It’s the morning of November 28th, 1893, in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, just outside the nation’s capital of Wellington.
Fifty-four-year-old Elizabeth Martin shuts the door to her home and walks onto the dirt road outside. She feels her nerves set in as she heads toward a polling station in town.
Today is New Zealand’s general election. Elizabeth is one of thousands of women who recently gained the right to vote. But Elizabeth still worries that an obstacle still stands between her and the ballot box. For weeks, opponents of women’s suffrage have warned that any woman will be harassed at polling booths if she tries to vote.
And as Elizabeth walks toward Main Street, she grows more anxious about these rumors. Soon, her ears perk up at the sound of yelling in the distance.
Elizabeth stops walking. She's concerned that Main Street is already a site of protest. And for a moment, she considers heading back home. But then she decides to keep going.
As Elizabeth turns onto Main Street, she sees the road flooded with people. But they aren’t screaming in protest; they’re cheering and celebrating women’s suffrage.
Elizabeth lets out a sigh of relief. The rumors she has heard of chaos and protest appear unfounded. And quickly, Elizabeth spots a line of voters outside the hotel being used as a polling place. She hurries over to the two-story inn.
And as she joins the line, the men and women in front of her motion for Elizabeth to skip ahead of them. Elizabeth is well-respected for being Upper Hutt's first female resident when she moved to town 45 years ago. So, her neighbors in line think she deserved to be the first to cast her vote today.
In the late 1800s, New Zealand’s women’s suffrage movement was gaining popularity. Across parties, politicians fretted over what it would mean for them if the movement found success though. Some believed female voters would support radical reforms. Others worried that women would vote conservatively or just vote how their husbands told them to. Convinced women would support prohibition, liquor interests also got involved and advocated against suffrage.
But in 1893, the debate was finally settled. Just weeks before the nation’s elections, women over the age of 21 won the right to vote, making New Zealand the first governing country in the world to enfranchise women.
Ahead of these elections though, opponents of women’s suffrage will insist that the polls won’t be safe for women, but the 1893 election will be one of the most peaceful to date. Across New Zealand, women will flock to the polls to cast their first ballots and celebrate their suffrage, a right won only weeks earlier on September 19th, 1893.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is September 19th, 1893: Women Win the Right to Vote In New Zealand.
Act One: Leading the Charge
It’s 8 PM on May 10th, 1885, at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch; 8 years before women in New Zealand will win the right to vote.
Hundreds of women file inside the theater and find their seats, ready to hear from one of the world’s leading activists on prohibition, Mary C. Leavitt. From the stage’s wing, Mary peeks out at the growing audience and smiles at the turnout.
She is here to speak as the first world missionary of America’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, or the WCTU. In America, the WCTU has been fighting for liquor prohibition for over a decade. Late last year, Mary embarked on a worldwide tour to inspire other nations to take up the fight too.
For the past few months, Mary has been touring New Zealand, speaking at public meetings, women’s circles, and religious gatherings. In cities big and small, Mary has discussed the dangers of alcohol and hailed women’s suffrage as a means to fight for liquor prohibition. So far, her appearances have proved persuasive. Already, she has helped establish several new chapters of the WCTU. And today, she hopes her speech will establish one here in Christchurch.
As the last of the attendees stream into the theater, Mary gestures for the city’s choir to head onstage. She listens as they sing a hymn while volunteers pass collection plates around the audience for donations.
As the choir’s song ends, Christchurch’s mayor strides on stage and introduces Mary. Then, a nearby stagehand gives Mary her cue. As she walks out, the packed venue erupts in applause. Mary waits for them to quiet down. And then, she begins her lecture on temperance.
In it, Mary espouses the value of prohibition for God, for health, and for society. She attributes domestic violence and other societal problems to alcohol. She quotes a bible verse encouraging people to treat their body like the temple of the Holy Spirit. She cites data from an English life insurance company on mortality rates. Her audience lets out an audible gasp as she tells them that the lifespan of a drunkard is almost half of that of a total abstainer.
