Women’s Right to Vote

With saturation coverage of elections at the moment, take a moment to reflect on how far women have come over the last few generations.

I was in Christchurch (New Zealand) recently, where the Canterbury Museum is displaying taonga/treasures collected over the past 150 years. The biggest drawcard was the dress worn by women’s suffrage campaigner, Kate Sheppard, on the NZ$10 note.

The city also has a memorial celebrating NZ women gaining the right to vote. As any local will proudly tell you, New Zealand was the first self-governing country to achieve universal voting for women, way back in 1893. [Note the careful wording – other parts of the world gave votes to women earlier, like the state of Wyoming, or gave women with property the vote, as on the Isle of Man. Kudos to all of them.]

The NZ Electoral Act of 1893 substituted the word ‘person’ for ‘male’ and even included a handy definition noting that ‘person’ included women. Radical! We take the right to vote for granted these days, but back in the mid-1800s women had no legal identity apart from their husband, who controlled his wife’s property and their children. Given the rampant abuse of alcohol and high level of violence against women, it’s no wonder the campaign for women’s rights sprang out of the temperance movement.

The victory came after a very long campaign, featuring the epic 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – a 270m long list of the signatures of 24,000 women of all walks of life – as shown in the photo, being wheeled in a barrow. Several thousand more women signed other rolls of the petition, which no longer survive. Almost a quarter of New Zealand women signed, an extraordinary achievement, testament to the door-knocking, speech-giving dedication of a band of determined campaigners.

The petition was presented to parliament by rolling it out along the central aisle of the debating chamber. What a sight that must have been! The petition is displayed at the National Library in Wellington (https://natlib.govt.nz/he-tohu/about/womens-suffrage-petition).

The National Library has published a wonderful compilation of potted biographies of women who signed the petition: The Women’s Suffrage Petition: Te Petihana Whakamana Poti Wahine 1893 (2017, Dept of Internal Affairs and Bridget Williams Books). Well worth a read to give a sense of the range of women who signed and an insight into their lives. You can see a docudrama about the campaign at: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/votes-for-women-what-really-happened-2012

At least one of my ancestors signed the petition, despite living in a shepherd’s cottage miles from town. She came to New Zealand from a Scottish ship-building town in 1884, endured a long voyage, then learned new skills in order to survive off the land. Hard times: no heat that didn’t involve chopping wood, no vegetable not grown in their own garden, and no doubt a monotonous diet of mutton. Unfortunately, she died young, soon after the birth of her seventh child.

So, ladies, enjoy your right to vote and think of those who went before us, whose hard work and determination have got us to where we are today – celebrating an outstanding woman being elected to the US vice-presidency and a newly-elected NZ government that is the most diverse ever (lead by our third female Prime Minister).

And spare a thought (or an action) for the millions of women in the world today who still do not have basic rights and even more whose rights are trampled by misogynists in power.

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