Kiwis Celebrate 100 Years Of Votes for Women

After many petitions to Parliament, in 1893, New Zealand was the first country to give women the franchise

THE names are plain, the signatures bold: Mary Lockwood. Alice Cunningham. Lavinia Taylor. Dora Williams. In the end, their sheer numberson the long petition that stretched across the legislature floor won the day.

These women were a few who signed 546 petitions seeking the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893. The 300-yard-long petition was presented to the House of Representatives by suffragist Kate Sheppard on July 28, 1893. By Sept. 19, New Zealand had become the first self-governing country to give women voting rights. (Women had gotten the right to vote on Norfolk Island, the Isle of Man, and in Wyoming before 1893.)

The petition is in an exhibit, ``The Undersigned Women,'' at the National Archives here, part of the year-long centennial of the winning of the franchise for women. The centennial has drawn forth responses from government departments, corporations, museums, schools, women's groups, and communities around New Zealand.

Mrs. Sheppard's face adorns the new $10 note. The postal service is issuing commemorative stamps. Telecom put Sheppard on its phone card. And a statue of Sheppard and five other suffragists stands on the bank of the Avon River in Christchurch.

A video at another exhibit, ``Votes for Women,'' at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch where Sheppard had her base, explains how the victory came about. The drive for the right to vote was spearheaded by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Sheppard was superintendent of the franchise department of the WCTU.

``It was an incredibly intensive and active five-year campaign,'' says historian Charlotte Macdonald of Victoria University. ``New Zealand is long and spread out; communication was difficult with settlements so scattered. But she got petitions to the whole area.''

Members of Parliament just laughed when Sheppard's ally in Parliament, Rep. John Hall, presented her first petition in the legislature. The franchise bill didn't pass.

But stunned silence greeted the second petition, this one signed by 25,919 women. The bill still didn't pass. Women held many franchise-support meetings around New Zealand and presented 13 more petitions to both houses of Parliament, signed by almost one quarter of all adult women.

After several weeks of extensive debate in both Houses, the bill was passed by a two-thirds majority.

Once women got the right to vote, they had a mere six weeks to get on the electoral rolls. Despite families, farming, and domestic work, 80 percent did enroll. On Nov. 28, 1893, 70 percent of New Zealand women voted for the first time.

Why was New Zealand the first country to give women voting rights? Historian Macdonald says there are two opinions:

``One is that because New Zealand was a new society in which conservative forces were not firmly established, there was a general milieu in which ideas about women's higher education and movement into the work force gained greater ground.

``The other was that women argued they should get the vote out of recognition for the role they'd played as housewives in setting up a new society out of the bush. But that view also holds the women didn't want to make fundamental changes in their position in society.''

The New Zealand victory was eagerly seized upon by women in the United States, Britain, and Australia, who used it as proof against the prevailing notion that ``women didn't really want the vote.'' Australia was next in 1902 (except for Aboriginal women, who had to wait until the 1960s).

Women in the United States were enfranchised in 1920 and in Britain in 1918, but only after long, arduous struggles.

``The centennial has raised a lot of awareness, particularly in younger women, about how hard women struggled to make gains,'' says Julie O'Brien, spokeswoman for the 1993 Suffrage Centennial Year Trust, Whakatu Wahine (the Maori name means ``women standing strong in their own right''), established by the government to disburse government funds for centennial projects. ``It's good, so that younger women don't think it's always been like this,'' she says.

The government has allocated $2.75 million (NZ: $5 million) for the trust, whose role is to celebrate the centennial, assess the status of women today, and promote a new vision toward 2093. Grants for a whole range of community and artistic endeavors have been made.

Some of this year's celebrations reveal how far women's lives have come since the 1890s when riding bicycles was considered daring: women climbers making summit attempts on alpine peaks; women-only triathalons; conferences of the Maori Women's Welfare League, of women justices, and of farming women; a television series; and numerous books.

``What we've been seeing is a reenergizing of the womens' movement, a renewal of networks,'' says Dame Miriam Dell, chairwoman of the trust. ``The trust had a sort of dream of what might happen, and it's far exceeded that, basically because of the response of women at the local level. Which is exactly how the petitions got started.''

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