Founding Feminists: September 19, 1893

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

founding feminists

In an unprecedented victory for the worldwide suffrage movement, the women of New Zealand won full voting rights today! The struggle goes back to 1869, when Mary Ann Miller wrote “An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand,” which advocated female suffrage. Two years later, Mary Colclough gave the first public lecture on the subject. Bills to extend the suffrage were introduced into Parliament in 1878, 1879 and 1887, and only narrowly defeated. But thanks to leadership by Kate Sheppard, as well as the tireless work of Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigners, a winning strategy was devised.

The start of the campaign was quite modest. In 1887 two petitions signed by 350 women were presented to the House of Representatives. By the next year there were 800 signatures. But after this slow start, suffrage began to pick up major support. In 1889, the enthusiasm of the newly-established Tailoresses’ Union was added to that of the W.C.T.U. In 1891, nine thousand women signed eight petitions. A year later, the Women’s Franchise League was established, and six petitions with 19,000 signatures were presented. Earlier this year thirteen petitions containing 32,000 signatures were submitted.

As in the United States, the major sources of opposition to woman suffrage have been those who believe that a woman’s “natural” role as wife and mother is incompatible with politics, plus the liquor industry, whose generosity in funding anti-suffrage organizations knows no bounds in any country. Since a good deal of the work for suffrage has been done by the W.C.T.U., it has not been difficult for liquor interests to stir up fear of prohibition and gather signatures on anti-suffrage petitions in the nation’s pubs.

This year’s final victory was by no means assured at any time. Premier John Ballance, who supported woman suffrage, died in April, and was succeeded by Richard Seddon, a strong anti-suffragist on quite friendly terms with liquor interests. But the huge number of signatures on the petitions – representing a substantial percentage of the nation’s women – were sufficient to get an Electoral Bill passed by the House. A furious campaign then ensued as it went to the Legislative Council, which had killed two previous suffrage bills.

There were rallies and heavy lobbying of Legislative Council members, both in person and by telegram. Anti-suffragists went all-out, with Seddon using every trick in the book to pressure his fellow legislators to vote “no.” Finally, the day of the vote arrived, with pro-suffrage Council members wearing white camellias in their buttonholes. But apparently Seddon’s underhanded and “strong arm” tactics had gone too far this time, and two anti-suffragists were sufficiently offended that they changed their votes to “yes,” so the measure carried 20 to 18.

Opponents, now wearing red camellias, didn’t give up, and spent the eleven days since the vote pressuring the Governor not to sign the bill. But today the “Electoral Bill” became the “Electoral Act” with Lord Glasgow’s signature, and the battle for unconditional, universal woman suffrage has now been successfully brought to a conclusion in New Zealand.


via National Library of New Zealand
via National Library of New Zealand

Though technically a part of the British Empire, the nation has been self-governing since 1852, thanks to the British Parliament passing the New Zealand Constitution Act. A national election will take place on November 28th, and New Zealand’s Parliament will achieve a unique legitimacy by becoming the first national governing body to be freely elected by a majority of all the adult citizens of the country.

Hopefully, the U.S. will follow suit. At present, women can vote only in the State of Wyoming, where they won the ballot on December 10, 1869, when it was still a Territory. Women (and men) of all races who possessed a certain amount of property could vote in New Jersey from 1776 until 1807, at which time the franchise was unjustly restricted to “free, white male citizens of the State, of the age of 21 years, worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate…” The last State to end property qualifications was North Carolina, which did so in 1856. The 15th Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, prohibits denial of the vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but is clearly not being enforced in the South, even though Congress has the power to enforce it “by appropriate legislation.”

Women in Utah Territory could vote from 1870 until 1887, when Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker (anti-polygamy) Act and disenfranchised them. Women in Washington Territory won the vote twice, but legislation passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1883 was overturned by the Territorial courts in 1887, and a bill passed in 1888 was similarly voided. In 1889 a suffrage referendum in what is now the State of Washington was defeated by a 2-1 margin. But there is a suffrage referendum on the ballot in Colorado on November 7th, so a second suffrage State may be won soon, and as was the case in New Zealand, persistence may yet pay off!

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