Mothers of the Present: Christchurch women and the vote

On 19 September 1893 women in New Zealand got the vote. Campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard, had fought for years for Māori and Pakeha women’s suffrage.

The Press editorial on 20 September 1893 stated:

We believe that a very large number of women do not desire to vote. [1]

Election day was Tuesday 28 November 1893. The Press reported:

The pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully, and one envied the returning officer and poll clerks whose duty it was to pass in review such a galaxy of beauty.[2]

About 10,000 Christchurch women voted, with only a few incidents:

At the Provincial Council Chamber some peculiar scenes took place. In one instance a man and his wife and daughter came to vote. The man first wished to go into the recess to instruct his wife how to vote. The poll clerks removed him. Then he went into where his daughter was recording her vote and wished to instruct her. This also he was prevented from doing much to his chagrin.[3]

40 years later the first woman was elected into the New Zealand Parliament. Christchurch woman Elizabeth McCombs had been heavily involved in working for the community. She won the Lyttelton seat in a by-election September 1933, after the death of her husband James. She held the seat until her death in June 1935. [4]

Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0028
Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0028
100 years after women got the vote, the Kate Sheppard National Memorial was unveiled by Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard. The words on the Memorial end with the words of The White Ribbon editor, Nelly Perryman, from 1918:

We, the mothers of the present need to impress upon our children’s minds how the women of the past wrestled and fought, suffered and wept, prayed and believed, agonised and won for them the freedom they enjoy today.[5]

Kate Sheppard memorial
Kate Sheppard National Memorial. Flickr 2014-09-19-IMG_2212

Suffrage resources

References

[1] Woman’s Franchise, The Press, Volume L, Issue 8592, 20 September 1893, page 4

[2] Polling Day in Christchurch, The Press, Volume L, Issue 8652, 29 November 1893, page  5

[3] Polling Day in Christchurch, The Press, Volume L, Issue 8652, 29 November 1893, page  5

[4] Death of Mrs E. R. McCombs, The Press, Volume LXXI, Issue 21493, 7 June 1935, page 13

[5] The Kate Sheppard National Memorial

This feature was first published in our quarterly magazine, uncover – huraina. It is our newest channel to help you explore and celebrate the resources, content, events, programmes and people of Christchurch City Libraries, Ngā Kete Wānanga o Ōtautahi.

You are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

You are in front! Behind you are all the women in the world and all the children! Keep moving forward. Do not stop to blame those who are behind. Remember that they are weighted with what remains of all the shackles of all the women of the past; they cannot step forth free. But you are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] Mrs McCombs became New Zealand's first woman MP, for the Lyttelton electorate in 1933.
Elizabeth Reid McCombs, née Henderson (1873-1935) [between 1919 and 1925] CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0028
Mrs McCombs became New Zealand’s first woman MP, for the Lyttelton electorate in 1933.
Stirring words written in July 1914 by Elizabeth McCombs: her article “Women in politics” still has relevance today.

So who was New Zealand’s first woman Member of Parliament?

  • Elizabeth (Bessie) Reid Henderson was born at Kaiapoi on 19 November 1873. She was the eighth of nine children, and despite the death of her father when she was 13, she stayed at school until aged 16.
  • In 1899 she became a committee member of the Progressive Liberal Association, a group that had as one of its aims the removal of barriers to women’s participation in civil and political life.
  •  A prohibitionist, she was the first president of the Young People’s No License League (1902-1905) and was a prominent figure in the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union
  • In 1903 Elizabeth married draper James McCombs. They had two children, Terence and Alison. They also raised two orphans.
  • When the second NZ Labour Party was formed in 1916, Elizabeth was elected onto the executive and her husband was elected President. He had been elected the M.P for Lyttelton in 1913, and held the seat until his death in 1933
  • She served on the Christchurch City Council from 1921-1934, where she was very active on committees – being appointed to the electricity committee in 1925 and chaired the Electricity Committee in 1929, and 1931-1935. She fought to win ratepayers the lowest domestic electricity rates in the country.
  • From 1925-1934 Elizabeth was also a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board, and served on the Board’s Benevolent Committee. She worked to improved the quality of meals for nurses and patients, nurses’ working conditions, and the situation of the unemployed – remembering that the Great Depression started in 1929.
  • In 1926 Elizabeth’s name was included in the first group of women to be made Justices of the Peace in New Zealand.
  • 1927  first woman representative on the Christchurch Tramway Board, and in 1933 was elected to the committee managing the mayor’s Relief of Distress Fund
  • Following the death of her husband in 1993, Elizabeth won the Lyttelton by-election with a huge majority – over 50% of the 10,347 votes cast were for her, recognition of her work over the previous ten years.
  • In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal

During her two year tenure as M.P. , Elizabeth proved herself a skilled and effective orator, advocating for women’s rights – attacking a government unemployment policy that gave little assistance to unemployed women, not even including them in statistics, yet working women paid unemployment tax. She advocated for women police officers, and equal pay for women, as well as for unemployed youth and the need for New Zealand industries to be established so as to reduce unemployment

The huge workload took its toll, and Elizabeth’s health suffered as a result. She died in Christchurch on 7 June 1935.  Her son Terence succeeded to her parliamentary seat. The McCombs Memorial Garden in Woolston Park commemorates the lives of Elizabeth and James McCombs.

  Cover of My Dear Girl: A Biography of Elizabeth McCombs Cover of Marching on  Cover of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan  Cover of The Book of New Zealand Women = Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa

Further reading

Suffrage Day / White Camellia Day on Wednesday

Kate Sheppard MemorialWednesday 19 September 2012 is Suffrage / White Camellia Day.

You can see the names of those who signed the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition.

Join Women on Air for their celebration of Suffrage Day – and 20 years of broadcasting! -Wednesday at 7.30pm Middleton Grange. It will feature actress Helen Moran as Kate Sheppard and Port Hills MP Ruth Dyson will read the maiden speech of Elizabeth McCombs, New Zealand’s first female MP. Michele A’Court will read a piece called “A letter to my daughter”.

Explore more about New Zealand suffrage and the awesome women of Aotearoa. Digital NZ has a neat set of images Cartooning the women’s vote. Why not watch NZ on screen
The Nineties
Bread & Roses

Search our catalogue for women’s suffrage and women’s rights in New Zealand.

Public notice for a meeting on the present and outlook of woman’s suffrage to be held at the Oddfellows Hall, Lichfield Street, Christchurch [20 Oct. 1892]

Suffrage Day / White Camellia Day Friday 19 September

Elizabeth McCombs
Elizabeth McCombs

You might be fed up with Labour and National and the Winston sideshow as the election on November 8 looms, but before 1893 women didn’t get a vote – and the first woman MP Elizabeth McCombs didn’t get into Parliament until 40 years later!

So on Suffrage Day we celebrate the women who fought for their rights and for ours. We’ve just added some brief political biographies of local women in council to the web site – from Christchurch’s “Women in the Council Chamber” exhibition, initiated and co-ordinated by Cr Anna Crighton.

Other ways to celebrate:

Kate Sheppard Memorial
Kate Sheppard Monument

Friday 19th September 12.30 p.m. – All women are invited to bring camellias to Our City O-Tautahi, to place on the Kate Sheppard Memorial. Bring a poem or a personal statement.

You might also like to join Women on Air for their celebration of Suffrage Day at 7:30pm Christchurch Girls’ High School Auditorium – it features authors Megan Hutching, Janice Marriott, Virginia Pawsey and poet Bernadette Hall.