1893; The Year Women Won the Vote (But, Not in the U.S. or U.K.)
When New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, they beat the rest of the world by forever. No other country would have the claim of first.
In fact, the other civilized nations in the west, U.S., and U.K., wouldn’t catch up until 1920 and 1928 respectively. By then, Kiwi women had been voting for decades.
To obtain that right, the women of New Zealand suffered the same prejudices and had to fight the same fights as their slower partners in the west.
It was as much the rally of so many voices, as it was the driving force of one woman, Kate Sheppard.
Colonial New Zealand
Like most European colonies, New Zealand excluded women from the vote in the beginning. The rowdy world of politics was for men.
As the old monarchical systems faded into obscurity, women found places in professional environments next to their male counterparts in New Zealand, same as the rest of the western world.
Women attended universities, and took leadership roles, but still didn’t have the same rights as their aforementioned counterparts.
Had it not been for Kate Sheppard, the women of New Zealand might have stood in line for their rights much longer.
A member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Sheppard led petitions to influence New Zealand’s parliament in the mid-1800s. Amongst their goals, they wanted the vote, but they also wanted to outlaw alcohol.
The WCTU believed they could instill a better moral balance in the world of politics if given the chance. As it was in the rest of the western world, Sheppard wasn’t alone. She had support, even from men, men in positions of power.
The difference for Sheppard was that she had more support than her more western counterparts.
As early as 1878, bills passed through Parliament with provisions for women’s voting rights. They usually failed narrowly, suggesting that there were many men who supported Sheppard’s efforts.
By 1893, Sheppard and the WCTU gathered 32,000 signatures in support of giving women the vote. This would prove the tipping point.
With their sights set on prohibition, the WCTU attracted the attention of liquor interests and traditionalists.
By the 1890s, these groups started to make more noise. They organized counter-protests, citing that these women would emasculate men when given the vote.
In 1891, a liberal Prime Minister, John Ballance, took the office of the government. In the first two years of Ballance’s tenure, legislation came to the table twice which would have granted the vote, but failed under devious added amendments.
When Ballance suddenly died in 1893, it looked like the WCTU might not get their chance, but a third bill passed the House of Representatives.
When it passed New Zealand’s Legislative Council on September 8, 1893, it went to the desk of Lord Glasgow, the British Crown’s viceroyalty in New Zealand.
On September 19, 1893, Glasgow signed the bill, making it law.
The women of New Zealand voted that same year, 1893. Hardly a rowdy scene, it was the best-behaved voting day on record at the time.
The 1893 petition is on display at New Zealand’s national library in Wellington. On the first sheet, one can see the signature of Kate Sheppard.