Opposition to Women’s Suffrage

Murder By Vote, the third Penrose & Pyke mystery, is set during the 1892 campaign for women’s franchise in New Zealand. The suffragists set out, once again, to prove that women wanted the right to vote, by collecting an enormous number of signatures on a petition to parliament. (The final petition, in 1893, was signed by around one in four adult women in New Zealand – an extraordinary achievement.)

They had an uphill battle on their hands from the many opponents of women’s franchise, from politicians and publicans, to moral and religious campaigners, to traditionalists who saw women’s rights as an attack on the role of women as wives and homemakers. Here’s a small taste of the times, taken from Papers Past and other digital archives.

Henry Fish junior (Source: National Library)

Although many Members of the House of Representatives favoured votes for women, others were staunchly against. Opposition centred around a group supported by the liquor lobby, including Henry Smith Fish Jr. Within parliament, stalling tactics and devious last-minute amendments were a favourite method of foiling the Women’s Franchise Bills.

Anti-suffrage feelings came to a head in Dunedin, in April 1892, when Henry Fish organised his own petition to prove that women did not want the vote. Allegations soon swirled in the newspapers that his petition was collecting signatures using dubious methods – by allowing signatures from people under the voting age, bribing men with alcohol, and paying canvassers (thus encouraging the collection of signatures by use of false pretenses and outright fakery).

Here are a few clippings from newspapers of the period.

Petition fraud (Source: Papers Past)

I’m happy to say that the suffragists triumphed over Henry Fish’s petition a few weeks later, when a counter-petition proved misrepresentation.

Part of the reason for the fierce opposition to women’s suffrage was the concern that women voters would support stricter alcohol licensing or even total prohibition. Hence the support of the liquor lobby. They had real cause for concern. Alcohol was a massive social problem in colonial New Zealand (and remains so today). The Temperance lobby was not only holding regular meetings, but also getting their members voted onto the local licensing committees. They had already achieved several closures of local hotels, with many more in their sights. Publicans were losing their livelihoods with no compensation – and you can imagine they weren’t about to take that without a fight!

Naturally, there were many other opponents of universal franchise, notably amongst those with strong religious or moral views around women’s role in society. Long letters to the editor were published on a regular basis, filled with verses from the bible and assertions on the nature of women. Here are a couple of examples:

And a poster from the era, opposing suffrage. All I can say is, thank goodness things have changed for the better (mostly!).

Anti-suffrage poster (Source: National Library)
Anti-suffrage poster (Source: National Library)

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