Thursday this week marked 125 years since New Zealand women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to pass this legislation.

In Hawke's Bay, petitions were circulated in favour of women's suffrage and Napier's in May 1893 was 14.5 yards (13m) long with 1442 signatures from a population of about 8500.

The petition was sent with a note: "The members do not desire any electoral privileges that are not extended to men, but simply electoral equality with men, nothing more, nothing less."


Many men were scared that if women were given the vote, they would vote in mass prohibition - that is, the banning of the sale of alcohol.

The Napier's Women's Christian Temperance Union was particularly vocal in the support of the franchise (the right to vote). The men's fears were unfounded.

Thomas Tanner, member for Waipawa, was in favour of the franchise, but not necessarily women MPs, though he conceded that year would come.

He said during a parliamentary debate in 1890 that women "would have, without doubt, a very civilising influence on the debates, and that it would tend very much to check the manner and sometimes the matter of honourable members' discourses, as the influence of women is good whenever it is".

But if a woman was elected to Parliament "she would have the right to express opinions here, and if you got a lady on the government side and another on the opposition side I think the debate might assume a very interesting but at the same time alarming character".

Post-1893, Thomas Tanner argued for women to be represented on Anglican Church Synod committees, and to vote in local authority elections which from 1876 had only allowed women that owned property to vote – which was usually spinsters or widows.

The news of the franchise being granted on September 19, 1893, which was signed at 11.45am, was greeted with a mixed reception – with many men not happy at the bill being signed into law.

Napier's Hawke's Bay Herald thought women should use the franchise in the direction they deemed best, and told them to register. The paper, however, opined: "The experiment, we fear, savours more of a boldness than wisdom".


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The Bush Advocate in Central Hawke's Bay was more congratulatory, and said: "We believe the influence of women in politics will have a refining and beneficial effect, and that the measure just passed will be productive of lasting good".

New Zealand's first female MP was elected in 1933, Elizabeth McCombs, from Lyttelton, who gained the seat after her husband, the sitting MP's, death. Women had been granted the right to stand for election in 1919.

Two church services for girls' schools were held at St John's Cathedral in Napier on September 17, 1993, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the franchise.

At the church services, the girls performed songs, speeches and sketches on themes such as women's courage and endurance.

Each church service was followed by the girls marching around Tennyson and Emerson streets on to the Marine Parade.

In 2018, there are 46 women in Parliament, representing 38 per cent of the total.

• I am taking pre-orders for Historic Hawke's Bay due out in late November, which is a collection of my best HB Today articles from 2016-2018, with additional photos and story material. The book has 160 pages with 26 in colour. Cheque to Michael Fowler Publishing of $59.90 to PO Box 8947, Havelock North. Please state if you want it signed. It will not be available in bookshops as it is a small print run.

• Michael Fowler FCA ( is a chartered accountant and contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.