Press release: Suffrage Day, 19 September 2018
New Zealand men were early adopters of a radical idea in giving women the vote 125 years ago, says the author of a new
book on women who were first in their field.
“New Zealand men can feel proud that male parliamentarians here gave women the vote almost a decade before any other
country,” says Jane Tolerton, author of But I Changed All That: ‘First’ New Zealand women.
“Australia gave women the vote at federation in 1902, but did not enfranchise aboriginal women. The United States did
not give women the vote until 1920, and Britain waited until 1928 to give all over-21 year olds the vote. That’s three
and a half decades after it happened here.
“We were way ahead of similar countries and there was no violence involved. Yet we tend to spin the suffrage story as a
long, hard fight for women. We have a better story to tell – of early and relatively easy achievement. In Britain the
Women’s Social and Political Union ran a terrorist campaign, and they were roughly treated by police, jailed and force
“Noting that our men were ahead of the game is more hopeful in terms of increasing gender equity today. Why bash the
most progressive men of the 1890s over the head for being slow to yield when they were years ahead of their counterparts
in any other self-governing nation?” Tolerton asks.
“Obviously it was either a long, hard fight or we were first in the world by years. It’s hard to argue it was both, but
that is how we present this story. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union began in New Zealand in 1885 and Kate Sheppard
became the franchise superintendent in 1887. That was the beginning of the women’s movement, based on action plans from
the United States where Wyoming was the first territory to give women the vote, in 1869.
“However, many New Zealand men and women were inspired by British parliamentarian John Stuart Mill’s call for women’s
suffrage from the late 1860s. Three premiers became suffragists as a result: Julius Vogel, Robert Stout and John
Ballance. So did Mary Ann Muller, who anonymously wrote articles that were published as a book appealing for women’s
suffrage in 1869 and Mary Ann Colclough, who openly advocated it in Auckland in the early 1870s.
“The two movements, one from Britain, one from America, both had a strong impact here. When Kate Sheppard wrote about a
‘long, hard fight’ for suffrage she did not just mean eight years of the WCTU, but two previous decades of advocacy.”
The men’s role is hidden in the history as it is told today, says Tolerton. “I hear women saying, ‘We shouldn’t say we
were given the vote; we should say we took it.’ But we could not take it. It had to be voted through by parliamentarians.
“Recently there has been more emphasis on the 1893 petition. It was impressively large, with the names of 25 per cent of
women over 21. But it was not a referendum. It could not force the issue in the way implied on the Ministry for Women
website, which reads: ‘On 19 September 1893, after submitting a petition with nearly 32,000 signatures, New Zealand
became the first self-governing country to grant women the vote.’
“The 1893 petition meant it was harder to say women did not want the vote. However, it was not a major turning point. A
suffrage bill had passed both houses of parliament the previous year – though an amendment in the upper house had not
been accepted by the House of Representatives, so it failed
“It was politics that saw the bill through Parliament in September 1893. With an election looming, two conservative
members in the upper house decided not to put in their intended amendment, but vote for a Liberal Government bill. They
believed women would vote conservative – and so did the government, which is why Premier Richard Seddon had persuaded
some Liberals not to vote for it. This tricky political story makes the petition more attractive as a way of explaining
why the bill passed.”
Tolerton’s new book But I Changed All That: ‘First’ New Zealand women features photographs of the first woman mayor, general practitioner, MP, prime minister and governor general. It also
includes firsts from sports and cinema, arts and academia.
“One of the obvious features about early women ‘firsts’ is that there was little fuss in New Zealand about letting women
into universities, even to become doctors and lawyers. We were a new and progressive country and changed the conventions
to suit our society. There was a triumphant feminist movement in the 1890s, but there was a backlash based on eugenic
ideas after 1900 and a push for motherhood rather than careers for women.”
Tolerton is working on a book on why New Zealand got the women’s vote so early and a woman MP so late, with the election
of Elizabeth McCombs 40 years almost to the day after the vote was won.
Her 2017 book Make Her Praises Heard Afar told the story of New Zealand women overseas in World War I. “By having left women out of our World War I story and men
out of our suffrage story, we have painted ourselves as less gender equal than we actually were.
“We could tell the suffrage and war stories in a way that both reflects us better and reflects on us better by including
both men and women. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union members would spin in their graves at this suggestion, as
they were prohibitionists, but shouting a man a drink and saying ‘Thanks, mate!’ would be a healthy response.
“We have a lot of problems on the gender equity front, but we have to confront them – actively campaign, and succeed, as
women did in the early 1890s. Instead, we tend to say we have a long way to go and yet pat ourselves on the back for
still being ‘ahead of the game’. We were ahead of the game in 1893, but a decade later we were not, as Australia allowed
women to become MPs while we did not.”