It was the photograph that stunned Victorian New Zealand.

Less than eight weeks after New Zealand women went to the polls for the first time (on November 28, 1893), Kate Walker and James Wilkinson married and their January 1894 wedding photo was shared with the world.

Why?

Because the bride wore "trousers" and wasn't even blushing about it.

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In fact, all the women in the wedding party wore pants – knickerbockers, really – and looked staunch in their choice of attire. That propelled the photograph into local, national and even one overseas newspaper. Right to vote granted or not, women were still expected to be guardians of home and hearth, virtuous and demure, moral and gentile with these qualities reflected in a feminine, some might say subservient, styles of dress.

But along with the right to elect their own representatives, women's calls for freedom were extending to all areas of their lives and on every front, it involved a fight. This included battling for the right to wear pants - or, at least, loosen their bodices and corsets, dispense with bustles, wires, pads and layers of petticoats and take some of the voluminous fabric out of their skirts.

By marrying and being photographed in knickerbockers, Walker quite possibly clocked up another New Zealand first: the first woman to marry in pants. Walker and Wilkinson were founding members of the New Zealand Dress Reform Association, set up in May 1894, and jointly authored a 35-page pamphlet on dress reform calling for women to adopt "rational dress".

Like overseas dress reform organisations, our association argued if women wanted to truly shake off the shackles that included rejecting so-called fashionable dress. If you weren't to be weighed down in your political, economic, social or domestic life, then your person couldn't be weighted down with swathes of impractical, heavy and uncomfortable clothing and pinching shoes.

Lessening restrictions on, for example, the look and measurement of their waistlines would widen their freedom in all aspects of their increasingly modern lives - not to mention improving health and wellbeing.

Dress reformers were often supported by doctors who feared internal organs were being displaced and damaged and breathing restricted by overly tight corsets and bodices. Some possibly alarmist dress reform literature spoke of women suffering miscarriages, stillbirths, ruptured livers and damaged spines because of their restrictive clothing.

Whether this was true is probably debatable, but one thing's for sure: it was difficult to ride a bicycle – and here we come to the literal turning of a wheel – or wheels – of reform. If there was one piece of vital equipment in the suffrage fight, it was the bicycle specifically built not for two but with equal-sized wheels, pneumatic tyres and lower frames. No more climbing up ladders to reach the top of your penny-farthing or worrying about anyone looking up your cumbersome skirt when you were atop the "bone shaker"!

In 1892, the Atalanta Cycling Club started in Christchurch after a suggestion from one Alice Burn who, 18 months later, would be glorious as one of Kate Walker's knickerbocker clad bridesmaids. Unsurprisingly, Burn campaigned for more sensible women's cycling clothes – bifurcated skirts (a bit like culottes) for starters; they settled on demure skirts and blouses in club colours.

The club, named in honour of a Greek mythological virgin huntress reputedly one of the first female athletes, was the first all-women cycling club in all of Australasia. It organised day-trips, tours and picnics in which women could cycle together perhaps because there was safety in numbers.

Female cyclists had been taunted and abused; some had stones thrown at them and others were pushed off their bikes. It led to women sometimes cycling with their brothers or husbands to shield them from such attacks; Burn hoped the more women who cycled, and the more the public saw them doing it, the less abuse they'd be subjected to.

All across the world, women did, indeed, hitch up their skirts and, by cycling uphill and down dale, experience a freedom hitherto denied to them. A prominent member of the Atalanta Cycling Club? None other than Kate Sheppard herself showing that suffragettes recognised peddle power. Suffrage campaigners clocked up thousands of miles travelling to meetings, taking their message to the streets of New Zealand and, eventually, collecting and transporting the petitions calling for women to be given the right to vote.

Given she went to university in the 1870s, it is unlikely Kate Edger cycled to her lectures. But she was as pioneering as our first women cyclists becoming, on July 11, 1877 the first woman in New Zealand to obtain a university degree and the first woman in the whole of the British Empire to earn a Bachelor of the Arts. Her father, the Reverend Samuel Edger, taught Kate and her three sisters at home but when it came to secondary schooling, he had to ask Auckland College and Grammar headmaster, Farquhar Macrae, for permission for Kate to study with a top class of boys.

