The First Country to Grant Women the Vote

Women gained the vote in New Zealand in 1893, the summit at last.
Women gained the vote in New Zealand in 1893, the summit at last.

by Wendy Graham

September 19, 1893 — In the late nineteenth century the women's suffrage movement was widespread throughout Northern Europe, America, Britain and its colonies. But the first self-governing country to grant all women the vote was New Zealand on the 19th September 1893.

So how did New Zealand manage to grant all women, including indigenous Maori women, the vote decades before other countries? Although some US states were early to extend the right to vote to women (Wyoming 1869, Utah 1870), the next country after New Zealand was Finland in 1907, then part of the Russian Empire. Many other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States didn’t bring in women’s suffrage until after World War I.

The fight in New Zealand was won through a curious combination of persistence, a strong relationship with the temperance movement and a certain degree of luck. The temperance movement which had come to prominence in New Zealand in the 1880s, blamed alcohol for many of the colonial society’s problems with women and children bearing the brunt.

A New Zealand branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), based on the American organisation, was formed in 1885. It was inspired by a tour of the country that year by a member of the American WCTU, Mary Leavitt. The WCTU reasoned that only through political rights would women gain any say over the use and abuse of alcohol.

Another major influence on political thought of the time were the then widely read works of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill who advocated for rights for women.

Kate Sheppard from Christchurch, an English-born leader in the Temperance Union became New Zealand's leading suffragette. She spoke up and down the country to great success and organized a series of petitions to parliament to demand women the vote. These were hugely influential and forcibly contested by figures in the liquor industry. In 1893 the final petition for women’s suffrage gained nearly a quarter of all adult European women’s signatures.

An earlier bill to parliament had failed in the upper house but on the 8th September 1893 it passed by 20 votes to 18 after the Prime Minister Richard Seddon tried to stop it. His interference put the backs up of other two members of parliament to such a degree they changed their vote and the bill passed.

But the Governor of New Zealand Lord Glasgow, as the representative of the British monarch, had still to sign the bill into law. Suffragettes put in one final effort and on 19th September 1893 Lord Glasgow signed the bill into law.

With just six weeks to enrol for the next general election on the 28th November 84% of women registered and two-thirds later voted for the first time. Today Kate Sheppard’s portrait is on the New Zealand ten dollar bill and the centenary of women’s suffrage was widely celebrated in New Zealand in 1993.

Canada followed in granting women the vote in 1917, the United Kingdom in 1918 and the United States in 1920. By contrast Switzerland didn’t grant women full voting rights until 1971, Portugal in 1976 and Liechtenstein in 1984.

Published: September 5, 2017

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