New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893. This was thanks in no small way to Kate Sheppard, the leading figure in the New Zealand suffrage movement. Born in Liverpool in early March 1847 to Scottish parents, Kate made her way to New Zealand together with her mother and several of her siblings, arriving at Lyttelton in February 1869. The family remained close by, settling in Christchurch, where Kate also got married in 1871.
Kate soon began to be actively involved in the Trinity Congregational Church, for instance through fund-raising and acting as the secretary of the Ladies Association. Together with other members of her family, she also began to engage in the temperance movement. It was through that movement that she was to leave a lasting legacy in New Zealand society. As her biographer, Tessa K. Malcolm, notes in Te Ara:
In 1885 Mary Leavitt, an evangelist delegate from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of the United States of America, commenced her mission in New Zealand and Kate Sheppard became a founding member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It was quickly realised by the union that proposed social and legislative reforms concerning temperance and the welfare of women and children would be more effectively carried out if women possessed the right to vote and the right to representation in Parliament. In 1887 franchise departments were formed within the local unions and Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department. In this position she was responsible for co-ordinating and encouraging the local unions: she prepared and distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the press and stimulated debate within the WCTU, church meetings, and temperance and political societies. An accomplished public speaker and writer, she had a clear, logical intellect, and could also conduct argument without rancour. Kate Sheppard was motivated by humanitarian principles and a strong sense of justice: ‘All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome’. Hers was a quietly determined, persuasive and disarmingly feminine voice. […] The franchise department of the WCTU took the first of three major petitions to Parliament in 1891. The petition was presented by Sir John Hall, and strongly supported by Alfred Saunders and the premier, John Ballance. It was signed by more than 9,000 women, and the second in 1892 by more than 19,000. In June 1891 Kate Sheppard inaugurated and began editing a women’s page in the Prohibitionist, the national temperance magazine. With the formation of franchise leagues in many centres, and the increasing activity and growth of the WCTU auxiliaries in the smaller centres, the largest petition ever presented to Parliament was collected in 1893 with nearly 32,000 signatures. The small band of 600 women members of the WCTU had successfully roused public opinion to the extent that Parliament could no longer ignore their demands. The Electoral Act 1893 was passed on 19 September and Kate Sheppard received a telegram from the premier, Richard Seddon, previously her political enemy in the House, conceding victory to the women. The governor, Lord Glasgow, honoured Kate Sheppard as a political leader, by symbolically presenting to her the pen with which the bill granting womanhood suffrage had been signed.
This all happened with only a little more than two months to go until the next New Zealand election, so the WCTU commenced enrolling women so that they would actually be able to vote. An incredible 65% of all New Zealand women over 21 voted in the first election.
Kate continued her work for the suffragist cause by meeting leaders of movements abroad – in 1894, for instance, she went to England – and by continuing her efforts for wider political reform. In light of more recent examples of misogyny in public life and the ways in which many women around the world continue to be excluded from political processes, how better to raise awareness of these problems – and to celebrate International Women’s Day – than in the spirit of Kate Sheppard.