When she applied for permission to sit for a University Scholarship, Edger gave her age but not her gender. The story goes that the University of Auckland, not wanting to court controversy, let her in without comment. After graduating, Edger became a teacher working first at Christchurch Girls' High, then studying for an MA at Canterbury College and eventually becoming the foundation headmistress at Nelson College for Girls.

New Zealand had to wait a little longer for its first female law graduate. That was Ethel Benjamin, born in Dunedin into an orthodox Jewish family, who achieved top marks at Otago Girls' High School before studying at the region's university. All the while, she didn't know whether she'd even be granted permission to practice law when – if – she successfully completed her degree.

Benjamin graduated in July 1897; two months later, on September 17, she became the first female lawyer in the British Empire to appear as a counsel in court, representing a client for recovery of a debt. At the head of her own law firm, working mainly as a solicitor, she handled many family law cases and did so in the face of considerable opposition from the Otago District Law Society.

The Society restricted access to its library, did not invite her to its official functions and – surprise, surprise – even tried to tell Benjamin what to wear. She may have played them at their own game, though. In speeches, Benjamin appeared to play it ever so slightly coy.

She's quoted as giving this gem of a possibly Machiavellian quote: "It is true that the Legal Profession was not then open to women, and that the franchise had not yet been granted, but I had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers. I therefore entered on my studies with a light heart, feeling sure that I should not long be debarred from the use of any degree I might obtain."

Benjamin fared better than the first woman to study medicine in New Zealand. Thirteen years before Benjamin graduated, in 1885, Mary Tracey, from Gore, enrolled at the University of Otago Medical School but gave up a year later after being forced out. In 1890, Emily Siedeberg, supported by her architect father, enrolled and was admitted begrudgingly; at times, it separated her from male students so Siedeberg could have lessons on "certain aspects" of anatomy alone. She later joked about her classmates throwing pieces of flesh at her during lessons in the dissecting room.

While Siedeberg was our first graduate female med student, her friend Margaret Cruickshank was the first woman to be registered in New Zealand as a doctor (Siedeberg headed overseas for postgraduate studies and work). Cruickshank's homelife was slightly more unsettled than Siedeberg's. A twin, Cruickshank attended school on alternate days so that she and her sister, Christina, could take turns caring for five younger siblings after their mother died. Catch-up lessons, from the twin who attended school that day, were held in the evenings.

Then again, looking after children while trying to work was simply part of a woman's lot. Take Elizabeth Pulman, reputedly our first professional photographer. She came to New Zealand in 1861 with her husband, George, and, in 1867, they set up a photographic studio in Auckland's Shortland Street.

Four years later, George died leaving Elizabeth with the business – and eight children. She married again, had another child and, with a family of nine, continued to head Pulman's Photographic Studio until a few months before her death in 1900. Although it's not possible to say with certainty whether it was George or Elizabeth behind the camera, the legacy of their business is a collection of portrait and scenic shots now held in museums and public libraries because of their historic importance. One of their scenic collections was sold to the government to promote tourism in New Zealand; their Maori portraits display the moko of many North Island chiefs and can therefore be used in genealogy research.

So, there it is: the legacy of some of our lesser known women. How far would they think we have come? Perhaps, those who led "slut walks", where sometimes scantily-clad protesters point out that a short skirt and being out alone at night is not an invitation to sexual predators, are the descendants of dress reformers.

It's taken decades for women's sports teams to accorded some of the benefits, not to mention respect, of their male counterpoints and here it's worth noting that the first try to get women's rugby off the ground was in 1891 when a Mrs Nita Webbe advertised for prospective players. The idea was roundly condemned; 30 years later, Christchurch doctor William Simpson declared that football for girls would "prove deleterious from both the physical and temperamental standpoint".

Tell that to the Black Ferns who, this year and after five back to back world cup wins, were finally offered official contracts.