The third book in the Penrose & Pyke Mysteries (Murder By Vote) gets to the heart of the women’s movement in New Zealand – the campaign for women’s suffrage in the early 1890s.
In New Zealand – the first self-governing nation in the world where women won the right to vote – the suffrage campaign has become almost synonymous with Kate Sheppard, the National Franchise Superintendent.
But to my mind, the most interesting skirmishes occurred in Dunedin, where the Women’s Franchise League was born and the working women’s vote was won.
Murder By Vote is a fictional story based on the real events of April 1892. Opposition to women’s suffrage had come to a head, by way of Henry Fish’s petition against suffrage, with the support by the local liquor lobby. Outrage at the verbal attacks on the cause and the devious methods used to collect signatures was one of the triggers for launching the Women’s Franchise League, alongside the desire to decouple the suffrage cause from the narrower interests of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
The fictional story features five real women, who deserve to be better known for their extraordinary lives. Each of them was instrumental in setting up the Women’s Franchise League (WFL), as well as dedicating their lives to improving the lot of women.
Harriet Morison has already featured in Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, for her work as leader of the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, which played a critical role in improving workplace standards for working women.
She then set her sights on getting working women to sign the suffrage petitions, alongside Helen Nicol and others, contributing to the massive count of over 7000 signatures in Dunedin out of the national total of over 20,000 signatures on the 1892 petition. She became one of the inaugural vice-presidents of the WFL, and was also a member of the WCTU, a lay preacher, and an official visitor at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, amongst other endeavours.
Helen Nicol was a tireless worker for the suffrage and temperance causes, both as franchise superintendent for the Dunedin branch of the WCTU and in her role as secretary (and travelling speaker) for the WFL. She was responsible for many letters to the press and correspondence with national suffragists, as well as the counter-petition to Henry Fish’s anti-suffrage petition.
Marion Hatton chaired the City Hall meeting in Dunedin on 12 April 1892, which set the idea for a WFL in motion. At the inaugural meeting of the WFL on 28 April 1892, she became the league’s working president.
Despite having a soft voice, Hatton was the league’s principal speaker, travelling the South Island, along with Helen Nicol, spreading the word. She continued her work in other ways, including advocating for equal pay for equal work. She also helped to initiate the National Council of Women.
Lady Anna Stout and her husband were strong advocates for women’s suffrage and equality. She became the co-president of the WFL. Sir Robert Stout was a powerful political figure, having been the Premier of New Zealand from 1884 to 1887, as well as the preferred successor to the ailing Premier, Sir John Ballance, in 1892 (although the position was taken by Richard Seddon after Ballance’s death in 1893). Anna Stout was also involved in the National Council of Women and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children.
Rachel Reynolds had an adventurous upbringing in rural Australia before moving to New Zealand and marrying William Reynolds, a successful businessman and later politician. She became one of the inaugural vice-presidents of the WFL, helped her husband in his political career and raised nine children, as well as being active in education and welfare.
She is known for her role in furthering women’s education, including the establishment of free kindergartens, high schools for girls and the admission of women to the University of Otago. Her mission against poverty was personal – she distributed fresh fruit and vegetables daily from her home, Montecillo, read to the elderly residents of the Benevolent Institution, and taught young mothers to sew at St Andrew’s Church.
Sources: Biographical details are mostly from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies). The images are from the Hocken Library (Harriet Morison), the National Library of NZ (Rachel Reynolds and Lady Anna Stout), and Papers Past (Helen Nicol and Marion Hatton). The latter are from a 1982 article on the Women’s Franchise League in the New Zealand Graphic, digitised by the Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.