On 19 September 1893, Governor Lord Glasgow signed a new Electoral Act into law, and New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to enshrine in law the right for women to vote in parliamentary elections.
2023 is a special year for wāhine women and kōtiro girls in Aotearoa New Zealand as we mark the 130th anniversary of the enduring legacy of women's suffrage. Find out more about the commemorations for Suffrage 130.
The road to women getting the right to vote and be able to participate in the political and electoral processes in Aotearoa New Zealand began around 1852 when the New Zealand Constitution Act provided parliamentary franchise to European, Māori and mixed-race men who met the property-ownership criteria.
Fifteen years later, the Māori Representation Act 1867 provided for the establishment of four Māori seats, but only men could stand for these.
In 1876 the Municipal Corporations Act gave both men and women ratepayers the right to vote and stand for local government office. It is not known how many women exercised this right.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, women across the country were involved in the suffrage movement fighting for the right to vote to elect members of the New Zealand House of Representatives. The movement involved groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union New Zealand (WCTU) and trade unions.
Wāhine Māori were at the forefront of the suffragist movement, supporting the WCTU in seeking the right to vote for members of the New Zealand House of Representatives and fighting for their right to vote and to stand as members of Te Kotahitanga – the Māori Parliament.
31,872 signatures were collected during a seven-year campaign across 13 petitions. Combined, this was the largest petition ever gathered in Australasia and was presented to Parliament in 1893. The largest petition of 25,519 signatures is the only one of the 13 that survived and is now on display in the He Tohu exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.
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.
This petition was followed by the creation of the Electoral Act 1893 which enshrined in law that all adult women had the right to vote. Less than two months later, 109,461 women enrolled to vote in the 1893 election.
When the Act 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 couldn’t stand for Parliament until 1919, and the first woman to become an MP, Elizabeth McCombs (sister of Christina and Stella Henderson), was not elected until 1933 – 40 years after the passing of the Electoral Act 1893.
Iriaka Rātana, the first wāhine Māori MP, was elected in 1949. Jenny Shipley became New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister in 1997. The 1999 election saw three milestones reached – Helen Clark became the first woman Prime Minister through an election, Luamanuvao Dame Winifred Laban became the first woman MP of Pacific Island descent, and Georgina Beyer became the first openly transgender MP in the world.
The number of woman MPs did not reach double figures until the mid-1980s. Following the 2020 general election, 58/120 MPs are women, the highest number in New Zealand’s electoral history. In October 2022, equal gender representation in Parliament was reached as women MPs gained an equal share of seats to men in the House.
Women in Aotearoa New Zealand continue to strive for better healthcare services and outcomes, equal pay and closing the gender pay gap, ending family and sexual violence, and climate change action.