which was not proceeded with. And now I come to the present session. Sir John Hall again introduced his Franchise Bill, and it was read a second time by 33 to 3, but as women's suffrage was included in the Government Electoral Bill Sir John's bill was not pressed further. The only division on women's suffrage in the passage of the Electoral Bill through the House was on a motion by Mr Blake, and this was defeated by 33 to 12. The bill passed both Houses, and received the Governor's assent on September 19.

The Timaru Herald