Most will be aware that we were the first country to allow women the vote, although territories or states – such as Wyoming in America- were earlier.
While we often hear the term ‘women’s suffrage’, some women, like some men, could vote much earlier than 1893. In 1876, the Municipal Corporations Act allowed ratepayers of either gender to vote.
In 1879 all men could vote regardless of whether they owned land or not. Interestingly, Maori men obtained this ‘right’ in 1867, although most owned land communally. What we celebrate therefore, is more accurately termed ‘universal suffrage’ as by this Act everyone (except non British subjects, ‘lunatics’ and prisoners) were give the right to vote.
The pin up girl of suffrage in New Zealand has to be Kate Sheppard, the radical, outspoken and determined women who, along with many others, pleaded and protested to enable women to vote. As Kate lived in Christchurch, many of the more well-known people involved in this movement, were fellow Cantabrians.
However, we should not assume that only here in Canterbury was the call for universal franchise clear and loud. It was a nationwide movement that gathered into its fold many diverse opinions and gaols.
Although some strived solely for the right to vote, many, like Kate herself, were members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who saw voting rights a means to attain their gaol of prohibition. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the first two decades after 1893, towns, such as Ashburton became ‘dry’.
Others sought a more democratic country where women, who for years worked alongside, or instead, of men in all manner of occupations, were given the respect and acknowledgement they deserved.
It is also easy to assume that this movement was gender specific. Men too believed in equality and freedom and fought as hard, if not harder, to achieve this.
While Kate is a familiar face – blazoned on everything from a $10 note and stamps to crossing lights in Wellington, almost no accolade is given to the two of the men most actively supportive of women’s right to vote.
The men’s vote
The massive petition, the third such undertaking, signed by over 32,000 women was presented to Parliament by Sir John Hall. Former Premier of New Zealand, Hall was member of the House of Representatives and represented the Ellesmere electorate, which encompassed parts of today’s Ashburton District. The Hall family were very early runholders of the area that included Ashburton.
Not a lone voice, other members of parliament supported him, if only verbally.
However one of the most active supporters of the movement was Alfred Saunders. Saunders was member for Cheviot, but for a number of years had lived in Ashburton and owned a flour mill here. Saunders Street is named after him.
Mid Canterbury can rightly claim, therefore, a strong connection to the suffrage story. While we may celebrate Kate and her female companions we must also acknowledge the men, such as Hall and Saunders, who voted to supported the bill, as within Parliament at that time there were only men who could confer that right to women.
While the road towards voting rights was difficult, it certainly wasn’t as dangerous as for women from countries, such as England who suffered, and in some circumstances died, for the same cause.
It has been suggested that New Zealand men had more of a respect for women due to the role they played in breaking in the new country.
At this time you may consider how you may wish to acknowledge or celebrate this milestone. Perhaps you may wish to visit the suffrage petition online to see if any of your female ancestors signed the petition. Don’t despair if they didn’t. Many areas weren’t canvassed or reached, and as this petition was the third petition in a very short time, some women only signed the first two and these have not all survived.
Perhaps you may take a moment and think about the many women that made an impact through their strength – the mothers, aunts, grandmothers, teachers, sisters and friends who may not make it onto a paper currency or a stamp but made an impact on your life.
By Kathleen Stringer
1 Alfred Saunders
2 Sir John Hall
3 cartoon depicting the achievement of women to vote, a man assists women hood to reach the pinnacle