On 19 September 1893 New Zealand women were enfranchised following Governor Onslow’s assent of the Electoral Act 1893. The Act’s passage made New Zealand the first self-governing country with female suffrage and culminated a decade of activism by a cadre of dedicated activists.
Women’s suffrage had been debated since the 1860s, but the campaign for legislative reform began after the 1885 establishment of the American-based Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand. The organisation’s arrival coincided with the international rise of a women’s movement seeking equal political rights and a period of domestic social and legislative reform that began to address gender inequalities.
After the defeat of several bills with female franchise clauses in the 1880s, the WCTU, led by its energetic Superintendent of Franchise and Legislation, Kate Sheppard, sought to popularise its cause. Its tactics, adapted from early British and American suffrage movements, combined public meetings, political lobbying, and the mass circulation of petitions requesting women’s enfranchisement. Despite these disappointments the movement achieved rapid success—in the early 1890s the House of Representatives passed several bills that would have enfranchised women, thwarted only by the conservative Legislative Council. In 1893 however, following the submission of 32,000 women’s signatures requesting the vote, both Houses of Parliament passed the Electoral Act.
While the WCTU led the struggle for women’s suffrage it received support from other sectors of society including the temperance movement and certain trade unions. In September 1893, the Public Service Journal celebrated the landmark legislation, lamenting only the ‘folly’ of having ‘disregarded the vast reservoir of [women’s] mental and moral power’ for so long.
Sources: Ministry for Culture and Heritage, ‘New Zealand Women and the Vote’, http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/womens-suffrage; Dorothy Page, ‘Introduction’, in The Suffragists: Women Who Worked for the Vote, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1993, pp.1-23; Bert Roth, Remedy for Present Evils: A History of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890, Wellington: New Zealand Public Service Association, 1987