Tomorrow, we'll remember Kate Sheppard on Suffrage Day, writes Joanna Wane, but what do we really know about her?
The camellias should have been a dead giveaway, but they weren't in flower. The faded map at the entrance to Addington Cemetery wasn't much help, either. In the end, I looked up a photo online and that's how I found her, in the shadow of an oak tree and almost obscured by a neatly trimmed box hedge.
Even on her gravestone, Kate Sheppard is a footnote in history. Her mother, Jemima, and brother Robert had shared the plot for some 50 years before Katherine Wilson Lovell-Smith — "formerly K.W. Sheppard" — joined them in 1934. The biblical quote from Revelations below her name gets it right, though: "And their works do follow them."
The face of our suffrage movement, Sheppard is arguably Christchurch's most notable historical figure. New Zealand's place as the first country in the world to give women the vote, on September 19, 1893, is one of the ways we define ourselves. To put that in perspective, women in Switzerland — yes, Switzerland — couldn't vote in federal elections until 1971. Yet her final resting place is so unheralded it shocked me. My sister-in-law, who's lived almost all her life in Christchurch and used to cut through the inner-city cemetery on her regular running route, had no idea Sheppard was buried there.
Christchurch-based French film-maker Corinne Sullivan, who's making a short documentary for Europe's ARTE channel on the city's part in the suffrage movement, was taken aback by how few echoes of Sheppard and her legacy remain. "She was quite a visionary in what she fought for, not just for the right to vote but also a larger view of what she would have liked society to look like," Sullivan says. "I was quite surprised at how the monuments and places representing that era are not put very much in the light."
A friend of mine has a theory about that. Perhaps the city's more conservative circles never quite embraced Sheppard after rumours swirled about the exact nature of her relationship with long-time friends Jennie and William Lovell-Smith. Did they have some kind of "arrangement" when Sheppard moved in to live with the couple? Or were she and Will having a secret affair before they married, the year after Jennie's death?
After all, she was a very modern woman in many ways — a vegetarian and equal-pay activist who cast off her corset and rode a bicycle when that was considered such radical behaviour for women that stones were thrown at her in the street. Her strict moral code and the cost to her reputation make a sexual transgression unlikely, perhaps. Would we judge her for that now, anyway?
Sheppard's eloquent speeches and writings have become part of our historical record of the times. In 2019, the Government bought her former home in Ilam and created a public museum that's emerging as a feminist shrine. When contacted by Canvas, Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel committed to a new information panel and map being in place at Addington Cemetery by Suffrage Day next year, possibly with an audio link via QR code.
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However, in many ways the woman behind the iconic image on our $10 banknote remains a shadowy figure. "It's easier to find out what she believed than how she ticked because she wrote so much. She was a real thinker and that intellectual history is what sets her apart," says University of Canterbury historian Professor Katie Pickles, who's writing a new biography of Sheppard due out in 2023.
"There are all these stories and myths about her, but I don't think we know her yet or have a true version of who she was. What I really want to do is find her voice — the real Kate — and place her in a historical context. A lot of awesome work was done for the suffrage centenary [in 1993], but that's a while ago now. In society today, we ask different questions."
Pickles' work on the biography has been funded by a bequest from Sheppard's great-great-niece Tessa Malcolm, who died in 2013 and had spent years compiling research material. One bombshell, revealed for the first time last year, is that Sheppard's father died at 42 of the delirium tremens (DTs), a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, while fighting for the Union Army in the American Civil War — leaving behind a widow and five children.
No wonder it was a shameful family secret; it's only recently that alcoholism has been viewed with some empathy. To what extent that influenced Sheppard's involvement in the temperance and suffragist movement is something Pickles is likely to explore in her book. The explosion in access to online genealogical records has made at least some of that detective work easier.
Sheppard challenged what she called "fossilised prejudices" and there's much unfinished business that still resonates today. Nancy McShane, who plays Kate Sheppard at suffrage events (and in Sullivan's documentary), has spent 13 years fighting for equal pay for medical administrative staff, first in Canterbury and then as part of a nationwide claim covering about 8000 mostly female workers that's expected to be settled this year.
She describes Sheppard as a charismatic visionary who was way ahead of her time. "If suddenly she was to appear today and I was able to have a conversation with her, I think we'd probably have a lot in common. One of the things that fascinates me about her is that when I read what she wrote, I think, 'I agree with this, this is wrong and it still hasn't changed.' And I'm going to do what I can, just as she did, until it bloody well does."