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.

First National Council of Women, Christchurch, 1896

National Council of Women, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-041798-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22694035
National Council of Women, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-041798-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22694035

Looking at this photo makes me very grateful that I wasn’t born any earlier –  these Victorian clothes look so hot, so uncomfortable, and as for those fussy caps! Ugh!

But what these women are wearing is about the least important part of the  photograph – this is the first National Council of Women, meeting in Christchurch 13-18 April 1896.  It was a world first – a national meeting of women who could vote in parliamentary elections.

Their aim was to ‘unite all organised Societies of Women for mutual counsel and co-operation, and in the attainment of justice and freedom for women, and for all that makes for the good of humanity’.

Many were veterans of the battle to gain women’s right to vote – Kate Sheppard (seated 5th from the left) – which was passed into law three years earlier, while others – such as Annie Schnackenberg (seated on Kate’s left) – were also involved in the temperance movement. Kate Sheppard was voted in as the first President of the Council.

Over the course of six days they passed a number of resolutions including:

Kate Sheppard Memorial
Kate Sheppard Memorial, Flickr CCL-KateSheppard-2010-08-24-IMG_1863
  • the need for minimum wages
  • the conditions of divorce for man and women be made equal
  • the private ownership of large tracts of land, and these kept locked up by absentees, is a wrong inflicted on the people, and is detrimental to progress
  • the abolition of capital punishment
  • the continuation of the present system of free, compulsory, and secular education, and the expansion of technical education
  • that women be eligible to serve on all juries
  • a system of Old Age Pensions, or Annuities, should be established

 

The National Council of Women of New Zealand Te Kaunihera Wahine o Aotearoa is still active, still needed, continuing the good fight for pay equity, extending paid parental leave, ending discrimination against women.

Further reading

Cover of A history of New Zealand women Cover of Maori and Aboriginal women in the public eye Cover of Kiwi rock chicks, pop stars & trailblazersCover of Golden girls Cover of Inside stories Cover of Ettie Rout

Suffrage City

120 years ago today – 19 September 1893 – women in New Zealand got the vote.
Kate Sheppard Memorial

Kate Sheppard Memorial

And 20 years ago today this Christchurch landmark – the Kate Sheppard Memorial – was unveiled.

Kia ora to all the women who fought so hard for us to get the vote.

Public notice for a meeting on the present and outlook of woman's suffrage to be held at the Oddfellows Hall, Lichfield Street, Chch.  [20 Oct. 1892]
Public notice for a meeting on the present and outlook of woman’s suffrage to be held at the Oddfellows Hall, Lichfield Street, Chch. 20 Oct. 1892
Photot of Some of the first women voters entering the Tuam Street hall
Some of the first women voters entering the Tuam Street hall. November 1893.

Our suffrage related stuff

More on votes for women

What Would Kate Think?

September 19 is celebrated as Women’s Suffrage Day. On that date in 1893 the new Electoral Act Find at Christchurch City Librariesgiving women in New Zealand the vote was passed into law. Leader of the suffrage fight was Kate Sheppard, a redoubtable Christchurch resident who threw her energies into many related causes including temperance (alcohol reform) and dress reform for women.

What would she make of current generations of women who may be wearing revealing clothing, binge drinking and pursuing careers once the preserve of men? Are they liberated and empowered? Do they really have freedom of choice?  I think Kate would have some pretty staunch opinions.

Australian writer Emily Maguire was due at the Christchurch Writer’s Festival to talk with Marilyn Waring in a session entitled Your skirt’s too short: women in the 21st century.  This is also the title of her latest book which is adapted for teenage readers from her 2008 book Princesses & pornstars : sex, power, identity. Both examine the challenges for women in an age of celebrity worship, mainstream porn and an unhealthy focus on appearance.

Women’s Suffrage Day – Spotlight on our local heroines

Sunday 19 September is Women’s Suffrage Day – a celebration of  New Zealand women getting the vote  in 1893. The Kate Sheppard Memorial in Oxford Terrace celebrates some of our pioneering sisterhood.

Photo
The Kate Sheppard Memorial

Another group of leaders are Christchurch’s own Women in the Council Chamber and we have brief political audio biographies  on Ada Wells, Elizabeth McCombs, the famed Mabel Howard as well as more recent councillors.

Our collection of Unsung heroines highlights local identities. These women were characters in all senses of the word. Bella Button – famed for her horseriding prowess – trained cats to jump like horses. Lizzie Coker, of Coker’s Hotel fame, was remembered as a ‘fantastic creature in elaborate wigs and huge fur coats’.

Other things to explore:

  • A brief diary written on board the Tintern Abbey en route from Gravesend to Christchurch, December 1874 – May 1875 by Mary Anne McCrystal, 1849-1929.
  • Ngaio Marsh – one of Canterbury’s most famous authors.
  • Elsie Locke – one of our Canterbury Heroes, her plaque reads ‘Political, social and local community activist, well-loved historian and writer, determined and doughty fighter for the rights of the under-dog, active to the end’.