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)

Five Inspiring Suffragists

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 (Source: Hocken Library)

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.

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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