It's the eve of the 101st International Women's Day
(IWD) as I write this. For certain in the next 24 hours I will hear
the words "Kate Sheppard", "women's votes" and "New Zealand led the
way" on the radio and in TV sound bites. Many New Zealanders
will half-listen and nod, and perhaps enjoy the frisson of being
reminded that our country was a true social trailblazer, back in
1893. Rather fewer people, I suspect, will be aware of the present
rate of progress for women and the enduring obstacles to true
equality of opportunity for women.
I'm a great believer in using the past to inform the present and
future; not much under the sun is truly new, after all… So, this
year's IWD has set me wondering: how did Kate Sheppard and her
close-knit team achieve their goal? Are there lessons we can take
from their setbacks and strategies at the end of the nineteenth
century to apply to the issues we're grappling with at the start of
the twenty first? After even a little digging, some apparent
success factors and one or two weaknesses have emerged.
Key Success Factors
An intelligent and articulate leader
Kate Sheppard was well-educated and could express herself
clearly and logically both on the podium and through the pen. If
she were alive today she would have been writing the press releases
for her cause, blogging to a huge audience and appearing on
breakfast TV and even TED talks.
Here's an example of her lucid prose in which she advocates for
There is no greater anomaly than the exaltation by men of the
vocation of wife and mother on the one hand, while, on the other,
the position is by law stripped of all its attractiveness and
dignity, and a wife and mother is regarded not only as a
"dependent" on her husband's bounty, but even the children of her
own body are regarded as his legal property.' [you go,
Also, I did love the nicely judged sarcasm of reason #2 (below)
of her 1888 treatise "Ten reasons
why the women of New Zealand should vote, and isn't #10 almost
spooky in how it aligns with arguments for women on boards
Reason 2. Because
it has not yet been proved that the intelligence of women is only
equal to that of children, nor that their social status is on a par
with that of lunatics or convicts.
Reason 10. Because
women naturally view each question from a somewhat different
standpoint to men, so that whilst their interests, aims, and
objects would be very generally the same, they would often see what
men had overlooked, and thus add a new security against any partial
or one-sided legislation.
Interestingly, Kate's spoken voice was described as "quietly
determined, persuasive and disarmingly feminine." For a woman
whose objectives scared many people, her feminine voice might have
been the essential ingredient that prevented her being roundly
written off as some "shrieking harridan" or "she-male".
Rome is never built in a day. I was surprised to find that
the cause of women's suffrage had good momentum and some successes
back in the 1870s, a decade or more before Kate became involved and
two decades before the full vote was won. For example, female
rate-payers had gained the right to vote in local body elections in
Kate and her suffragette colleagues kept up pressure to achieve
their bigger goal with talks, letters, pamphlets and petition after
petition. They had to weather the disappointment of three
bills that would have extended the vote to those female ratepayers
all narrowly failing to pass in Parliament. At least another
four attempts never reached the stage of voting by the Legislative
Council. Meanwhile, in 1879, the vote was extended to all European
men over the age of 21! (Maori men had been free to vote for Maori
representatives since 1867).
It must have seemed a long, long time till all women were
granted full and equal rights to vote.
What kept Kate & Co going?
A clear, strong cause
This seems crucial. To pick yourself up after knock backs, to
invest hours of time that could have been spent with your family,
to find the energy to rally your flagging team, you need a
fire-in-the-belly belief in your cause. Similarly, to
convince the public and make your case well, the cause and its
reasons need to be clear. Even in an era when Dickens' novels were
deemed high-octane page-turners, a crisp position statement must
have helped enormously.
What did they want? Universal suffrage for adult women.
Why did they want it? First, because it was fair. Second,
because enfranchised women would be much better placed to improve
society - temperance was a major issue.
A few good men
Politicians like John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William
Fox and Prime Minister John Ballance were the male champions of
change. Their commitment and support was essential because
Parliament and the Legislative Council were 100% male; the
suffragettes, like the damsels of old, were obliged to rely on
their knights in shining armour to fight the dragons for them.
