Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand

This month marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.  On 19 September 1893 the Electoral Act was passed, giving all women in New Zealand over the age of 21 the right to vote.  As a result of that landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Our government has planned an impressive commemorative programme to remember and celebrate this important turning point in our history as a nation.

Little attention, though, is being paid to the significant role that the church played in the suffrage campaign. That’s a real shame. Reflecting on his context in Britain, David Bebbington writes that, “Evangelical religion, despite its emphasis on the domestic role of women, was more important than feminism in enlarging [the sphere of women] during the nineteenth century.” The same could very much be said for New Zealand.

Who led the campaign?

The women’s movement of the late 19th century – first-wave feminism – largely emerged from the churches. The feminist writer, Sandra Coney, acknowledges that “all the prominent early feminists were active Christians.” The suffrage campaign, in particular, was led largely by Christian women. Well over half the leading women of the suffragist movement were members of the Women’s Christian temperance Union (WCTU). While efforts to gain the vote for New Zealand women did not begin with the WCTU, that organisation’s activism after 1887 gave huge impetus to the franchise struggle and was crucial to its success.

As its name suggest, the WCTU was strongly Christian in its impulse. Its members were expected to observe “noon-tide prayer,” stopping what they were doing to pray at noon each day. Its vision was profoundly Christian. At its annual meeting in 1890 members declared “that the foundation of all our work lies in the acceptance and practice of the Gospel of Christ.” They further resolved “that greater effort should be made by our membership during the year along evangelistic lines. We affirm our belief that God in Christ is the King of the Nations, and as such should be acknowledged in our Government, and His Word made the basis of our lives.”

These women had a broad vision of the Christian gospel. It drove them to evangelism and social action, personal renewal and political reform. Through the activities of the WCTU they played a critical role in the suffrage movement and made a very significant contribution to New Zealand becoming the first nation in the world to give women the right to vote.

What motivated them?

According to its constitution, the primary goal of the WCTU was temperance and suppression of the liquor traffic. However, the WCTU’s members were concerned not just with the social harm caused by alcohol. Their vision was much larger. According to Kate Sheppard, the organisation’s objective was to apply “the Golden Rule to the affairs of … civic life.” This meant social action. WCTU members ran soup kitchens, rehabilitated women prisoners in society, aided “fallen women,” operated night shelters, ran nutrition, cooking and sewing classes, and provided pre-school care (which grew into New Zealand’s kindergarten movement).

But the women of the WCTU did not just want to drive the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. They wanted to erect a fence at the top, through political reform. The breadth of their vision was remarkable. At their meetings they debated a very wide range of campaigns: repealing the Contagious Diseases Act (which protected men but not women involved with prostitution), preventing Sabbath desecration, raising the age of consent for sexual activity (to 21), suppressing gambling, equalising the conditions for divorce for both men and women, reducing smoking, and preserving Maori fishing rights on Lake Rotorua. To achieve all these objectives, the WCTU made obtaining suffrage for women a central concern. Political reform would require political action. Women with a social conscience would need to vote.

The suffrage campaign was not, however, simply a means to achieve these political reforms. It was also motivated by a deep concern for justice and equality between the sexes. In an early issue of the temperance magazine, White Ribbon, Kate Sheppard wrote of the “humiliating fact” that there was “one law for man and another for woman.” According to the Prohibitionist, lack of the vote implied inferiority, and even suggested that women had no more status than things. In Sheppard’s words, gaining the franchise would allow women to become “persons” at last.

This concern for equality was rooted deeply in Christian theology. Miss H.R. Morrison asserted at a meeting in 1892, “Jesus Christ was the first founder and head of the women’s franchise movement. He said that in Him there was neither male nor female in his sight. He considered both sexes equal.” Raewyn Dalziel has argued that the Christian women of the WCTU were motivated more by a Puritanical moralism rather than by a concern for justice and liberty. But the evidence clearly suggests that justice and liberty were central concerns.

How did they achieve their goal?

The WCTU women skilfully used public meetings to mobilise support for their cause. They wrote letters to newspapers. They published pamphlets and books. They assembled petitions to pressure politicians. The first petition in 1891 was signed by 9000 women; the second in 1892 by 20,000, and the third in 1893 by more than 30,000 women – nearly a quarter of the adult female (European) population. Alliances were also important. The suffragists were supported by several key (male) allies, especially members of parliament, who (like Sir John Hall) were also active Christians.

For the most part, though, Christian women had to wage this fight without the support of Christian men. While Christian women were at the forefront of first-wave feminism, their churches or denominations were not typically at the leading edge of the cause. The fight for female franchise and equality was carried more by individual Christians and the WCTU than by church denominations.

Speaking for many in his church, the New Zealand Presbyterian editor was cool on the issue of women’s franchise: “Our own opinion is that the female franchise would improve neither the condition of women nor the character of our colonial politics.” In his opinion, “Men and women differ as much in the composition of their minds as in the structure of their bodies, and they have in consequence different offices assigned to them.” The woman was “designed to be the helpmeet of man, and man to be the protector of woman.” This was “clearly the order of nature.”

The Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, was also unsympathetic: “Woman is queen of the sacred shrine of the home. She ought to retain her sovereignty unimpaired. She is not fitted by nature to leave home and take part with men in the noisy debates of modern Parliamentary life.”

Denominations tended to avoid the issue largely because it was controversial and divisive. The New Zealand Baptist magazine, for example, largely sat on the fence during the franchise struggle, its editor commenting once the franchise had been granted: “We have hitherto refrained from saying anything upon this question, not from want of sympathy with it, but from a desire to avoid controversy in our columns upon a question on which there are definitely two sides.”

Resistance inside the church to equality for women was evident in the reluctance to grant women the right of full participation in church courts and conferences. The Canterbury Anglican Synod rejected motions in 1897 and 1900 to give women the right to vote in parish meetings, as did the triennial National Synod in 1898. The Baptist Union rejected the possibility of female representation at the national assembly in both 1892 and 1896, finally agreeing to female representation only in 1908.

It was in the face of this opposition from within their own churches that Christian women, inspired by the gospel of the kingdom, courageously led the campaign for the right to vote. It was a truly remarkable achievement, and one which deserves celebration as we mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. As we mark that event, though, I can’t help but wonder: What are the current movements for justice and equality among women in our world today? And how is the church supporting them – or resisting them?

Written by

Dr John Tucker