Let not babies, the wash tub or even dinner, prevent women from going. —Franchise activist, Amey Daldy, encouraging women to vote in 1893

After a hard-fought series of votes in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, the Nineteenth Amendment stating — “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” — became part of the American Constitution on 18 August 1920. (Wikipedia)

By Roger Childs

women voting queue126 years ago last Wednesday, women voted in their first New Zealand election. We were the first country to pass such a law, however, in the western US states of Wyoming and Utah women had been voting for over 20 years.

The first Women’s Franchise Bill had gone before the New Zealand parliament in 1878, but it would take another 15 years before the deal was finally done. 

It was one of the many achievements of the reforming 1890s Liberal government, but no triumph for the Premier, Richard John Seddon. He was against what he saw as too radical a step: politics were in his view, the preserve of men.

A long battle for franchise equality

Voting in England and the United States was for centuries based on owning property. Women were not allowed to vote or hold political office, however there were occasional quirks which provided interesting exceptions.

In Stuart England in the early 17th century, there was a woman sheriff who inherited the job after her husband passed away.

Then in New Jersey in the 1790s and 1800s, women who owned enough property actually voted, but only until 1807 when the all male Congress excluded all members of the female sex from casting ballots.

In 1848 there was a famous gathering of American feminists at Seneca Falls, New York State. In their Declaration of Sentiments they used the Declaration of Independence as their model and stated: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal .. And in their final statement made specific demands: … we insist that they (women) have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

As noted, it would take American women another 71 years before the process for the 19th Amendment was underway (it passed the U.S. Senate on 4 June 1919). British women over 21 would have to wait until 1928. 

However, the Seneca Fall declaration provided a clarion call for many women across the planet on the need for equal rights.

Meanwhile down under…

It was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) that spearheaded the agitation in New Zealand. The WCTU Franchise Department lead by Kate Sheppard,

  • held rallies and made speeches
  • issued pamphlets and put up posters
  • put together a petition with by 1893 had 31,872 signatures.

Kate Sheppard 1There was huge opposition from the male dominated parliament led by Premier Seddon, and newspapers, but by the early 1890s more MPs were coming round to the view that action for franchise equality was needed.

Epicene womenHowever, the New Zealand women’s suffrage advocates had to suffer much abuse, satire and ridicule. (See alongside, click for the full view.)

The 1893 bill passed in the House of Representatives, but then had to go to the Upper House. Seddon put pressure on a new councillor to change his vote.  This incensed two other councillors and they altered their preference from against the bill, to for. So it became law in September.

Enthusiastic voting!

Many sceptical males thought that most women wouldn’t bother to vote. 

How wrong they were! In the 28 November 1893 election 82% of the enfranchised women enthusiastically cast their ballots, while just 70% of the eligible male population went to the polls.

That day 126 years ago is a hugely important date in our history.