The University of Auckland’s Jennifer Curtin reflects on 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand 

On September 19 the country celebrated 125 years of New Zealand women winning the right to vote with the passing of The Electoral Act in 1893. But it is worth remembering the work of the suffragists did not stop here: with only 10 weeks to go to a General Election on November 28, 1893, there was still much work to do.

Opponents to suffrage were unconcerned – they believed women were unlikely to enrol to vote because they were ‘constitutionally’ uninterested in politics. However, as Patricia Grimshaw’s seminal book, Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand, reveals: what may have seemed a daunting task, was to prove a rewarding one for women. 

On the first day of female registration, queues of women were waiting to enrol and once enrolled, they went on to register other women. Meetings were held around New Zealand to assist with this process and groups of women were organised to make home visits to reach those unable to make the trip to a registration centre. 

In addition, for many suffragists, the process of mobilising women to vote was an opportunity to educate and guide women’s understanding of New Zealand’s fledgling party politics and the candidates that would best represent their ‘interests’. The Liberals invited women to join their associations, the Conservatives focused their registration efforts on rural women, and those politicians who had opposed the suffrage waited nervously. 

Indeed, there were few candidates who felt sufficiently assured of their seats not to make concessions to female constituents in their electioneering. Grimshaw notes how appeals were sent on elegant, sometimes perfumed, notepaper, with sprays of forget-me-nots, while politicians’ wives held tea parties. Some candidates recalled famous women from recent history, others discussed the potential for New Zealand to become a utopian society.

Various groups, including the Women’s Franchise League established in 1892, got involved alongside the temperance societies which had joined with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to encourage women to support candidates in favour of state regulation of the liquor industry. Meanwhile, allies of liquor traders established working parties to register those women who did not support prohibition.

Alongside these organised interests, religious pressure groups seeking the introduction of Bibles in schools, and church leaders from a range of denominations, took to preaching to women as voters.  Although less is known about how trade unions promoted the vote among women, we can be sure that Harriet Morison from the Tailoresses Union encouraged women voters to eject Dunedin South MP Henry Fish. And a number of Māori women formed political committees in districts to support particular candidates, although turnout by sex in the Māori electorates is not recorded.

By the closing date of enrolment more than 109,000 women, estimated to be about 80 per cent of the eligible female population, were registered on the Electoral Roll. (Another 35,000 women registered in advance of the second election in 1896.) 

It is clear female voters took advantage of their new found political rights on this day in November 1893. Dorothy Page notes the day was sunny and women cast their vote throughout the day. Some came to vote in groups, others took turns to look after each other’s children.

Of the women who were enrolled in 1893, 82 percent turned out to vote. Moreover, female turnout was 15 percentage points higher than their male counterparts (the latter stood at 67 per cent).  Although this initial gender gap in turnout closed in latter elections, women continued to vote in good numbers throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century. 

So despite limited time between the passage of legislation and the election on November 28, the enthusiasm of the new female electorate was clearly apparent and represented what Grimshaw labelled a ‘highly commendable’ result.

The Liberals won a decisive victory in 1893, increasing their majority. Scholars agree it is difficult to assess the influence of women on this outcome. That the Liberals were easily returned may have been a result of increased support from male voters as well as from new female voters, given the party’s labour and land reforms. 

At the time, Liberal Premier Richard Seddon suggested that women would follow their husbands’ vote choice, meaning his government had nothing to fear from new women voters (despite his own antipathy to women’s suffrage). But not all politicians believed women would vote for the incumbents. 

John Hall, former conservative-leaning premier and ally of Kate Sheppard, had argued for female suffrage in part because he believed that women’s traditional family values would lead them to vote for the conservatives. Indeed, conservative parties in the UK and elsewhere were watching for the result of the women’s vote in New Zealand.  One noted “it will … very largely affect the attitude which we in the Conservative Party may take in respect to women’s suffrage when we learn in what manner it operates in New Zealand”.

However, it was at constituency level that the impact of women as voters appears most discernible. In a number of cities, anti-temperance candidates lost their seats, while in Dunedin, most commentators of the time believed women had caused the defeat of anti-suffrage Henry Fish. Indeed, the three successful Dunedin candidates were all endorsed by the Women’s Franchise League as they had been sustained supporters of women’s suffrage and what were deemed women’s issues. 

In 1905, Sidney Smith wrote that anti-franchise arguments had been proven false. There was no obvious sign of predicted domestic misery. Women were welcomed at polling booths, receiving respectful attention and no harassment. He noted the presence of women had transformed elections: “The riotous horseplay of bygone days has disappeared, and election day, with its flowers and gay dresses, has become a semi-festival, bright and decorous.”

And he reminded readers that Legislative Councillors who had called on the governor to block the franchise because it would disastrously affect the financial equilibrium of the colony and undermine London’s credit, were proved wrong. Prosperity, said Smith, remained uninterrupted. 

The recognition of the power of women as voters waxed and waned over the decades that followed. Survey results from the 1950s and 1960s suggested women were more likely to vote National than Labour, but this was rarely discussed as important to campaigns or policy formation. Instead, women were written off as conservative, anxious, status conscious and ‘fickle’ voters. Political parties’ recruitment practices reflected this lack of interest in women: between 1946 and 1975, 93 per cent of general election candidates were men. 

In addition, while New Zealand was the first country to give all women the right to vote, thereby implementing universal suffrage, and the first in the British Empire to elect a woman mayor, it was to take 26 years for women to win the right to stand for Parliament. It then took another 14 years for the first woman to be elected, and the first Māori woman was not elected until 1949 (to the Māori seat of Matiu). 

Much has changed for women in politics over the past 30 years; our responses to surveys inform policy platforms, we make up almost 40 per cent of MPs, we have had three women governors-general, three women prime ministers, and numerous women co-leaders and deputy leaders of our parliamentary parties. However, as was the case in the late 1800s, it has been women’s activism that has prompted these advances, along with alliances of a few good men.

Professor Curtin is the author of “New Zealand. A Country of Firsts in Women’s Political Rights” recently published in The Palgrave Handbook of Women’s Political Rights

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