Then, Mary pivots to talk about women’s suffrage. She tells the women in the audience that they belong in all spheres of society, even political. She urges them to fight for their suffrage so they can help society by voting for things like prohibition. And as she speaks, Mary can feel her audience hanging on every word.
As her time comes to a close, Mary urgently issues one final appeal for women to join the cause and pledge to abstain. At this, the audience breaks out into applause. And as the room stands to its feet, Mary motions for a group of women volunteers to circulate trays filled with blue ribbons, the badge of the WCTU.
In the audience, 38-year-old Kate Sheppard plucks a ribbon from a nearby tray and pins it to her dress while she walks out of the theater. As she heads home, Mary’s lecture echoes in her head.
A devout churchgoer and the secretary of a local Christian women’s association, Kate has grown interested in advocating for prohibition. But she has never given much thought to the value of suffrage. Until now.
After Mary’s departure from Christchurch, Kate decides to throw herself into the temperance movement. Quickly, she helps establish a Christchurch branch of the WCTU. Initially, she focuses on circulating petitions to prevent women being employed as barmaids and to ban the sale of alcohol to children. But over time, Kate begins to focus more and more on the issue of women’s suffrage. Before long, she sees suffrage not as a means to enact prohibition, but as an end valuable in itself.
Three years after helping to establish the WCTU in Christchurch, Kate will be appointed the national superintendent of the Union’s legislation department. Soon, Kate will begin to lead the organization's suffrage campaign, proving herself as a powerful speaker and skilled organizer in her own right.
But as the suffrage movement grows, many in the press will attack Kate and other women advocating for the vote. They will deem them “the shrieking sisterhood” and urge them to stay within the domestic sphere. But Kate will refuse to let the criticism deter her.
For the next year, she will advocate tirelessly for the cause. She will write pamphlets, give speeches, and organize gatherings across the country. But Kate will realize that she’ll need more than just other women to bring about legislative action; she will need someone on the inside.
Act Two: A Series of Failures
It’s 1888 in Christchurch; 5 years before women in New Zealand will win the right to vote.
Inside her home, Kate Shephard sits at a desk and prepares to draft a letter to one of New Zealand’s most prominent politicians.
Recently, New Zealand’s Parliament introduced an electoral bill that continues to exclude women from suffrage. Kate has already organized a petition to remove the exclusion. And so far, she’s received hundreds of signatures. But she worries she can’t rely on a petition alone. So, Kate has been looking for a politician to promote women’s suffrage inside Parliament. She thinks she’s found the right man for the job.
So she writes a letter to parliament member John Hall, one of the most respected politicians in Christchurch, and a supporter of enfranchising women for years. No one seems better suited than him to become the movement’s parliamentary advocate. So, today, Kate feels confident taking the first step in forging an alliance. But as she puts the letter in the post, she worries what John’s reply might be—or if there will be one at all.
But soon after sending her letter, Kate is delighted to receive a response from John. He agrees with her aspirations and accepts her proposals. But even with John on her side, Kate knows the fight will remain an uphill battle.
Over the next two years, John works fruitlessly to move women’s suffrage forward in Parliament. At every turn, he faces delay, stonewalling, and excuses. Finally, in 1890, John gets a bill to vote before Parliament, but the motion is defeated.
Kate decides John needs more popular support and draws up another petition, campaigning even more vigorously until she gets over 10,000 signatures.
The following year, as a new electoral bill is introduced in the lower house of Parliament, John presents Kate’s petition. And just as he did two years earlier, he moves to amend the new bill to include women’s suffrage.
John feels encouraged to see the majority of the house’s members approve his amendment, but then another amendment is made, taking women’s political participation even further. John furrows his brow as another member suggests women be allowed in Parliament.
On the face of it, John agrees with the proposal. There is no reason a woman shouldn’t serve in a legislative body. But he knows this amendment is ill-intentioned. The Parliament member who proposed it opposes women’s suffrage; he only added the provision to make the bill so radical it will fail when it goes to vote in the upper house of Parliament. John is dismayed to see that the opposing member’s plan works. The electoral bill fails in the Upper House by 2 votes.
