Nelson and Women’s Suffrage
The Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1893, which was a major contributor to the success of the Electoral Act in that same year, giving women the right to vote, is now available online with the original version available for all to see at the National Library in Wellington. While there are virtually no Nelson names on this Petition, this certainly does not indicate that the women of Nelson were passive in the movement which got women to this point, as the first women in the world allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections.
Nelson was actually one of the first regions to allow women ratepayers to share in the affairs of the local Council. From 1867, with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, “which contained no provision to prevent females using the franchise”1, women in the Nelson Province were allowed to vote. This was made optional in the Act and only Nelson and Otago Provinces allowed it in practice. It was made compulsory in 1875.2 An editorial in the Nelson Evening Mail reflected the opinions of many in the Province: "..the exclusion of women from Parliamentary rights is an infringement of the primary law of constitutional government..”3
That there was substantial support from the newspapers of the Nelson Province for Women’s Suffrage was largely due to Mary Ann Muller, whose son-in-law edited the Nelson Examiner. Mary, who moved to Blenheim in 1857, was an active feminist who wrote articles under the name of Femina. These were published in the Examiner and attracted much interest. Her pamphlet "Appeal to the Men of New Zealand", published 1869, arguing for the right of women to vote in national elections, is regarded as the work which kick-started the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand. It also received interest from overseas, attracting the notice of leading British figures like the influential political thinker, philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill.4
The suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as part of the late-nineteenth century movement for women's rights that spread through Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe. The movement was shaped by two main themes: equal political rights for women (as promoted by Mary Ann Muller) and a determination to use them for the moral reform of society, through, for example, the prohibition of alcohol.
Kate Edger was a Nelson woman who became a leader in the movement to prohibit alcohol, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) – and hence in the Women’s suffrage movement. She was a figurehead both locally and nationally by the 1880’s and was described as an example of the women “who were achieving equality with men in every sphere of life”.5 Kate was the first New Zealand woman to obtain a university degree and was the founding Principal of Nelson College for Girls.
By the time Kate Edger was active in the WCTU there was a growing national movement for women’s suffrage, under the leadership of Kate Sheppard. Many politicians were supportive, particularly Edward Stafford, Alfred Dommett and David Munro - all Nelson men. There were also opponents of course, many representing the liquor lobby.
In 1877 Robert Stout introduced an electoral bill which would allow women to vote. This was followed by debate across the country, and much activity in the WCTU, with meetings and petitions thoughout the 1880’s, in which they advocated strongly for women’s suffrage. The Colonist reports a large meeting in Nelson “considering the question of Woman’s suffrage”. Arguments in favour were passionate and a petition was signed.6
Activity reached a crescendo in 1891, and in that year the Women’s Suffrage Bill was presented to Parliament, and reintroduced as the Government Electoral Bill in 1892. The Woman’s Suffrage Petition of 1893 was presented in the Parliamentary Session which debated this Bill. It was signed by over 30,000 women across the nation. The Bill was assented and New Zealand women became the first in the world to vote in Parliamentary elections, in 1893.
And why the lack of Nelson names on the 1893 Petition? Nelson produced its own, apparently very large petition of names, submitted alongside the Petition we have today. Unfortunately this was lost, and there is no record of the names recorded on it. We can be certain, however that those of Kate Edger and Mary Ann Muller would have been there – and many more who worked with them.
Sources used in this story
- Parliamentary Debates, volume 20, 1876, p403.
- Grimshaw, P. (1972) Women's suffrage in New Zealand. Wellington p. 13
- Nelson Evening Mail Monday December 16 1867 [editorial], p.2
- An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand (1870, May 7) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.3
- Grimshaw p. 84.
- Woman’s Suffrage (1891, March 11) Colonist, p.3
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Further sources - Nelson and Women’s Suffrage
- Devaliant, J. (1992, pp.11-12). Kate Sheppard: the fight for women’s votes in New Zealand, Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin.
- Coney, S (1993). Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Wellington, N.Z.: Penguin.
- The suffragists, women who worked for the vote: essays from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books and the Department of Internal Affairs.
- Grimshaw, P. (1972) Women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland, N.Z.: Auckland University Press.
- Harper, B. (1980), Petticoat Pioneers, South Island Women of the Colonial Era, Book 3. Wellington, N.Z.: A.H. & A.W. Reed.
- Muller, M. A., & Young Women's Christian Association. (1990). YWCA New Zealand 1990 official project. Auckland, N.Z.: Auckland Young Women's Christian Association.
- Muller, Mary Ann (1878). An appeal to the men of New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Mail
- Voller, L. C. (1982). Sentinel at the gates, Nelson College for Girls 1883-1983 Nelson N.Z.: Nelson College for Girls Old Girls Association, pp. 14-16, 20-33
- Dalziel, Raewyn (2007, June 22) 'Müller, Mary Ann 1819/1820? - 1901'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007. Retrieved September 29, 2008 from
- He Tohu. A Petition: Women's suffrage petition. Retrieved from National Library:
- Hughes, Beryl (2007, June 22) 'Edger, Kate Milligan 1857 - 1935'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. . Retrieved September 29, 2008 from
- Kate Edger (n.d.) Retrieved October 13, 2008 from Monumental Stories:
- Mary Ann Muller (n.d.) Retrieved October 13, 2008 from Monumental Stories:
- Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2008, October 2) An appeal to the men of New Zealand. Retrieved October11, 2008, from New Zealand history online: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/an-appeal-to-the-men-of-new-zealand
- 'Muller, Mary Ann' (1966). In McLintock, A.H (ed) An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated September 18, 2007:
- Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2008, January 11) Kate Edger. Retrieved October11, 2008, from New Zealand history online:
- Women's suffrage Movement (1966) Encyclopedia of New Zealand: