Monday 19 September marks Women’s Suffrage Day, when New Zealand women won the right to vote in parliamentary elections. On this day in 1893, Lord Glasgow signed the new Electoral Act into law, making New Zealand the first self-governing country in the world in which all women over the age of 21 finally had the right to vote – after two decades of determined and relentless campaigning.
The Hawke’s Bay suffrage campaign was initially spearheaded by the Napier Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed in 1885, whose slogan was, For God, and Home and Humanity. The primary function of WCTU nationwide was to limit men’s consumption of alcohol, and suffrage was seen as a means to achieve that end. Many of the arguments for women’s suffrage were based on the issue of temperance, as it was often the wife and children who suffered through a husband’s drunken behaviour. Women had no legal redress in New Zealand society with unequal divorce laws and limited means to financial independence.
While the suffrage campaign was coordinated by women living in Napier, women throughout Hawke’s Bay were actively involved: encouraging others, canvassing for signatures, distributing franchise literature, and writing letters to newspapers.
One of the national WCTU’s main methods of campaigning for women’s suffrage was petitioning Parliament. The first petition was delivered in 1891 and supported in Parliament by Premier John Balance. A second petition, larger than the first, was presented the following year – and a third, larger still, in 1893: in which Hawke’s Bay women’s signatures made up ten percent of the overall total.
By the 1890s, people of Hawke’s Bay were well aware of the issue of women’s franchise (legislated rights) through local newspapers, which played an important role in communicating ideas as well as providing a forum for debate. Most people thought women’s suffrage would primarily be used to influence laws around education and the moral welfare of the young, extending a woman’s role as ‘mother’. This idea saw women not as adults with an inherent right to democratic participation, but instead as moral protectors of society concerned with preserving peace, law and order.
Once the Electoral Act came into law, local newspapers stressed the necessity for women to register. On November 28, the day before voting, the Hawke’s Bay Herald recorded that ‘Woman (sic) franchise was demanded and conceded as a right, not as a privilege, and that right involves the duty to vote’. This was followed by the threat that if a person neglected to vote, under the new Electoral Act they would be struck off the rolls. When voting day arrived, suffrage opponents warned that delicate ‘lady voters’ would be jostled and harassed in polling booths by ‘boorish and half-drunken men’. This did not happen and the 1893 election was well conducted and orderly.
Written by Gail Pope – MTG Hawke’s Bay Curator of Social History