In the late 1800s, women around the globe began organizing and advocating for the right to vote. On September 19, 1893, 130 years ago, New Zealand passed the Electoral Act and became the first self-governing country in the world to allow women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. It would take another 27 years for the United States to follow suit. The victory came after a hard-fought fight led by Kate Sheppard, a leading activist for the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand.
Catherine “Kate” Malcolm was born in Liverpool in 1847 and migrated to New Zealand in her early twenties. She met and married merchant Walter Sheppard in 1871 and became active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). There, she became acquainted with politics but also encountered sexism and prejudice.
Inspired by similar suffrage movements in the British Empire and the United States, Kate and other like-minded women in New Zealand began to gather for meetings. They knew they needed to gain the vote to have any real influence in society.
Opponents argued that the natural sphere of women was home and family, and allowing women to vote would detract from womanhood. Proponents called that argument farcical, claiming that allowing women to become involved would create policies that could protect and nurture families.
With the vote approaching, women supporting enfranchisement crisscrossed the country, collecting signatures on a petition. In September 1893, Kate Sheppard presented the petition to the New Zealand House of Representatives. The petition was a 900 ft. long scroll containing the signatures of 31,000 women (almost a quarter of the adult European female population in New Zealand). Dramatically, they unrolled the scroll across the chamber of the House. The House of Representatives voted and passed the Act. Following its passage, the Earl of Glasgow, Governor of New Zealand, signed the Electoral Act into law, allowing women aged 21 and over who were British subjects, including Māori, to vote.
The women who worked tirelessly for the passage of enfranchisement presented members of parliament who supported the agenda with a white camellia on their lapels. After a long-fought battle, they had finally achieved victory. Less than two months later, over 100,000 women enrolled to vote in the 1893 election.
The victory for women in New Zealand ignited hope for suffragettes from other countries, including the United States. Following the triumph in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard advocated for women’s issues at home and across Europe. In 1992, New Zealand honored her work when they unveiled a new $10 note with her portrait. In 2008, she was also honored on a postage stamp with a white camellia.