New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections on September 19, 1893, when the Governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law.
Suffragists in New Zealand, led by Kate Sheppard, had fought long and hard for this victory. During a seven-year campaign, 31,872 signatures were collected, culminating in the presentation of the 1893 petition for women’s enfranchisement to Parliament in a wheelbarrow. It was the largest petition in Australasia’s history.
Many prominent suffragists and feminists signed the petition, including Kate Sheppard, Marion Hatton, Rachel Reynolds, Ada Wells, Harriet Morison, Tailoresses’ Union leader Harriet Morison, writer Edith Grossman, and sisters Christina and Stella Henderson (whose younger sister, Elizabeth, who was too young to sign, would later become New Zealand’s first woman MP – under her married name, McLean).
Suffragists celebrated across the country when the Bill was passed, and congratulations poured in from suffrage campaigners in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere; one wrote that New Zealand’s achievement gave “new hope and life to all women struggling for emancipation.”
Most other democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States, did not grant women the right to vote until after World War I.
Women in New Zealand still had a long way to go in terms of political equality. They weren’t allowed to run for Parliament until 1919, and the first female MP (Elizabeth McCombs) wasn’t elected until 1933, 40 years after women were granted the right to vote.
Women’s representation in Parliament did not reach double digits until the mid-1980s, and with 40% of MPs being female, women are still under-represented.
New Zealand now has a comprehensive set of laws in place to protect human rights and eliminate gender discrimination. The Equal Pay Act of 1972 (which requires employers to pay men and women the same wages for the same work); the Human Rights Commission Act of 1977 (which prohibits discrimination on a variety 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 are all significant milestones.
The massive list of names on the suffrage petition is now on display at the National Library’s He Tohu exhibition, alongside the Treaty of Waitangi and the United Tribes of New Zealand’s 1835 Declaration of Independence.
By accessing the database, which contains information on over 24,000 New Zealand women, the public can help preserve and contribute to our rich history. On the petition, you can look for your relatives. You can use the database to search by name or location, organise it by town, city, or region, and add your own comments.