Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand was the first country to allow women suffrage! On September 19th, 2018, they celebrated the 125th anniversary of this event.  Schools, theaters, museums and libraries in New Zealand hosted events commemorating the world-first legislation and discussions about how to achieve greater equality. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s third female prime minister, said the nation’s 19th-century fight for economic independence and equal rights was still continuing.

I was reminded of this on one of the last days of an almost month-long Viking River trip in Europe.  The prep for the trip, the lack of time and wi-fi while I was gone and all the catching up I had to do once I got back home is my excuse for not adding to my blog in a while

We traveled from Amsterdam down to Romania, hitting nine countries altogether.  Most of the people aboard were from the U.S.  But two elderly ladies with which I had the joy of sharing a luncheon (which was enhanced by folk dancers and a Romanian band) proudly reminded me that New Zealand was the very first nation in the world to grant suffrage to women.  New Zealand has marked the 125th anniversary of that historic move to give women the vote. In September 1893, New Zealand passed an Electoral Act that gave women over the age of 21 the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

The campaign for women’s suffrage in New Zealand was long and hard. By the early 1890s opponents of women’s suffrage had begun to mobilize. They warned that any disturbance of the ‘natural’ gender roles of men and women might have terrible consequences. The liquor industry, fearful that women would support growing demands for the prohibition of alcohol, lobbied sympathetic Members of Parliament and organized their own counter-petitions.

The suffragists’ arch-enemy was Henry Smith Fish, a boorish politician who hired canvassers to circulate anti-suffrage petitions in pubs. This tactic backfired, however, when it was found that some signatures were false or obtained by trickery.

Liquor interests petitioned the council to reject the bill. Suffragists responded with mass rallies and a flurry of telegrams to members. They also gave their supporters in Parliament white camellias to wear in their buttonholes. New anti-suffrage petitions were circulated, and some members of the Legislative Council petitioned the governor to withhold his consent. In a battle of the buttonholes, anti-suffragists gave their parliamentary supporters red camellias to wear.

This strategy reminds me of my own early campaigning for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment I the 1970’s when our group “Housewives for ERA” handed pink roses to the legislators in the Springfield, Illinois, capital building while across from us were Phyllis Schlafly and her conservative delegation of Eagle Forum women handing out slices of apple pie!


Petition signed by New Zealand women

The campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard, compiled a series of petitions, the final one of which was submitted to Parliament on 28 July 1893. It contained more than 25,000 signatures, was more than 270 meters long….and it was successful. The petition is of such significance that it is included in the UNESCO Memory of the World register of documentary heritage. The campaign for women’s suffrage in New Zealand was long and hard. This success came at the end of an enormous struggle by suffragists in New Zealand, led by Kate Sheppard. 31,872 signatures were collected during a seven-year campaign, which culminated in the 1893 petition for the enfranchisement of women being presented to Parliament in a wheelbarrow. It was the largest petition ever gathered in Australasia.  One of the signers was Stella Henderson (whose younger sister, Elizabeth, then too young to sign, would later achieve fame as New Zealand’s first woman MP – under her married name, Mc

Combs).  A number of New Zealand’s leading male politicians supported women’s suffrage.When the Bill was passed, suffragists celebrated throughout the country, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere: one wrote that New Zealand’s achievement gave ‘new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation’.  All women who were ‘British subjects’ and aged 21 and over, including Māori, were now eligible to vote (The nationhood requirement excluded some groups, such as Chinese women.).

In most other democracies – including Britain and the United States – women did not win the right to the vote until after the First World War. New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of their image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’.

Today New Zealand has a comprehensive set of legislation to protect human rights and eliminate discrimination against women. Milestones include: the Equal Pay Act 1972 (which requires employers to pay men and women the same wages for the same work); the Human Rights Commission Act in 1977 (to outlaw discrimination on a wide range of grounds); the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1985; the introduction of parental leave in 1987; and the introduction of paid parental leave in 2002.

First female Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley

Following the 2017 election, 38% of their Members of Parliament were female, compared with 9% in 1981. In the early 21st century women have held each of the country’s key constitutional positions:  the prime minister, governor-general, speaker of the House of Representatives, attorney-general and chief justice. About 40 percent of New Zealand lawmakers are women, but fewer than a third of government ministers are female. The incumbent Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, took office on the 26th of October, 2017. Ardern describes herself as both a social democrat and a progressive.  She is the world’s youngest female head of government, having taken office at age 37. Giving birth to a daughter on June 21st,  2018, Ardern became the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office. (PM Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the first.) New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister was Jenny Shipley. She held office from December 1997 to December 1999.

2nd Female Prime Minister, Helen Clark

Helen Elizabeth Clark served as the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, and was the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017. She was New Zealand’s fifth-longest-serving prime minister, and the second woman to hold that office.


Back on our continent, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was certified by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, and women finally achieved the long-sought right to vote throughout the United States. On November 2 of that same year, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time. Prior to 1917, only one state east of the Mississippi River (Illinois, 1913) had passed voting rights for women. In contrast, partial woman suffrage was legal in the newer states in the West — Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Alaska (territory, 1913), Nevada (1914), and Montana (1914).

The state of New York has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage all this past year. A website was launched and events throughout the state have occurred. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul introduced a website to kick off this important event in Women’s History. The website provides information about upcoming events, profiles New York suffragists and explores historical sites that commemorate the passing of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. In March, the state capitol will feature special one-hour tours focused on exhibits and artifacts from the suffrage movement.  Check it out at https://www.ny.gov/commemorating-womens-suffrage-100th-anniversary/womens-suffrage-commission.