Upon hearing the news, Kate gets to work again organizing yet another petition. She vows to make it twice as large as the last. To expand her reach, she creates a women’s section inside New Zealand’s national temperance magazine where she promotes suffrage and her petitions.
And as she travels the country collecting signatures, another electoral bill granting women the right to vote passes in the Lower House of Parliament in 1892. Kate’s heart lifts at the news. But her hopes are again soon dashed. Parliament’s lower and upper houses are unable to agree on an amendment that would allow women to vote by mail. Ultimately, the bill fails.
For Kate, the lack of success in the legislature is endlessly frustrating. But it only hardens her resolve to redouble her efforts. And over the next year, Kate builds a petition that Parliament cannot ignore.
By July 1893, she will have an 885-foot-long scroll with the signatures of over 25,000 women. Not only will it be Kate’s most successful petition to date, it will be the largest petition of any kind presented to Parliament. And John Hall will introduce another electoral bill enfranchising all women aged 21 and over. The bill will easily pass in the Lower House, leading all eyes to turn to Parliament’s Upper House.
Lobbyists for the liquor industry will petition to reject the bill. Suffragists will hold mass rallies and send telegrams to members of Parliament. But the Upper House will remain divided on the issue. For days, Kate and her fellow suffragists will have to wait in anticipation of Parliament’s final verdict.
Act Three: A Final Upset
It’s September 8th at the Parliament House in Wellington.
In one of the building’s chambers, Prime Minister Richard Seddon looks on as the Upper House of Parliament gathers to vote on The Electoral Act of 1893. As the politicians take their seats, Seddon smirks. Everyone thinks the vote will be a close one. But the prime minister is confident the bill will be struck down.
A staunch opponent of women’s suffrage, Seddon has lobbied aggressively for Parliament members to vote against the bill. Originally, the majority of the Upper House planned to vote in favor of the act. But Seddon has convinced enough members to change their votes.
So even as votes are cast and the tally for those in favor rises, Seddon remains unfazed. The early lead is soon overcome by a succession of “nays.” Seddon smugly leans back in his seat. But as he grins to himself, the vote of one Parliament member catches him off guard.
Seddon listens as an ardent opponent of the bill suddenly votes in favor of it.
The prime minister sits forward in his chair. Only a few votes remain. The tally gets closer and closer until the bill’s passage relies on the last vote.
Seddon watches the final member of the Upper House rise to cast his vote. It’s another who has said he opposes the bill. And if he votes no, there will be a tie and the bill will fail.
Seddon holds his breath. The entire chamber goes quiet, then the Parliament member votes yes. Seddon slumps in his chair in disbelief as the act passes 20 votes to 18.
Eleven days later, New Zealand’s governor will sign the Electoral Act into law.
In the wake of the legislation, Seddon will suddenly position himself as an advocate of female enfranchisement to preserve his public image and court the new female voting bloc. But those in Parliament will know the truth.
Later, it will come out that the two Upper House members who changed their votes did it only to spite Prime Minister Richard Seddon. They viewed his lobbying in Parliament as so aggressive it qualified as manipulation. So, they voted against him in protest.
But Seddon will not be alone. Many other politicians will also walk back their opposition to women’s suffrage and pose as champions of the cause. But it will be Kate Sheppard who will receive much of the credit for the legislative milestone. Across New Zealand, women will hail her as the true leader of the suffrage movement.
And Kate’s success will encourage other suffragettes throughout the world to keep fighting for the vote. Eventually, other countries will follow New Zealand’s lead. Within the next thirty years, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, and then the United States will all grant women the right to vote.
A century after the passing of the 1893 Electoral Act, Kate will be put on New Zealand’s $10 bill. The posthumous honor will make her the first and only woman to appear on their national currency, a mark of Kate’s enduring legacy and her critical role in winning New Zealand’s women the right to vote on September 19th, 1893.
Next on History Daily. September 20th, 1973. In a widely-publicized exhibition match, tennis champion Billie Jean King defeats former player Bobby Riggs in what becomes known as “the Battle of the Sexes.”
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser