On 19 September 1893, when the Governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
This success came at the end of an enormous struggle by suffragists in New Zealand, led by Kate Sheppard. 31,872 signatures were collected during a seven year campaign, which culminated in the 1893 petition for the enfranchisement of women being presented to Parliament in a wheelbarrow. It was the largest petition ever gathered in Australasia.
The petition contains the signatures of many leading suffragists and feminists, including Kate Sheppard, Marion Hatton, Rachel Reynolds, Ada Wells, Tailoresses’ Union leader Harriet Morison, writer Edith Grossman, and sisters Christina and Stella Henderson (whose younger sister, Elizabeth, then too young to sign, would later achieve fame as New Zealand’s first woman MP – under her married name, McCombs). When the Bill was passed, suffragists celebrated throughout the country, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere: one wrote that New Zealand’s achievement gave ‘new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation’.
In most other democracies – notably Britain and the United States – women did not win the right to vote until after the First World War.
New Zealand women still had a long way to go to achieve political equality. They would not gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first female MP (Elizabeth McCombs) was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after the introduction of women’s suffrage.
The number of female MPs did not reach double figures until the mid-1980s, and at about 30 percent of MPs women remain under-represented in Parliament.
Today New Zealand has a comprehensive set of legislation to protect human rights and eliminate discrimination against women. Milestones include: the Equal Pay Act 1972 (which requires employers to pay men and women the same wages for the same work); the Human Rights Commission Act in 1977 (to outlaw discrimination on a wide range of grounds); the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1985; the introduction of parental leave in 1987; and the introduction of paid parental leave in 2002.
The huge roll of names on the suffrage petition is now preserved at Archives New Zealand, alongside the Treaty of Waitangi. The international significance of both documents has been recognised by their inclusion on the UNESCO Memory of the World register of documentary heritage. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage Manatū Taonga worked with Archives New Zealand and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to make the petition available online.
The public can help preserve and contribute to our rich history by accessing the database, which contains information on more than 24,000 New Zealand women. You can search for your relatives on the petition . You can search by name or location, arrange the database according to town, city or region, and add your own comments.
Thanks to the Alexander Turnbull Library for the reproduction of the photographs: Kate Sheppard Ref: PUBL-0089-1914-001 and Elizabeth McCombs Ref: 1/2-150372-F.