And there were dragons aplenty.
Men and women alike in New Zealand and overseas feared that
giving women the vote would herald a disintegration of social
order. If women moved beyond their ordained sphere of the home, and
started "meddling in masculine concerns of which they [were]
profoundly ignorant" then dinners would burn, children would wail
for their absent mamas, and even the country's economy would come
under threat. Anti-suffragette lobbying became more poisonous the
stronger the pressure for change grew. The cartoons that accompany
this article are, believe it or not, fairly mild examples.
Some of the fear, I sense, was cynically manufactured, not least
by politicians who were worried that women would not support their
particular flavour of politics. In NZ, Prime Minister Seddon tried
hard to torpedo the 1893 vote and in England Winston Churchill
The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the
wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social
structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women
are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
A clear, strong cause pushed hard over a long period by an
articulate leader with strategic support must eventually result in
a groundswell of positive popular opinion and a willingness in
society to entertain views that a few years earlier would have been
In the case of women's votes, this translated into petitions to
Parliament that steadily swelled in size. In 1893, the third and
largest petition contained almost 32,000 signatures. It was the
largest ever presented to Parliament at the time and represented a
sizeable proportion of adult NZ women, putting to bed the
anti-suffrage argument that "women didn't really want the
An aside! If your family has been in New Zealand since the early
1890s you can check if one of your great grandmothers signed this historic petition. Good luck! My
female forebears don't appear, even though, like Kate, they were
A pinch of drama
Never underestimate the power of a flourish… The 32,000
signatures on the 1893 petition were collated in Kate's
Christchurch home onto a 766-foot-long piece of wallpaper. On the
day of the debate, John Hall unrolled it across the floor of the
Chamber of the House with great dramatic effect.
Extra goals = extra enemies
The suffrage campaign was inextricably linked with the
temperance movement. Temperance campaigners recognised early
on that they would have far greater success in their goal to ban
the evils of alcohol if they had women in positions of influence,
specifically, in the government. They therefore lobbied hard with
the suffragettes and had considerable membership overlap. Sheppard
herself became politically active after hearing lectures of a
visiting US evangelist temperance campaigner, Mary Leavitt.
On the one hand, the energy and resources of the temperance
movement materially assisted the push for votes. On the other, it
introduced a formidable enemy, the drinks barons. They
lobbied strongly to undermine the suffragettes, both on the streets
and among politicians and their resistance may well have delayed
the women's eventual success.
A reliance on one talented, central figure is a double edged
sword. Although Kate worked closely with other highly-educated and
passionate women, like Maud Reeves and Margaret Sievwright, not all
shared her ability to speak and lead, and after their 1893 success,
some seem to have moved abroad - as Kate herself did.
Kate left for England in 1894 and for two years became deeply
involved in suffrage efforts there. When she returned to NZ, she
found that her absence "had resulted in some disarray among her
supporters in the House" (Encyclopedia of NZ). The extent of that
disarray can be measured by the fact that a bill to include women's
representation in Parliament was thwarted by none other than two
previous male champions, Alfred Saunders and Sir John Hall, who
wanted a separate chamber for women.
Kate "had never advocated a separationist policy, and the loss
of her influence meant, perhaps, that the crucial moment for
women's complete political equality was also lost." Certainly women
did not gain the right to stand as MPs until 1919.
How Kate said she and her team did it
In later years, Kate was often asked by suffrage campaigners
abroad for the secret of her success. Her response was apparently
pragmatic. She believed that her campaigners had triumphed as a
result of years of unceasing toil - and because NZ's colonial
beginnings meant it was less tightly bound to the societal norms
that ruled Britain. "It was a kind of political experiment," she
If you are embarking on a campaign that touches the lot of women
in New Zealand, or if you are perhaps already deeply embroiled in
one, I wonder if you have seen similarities between your situation
and Kate Sheppard's! We'd love to hear.
To end with a little inspiration, here's a quotation from
Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist,
Never doubt that a small group of committed people can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever