Kate Sheppard's role in our becoming the first country in the world to allow women the vote has been somewhat overstated, starting with her own spin on events. By Jane Tolerto.
On June 30, 1893, Alfred Broad, a brush manufacturer who had nine children, boarded a ship in Dunedin with the Otago women's suffrage petitions – one for the House of Representatives, the other for the Legislative Council, the old Upper House.
His 39-year-old wife, Martha, was an executive member of the Women's Franchise League, and he went to meetings himself. Dunedin had huge pro-suffrage public meetings, in which both men and women spoke from the stage. We can get a feel for them because they were covered in great detail in the newspapers – with "laughter" and "applause" in brackets.
The league was the only purpose-built suffrage organisation in New Zealand. It formed in Dunedin in April 1892, although the women behind it, including Harriet Morison and Helen Nicol, had held a big public meeting for suffrage the previous July.
Broad was going to a prohibitionist gathering in Wellington, but the league asked him to stop off in Christchurch and deliver the petitions to Kate Sheppard, the franchise superintendent of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), who had administered petitions in the previous two years as well.
The Women's Franchise League, whose strongholds were Dunedin, Auckland, Napier and Whanganui, with another half dozen groups in smaller centres, generated most of the signatures for the 1893 petition to the House of Representatives, the only one to survive. When the league formed, Sheppard worried they might send their petitions separately, but they did not.
League working president Marion Hatton (Anna, Lady Stout was the nominal president) telegrammed Sheppard and told her to meet Broad in central Christchurch. Sheppard probably picked up the Otago petitions on July 1. She sent the finished petitions to Wellington on July 6. So, in five days, and apparently working alone, Sheppard formed the petition around the roll of Otago forms that were already stuck together.
Today, the petition is on display in Archives New Zealand's exhibition, He Tohu, as one of New Zealand's founding documents. Archives says this is the WCTU's petition, and that Sheppard stuck it together in the order that she received the forms. But if you look at the digitised petition, the WCTU's name is not on it – and the Otago roll that Broad brought forms pages 28 to 175.
Sheppard put three Christchurch forms first, with the one she signed at the front. The signature at the top is that of Mary Carpenter of Yaldhurst, who is deemed to have "played such an integral role in the nation's history" as "the first woman to sign" – as an RNZ podcast put it. But it is just as likely that this form was signed last.
A form signed by Christchurch high school teachers and university students would have made an impressive page two, but Sheppard placed it at the end (page 554). It would have been hidden at the centre of the very large and fragile roll. These signatories include the older sisters of our first female member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs. Dr Alice Burn also signed this form. A photo of Burn and Anna Stout at a British suffrage march about two decades later is used in books and articles, giving the impression marches happened here, when they didn't.
Most of the petition forms have the "prayer" at the top chopped off, though many sheets have a little bit of it. The prayer should have been complete on all forms, but Parliament allowed the women's petition to break the rules. Many of the Auckland sheets have no hint of it at all, and it seems likely they started life as some of the 6000 pledge forms printed by Auckland league president Amey Daldy in June 1892.
Nicol, who was the secretary-treasurer of the league, wrote instructions on one form. She gave her address – William St, Dunedin – for its return.
Whanganui league collectors were the only ones who wrote their names and the number of signatures they had collected at the bottom of their forms.
If you follow the names, you can find examples of league women and parliamentarians working together. Ellen Ballance, widow of Liberal Premier John Ballance (who had died in late April 1893) was the president of the Whanganui league. Margaret Bullock, a parliamentary reporter, was vice-president. Bullock wrote a note on one form: "The above 815 signatures were obtained by canvassers sent out by the Wanganui Women's Franchise League during the months of May & June 1893."
Bullock's brother, newspaper editor Gilbert Carson, stood in the Whanganui by-election after Ballance's death, and his wife and daughter joined the league and collected for the petition. Liberal Archibald Willis won the by-election. When Willis flip-flopped on suffrage a couple of months later, Sir John Hall, a long-serving Canterbury politician and former premier, suggested to Bullock that the league bring him back into line, and they did that, publicly.
The league was powerful then; today it is all but invisible. In He Tohu, Sheppard is the only woman pictured who is specifically associated with the petition – even though at the time it was the league leaders, not Sheppard, whose photos were published during the campaign, and their images drawn by cartoonists. They were the ones who held the big public meetings and spoke from the stage. Sheppard did not.
He Tohu is based on three assumptions that are not true: that the petition was instigated by Sheppard; that leagues "joined" her movement; and that the petition itself was "the instrument by which New Zealand became the first country in the world in which all women won the right to vote" as the book of the exhibition says. Or, as an RNZ podcast puts it, the petition itself "successfully went through Parliament and granted women the right to vote".
Actually, Hall instigated all three petitions in 1891, 1892 and 1893. The league women did not join a campaign being run by Sheppard – although they, too, were prohibitionists campaigning against alcohol – they formed the only purpose-built, standalone suffrage group in New Zealand, one that all women, and even men, could join.
Hall had been inspired by political philosopher John Stuart Mill, like most of the pro-suffrage parliamentarians. Anna Stout's husband, Robert, introduced the first bill with a women's suffrage clause, in 1878. From then on, a motion, a resolution, a bill or an amendment for women's suffrage was introduced in the House on average once a year.
The major problem for pro-suffrage parliamentarians was that they could point to no proof women wanted the vote. No woman backed Sir Julius Vogel's 1887 bill in the public arena, although Sheppard was already the WCTU franchise superintendent.
The WCTU had arrived in 1885 via a visiting World WCTU missionary, with suffrage already on its international agenda. But the WCTU had only about 600 members in the campaign years. It was an evangelical Christian prohibitionist organisation, and most women were not in that category.
However, the WCTU was still the only show in town for a parliamentarian wanting to put in a suffrage bill, so Hall visited the franchise superintendent on August 9, 1889. He wrote in his diary: "Saw Mrs Sheppard about Female Suffrage. Advised petitioning, influencing and representing public opinion."
Almost a year later, on July 23, 1890, Sheppard wrote to Hall saying that the WCTU did not plan to do that: "Of course, we are not even thinking of taking any steps in the matter ourselves as we are depending entirely on you …" In 1888, she had produced a pamphlet, titled "Ten Reasons Why the Women of New Zealand Should Vote", for members of the House and sent them a "petition" signed only by the WCTU's top brass. She did not plan to run a campaign among women outside the WCTU.
Hall, cleverly, pushed the WCTU into doing a petition. In August 1890, he introduced a motion, a bill and an amendment, knowing these were pointless moves, coming out of the blue, and with the 1890 election looming. But he used them as a lever on the WCTU. He wrote to its president, Catherine Fulton – whom he knew well because her husband, James, was his closest political friend – on August 23, telling her the major sticking point for suffrage bills was that there had been "no general wish expressed by the women for the attainment of the franchise".
He specifically asked for petitions to be sent straight to him before the next parliamentary session, in mid-1891. Fulton held a meeting of the Dunedin WCTU, members decided to do the petition, and Nicol, the local franchise superintendent at that time, took down the names of women willing to canvass. Sheppard was given the administrative role as franchise superintendent, but Hall never stopped trying to get her to let him do it from Parliament.
In late May 1891, Sheppard told Hall's wife, Rose, that she had not been able to do a proper canvass in Christchurch because of a lack of collectors.
Hall wrote to her: "I am sorry to find that more energetic efforts have not been made generally to obtain signatures to our petitions. I am confident the subject only wants putting properly before the women of New Zealand to ensure a decided expression of opinion from women. In this little district, we [he, his wife and their daughter, Mildred] have obtained about 50 signatures comprising 19/20th of adult females. In fact, only one person to whom I submitted the petition refused to sign."
The 1891 petition had only about 8000 signatures when Sheppard sent it to Parliament, and 10,000 eventually. If the WCTU's 600 members had collected more than 100 signatures each, as Maud Reeves, wife of Cabinet minister William Pember Reeves, had done, it would have had more than 60,000 signatures. And if collectors had made a point of visiting every house in their district, as the Halls had, it would have had many more than that.
The temperance factor
The suffrage campaign suddenly became visible in the three months from June 1891 – not only because Hall introduced an amendment to the Liberal Government's electoral bill and Sheppard sent the petition, but also because Nicol and Morison held their first big public meeting in Dunedin. The bill passed in the House, and was only two votes short of passing in the Legislative Council. Sheppard asked Hall if he wanted a petition for 1892, saying she was leaving the decision up to him: he did.
Parliamentarians such as Hall, James Allen and William Downie-Stewart encouraged the Dunedin women to form an inclusive group. On April 12, 1892, Hatton chaired a meeting attended by 1200 people at which Morison thumped the takeaway message: "We want the vote … because we are women and consider we have a right to vote on all social and political questions affecting the community" – meaning not because they were prohibitionists (though she and most of the other leaders were). The Christchurch Star had warned Sheppard and the WCTU in 1890 that they would put people off suffrage because they were "enthusiastic [if not fanatical] adversaries to the drink traffic".
The league was formally set up on April 28. Women could join for one shilling; men become honorary members for 10. The executive committee included wives of members of the House, such as Margaret Pinkerton and Gwendoline Earnshaw, and of the Council, including Mary Downie-Stewart and vice president Rachel Reynolds. Some were single women who ran their own shops and put petition forms on the counter.
Sheppard had been asked to speak at the April public meeting, but did not go. When the committee met in early June, it considered a request from the "superintendent of the women's franchise, Christchurch … but it was not thought advisable to entertain the proposal indicated in the letter. This decision was arrived at with considerable regret." Maybe Sheppard had asked for a role in the league.
The Auckland Star described league committee members collecting signatures "in the back lanes and alleys" of Dunedin, and asked when such an organisation would form in Auckland. Morison arrived in town within a week of that editorial and formed one. Amey Daldy quit the role of local WCTU franchise superintendent to become president of the Auckland league. The Auckland Star cheered that there was finally a group that was not "a temperance movement", not sectarian and not imported – meaning not the WCTU. It was so inclusive that Anglican Bishop William Cowie and Catholic monsignor Walter Macdonald went to executive meetings. Episcopalian churchmen did not attend meetings of the evangelical WCTU. So the league gave such men a way of playing a role in the suffrage movement.
The league was well covered in the press. In Dunedin, both the manager and the editor of the Evening Star were personally involved, and their wives were on the committee. Auckland league committee member Lizzie Rattray co-edited the Graphic magazine.
An electoral bill with a suffrage clause passed in both houses of Parliament in September 1892, but it was thrown out because of disagreement between the houses on an amendment added in the Council. When Hall asked Sheppard about a petition for 1893, she said "we" had decided not to do one because a bill had passed, but she changed her mind and drafted a new "prayer". Hall rewrote it.
Hall instigated the 1893 petition, Sheppard administered it, the league sent most of the signatures. The pro-suffrage parliamentarians, the WCTU and other prohibitionists and the league collaborated on it. The new WCTU president, Annie Schnackenberg, was also a member of the Auckland league executive. At the opening of the 1893 WCTU convention in Napier, she suggested that the 35 local members form a franchise league, and they did. Sheppard did not attend the convention, but her franchise report was read out, and printed in the local conservative paper. She was scathing about the way the House had not accepted the Council's amendment.
On July 28, Hall appeared in the House with a box that looked as if it contained a wedding cake, according to one newspaper. He took out the petition and rolled it down the aisle.
The bill passed by a ratio of three to one. In the Council, Richard Oliver, who had spoken at Dunedin's April 1892 public meeting, said the petition was "the proof" of "a very large number of women who were anxious to exercise this right". He also pointed out that elected members in the House were for it.
Rāpata Wahawaha, of Ngāti Porou, said there had been no petitions from Māori women, and suggested deferring suffrage until they were asked. But some Māori women had signed the petition. Then the bill passed in the Council – by 20 to 18 – on September 8, Hatton's birthday. Parliamentarians voted for it because they believed in it and/or thought it would win their party the 1893 election.
After Governor David Boyle, the Earl of Glasgow, signed the royal assent on September 19, Premier Richard Seddon sent three telegrams: to Hatton in Dunedin, Daldy in Auckland and Sheppard in Christchurch. Only the telegram to Sheppard is used in our histories, giving the impression she led the whole campaign. The messages to Hatton and Daldy were warm; the one to Sheppard was not, because of her anti-Liberal statements. In October 1892, she had organised an anti-Liberal Government meeting in the wake of the House's refusal to accept the Council amendment. Liberal members of the House arrived and turned the tables on her anti-Government remits. Hall, a conservative opposition member, wrote to Sheppard later, saying that "the outcome of our meeting was mortifying".
Seddon told the House the good news that night, and everyone cheered, apart from two opponents, according to the Evening Star. Among those cheering were three ex-premiers who had voted for suffrage in the 1870s: Sir George Grey, who had attended the meeting that formed the Auckland league and pledged a huge donation; Stout, who had introduced the first bill for women's suffrage and whose wife was the league president; and Hall – who had instigated the petitions providing the evidence pro-suffrage parliamentarians had needed to get a bill through.
The suffrage story is clearly a case of New Zealand men and women working together and achieving a huge breakthrough in parliamentary democracy. So where did He Tohu's curators get the idea that Sheppard ran the whole campaign?
On September 19, Sheppard had been chairing a meeting of the Canterbury Women's Institute's economics department, which passed a motion thanking Parliament for the women's vote and naming her, in her WCTU role. This was printed in many papers.
Two Christchurch papers reported her statement that the WCTU had never argued for suffrage for "temperance" reasons, only on the grounds that women should have the vote as citizens – which was actually the argument of Mill-inspired parliamentarians and the league. She said she had never given a speech pushing temperance as a motivating factor for the campaign, but the Star had told her off for doing so in 1890.
Sheppard's 1893 franchise report said that the WCTU had "mainly … directed" the whole campaign and every man and woman in it. The two sentences in which she made these claims are so convoluted that they are not quoted today, but they are the basis of our suffrage story.
The man who would become Sheppard's second husband, William Lovell-Smith, used her annual franchise reports for a series of articles written specifically for her, as editor of the WCTU magazine. These articles became a book, Outlines of the Women's Franchise Movement, in 1905. The photo of Sheppard in her high-necked evening gown that is the centrepiece of He Tohu and the Kate Sheppard House museum – the one photoshopped for the $10 note – was taken for the book.
But Outlines told the prohibition movement's version of the story. The national narrative was expressed by Helen Simpson in her 1940 book for the centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi, The Women of New Zealand. She wrote that the story of the WCTU's campaign had been told in Outlines, so "cannot be retold here". Then she covered the league as "the effective factor" in the campaign.
So, what has changed since 1940? Patricia Grimshaw's 1972 book, Women's Suffrage in New Zealand, based on her MA thesis, handed the role of the league to the WCTU. She said that the WCTU had "booked the principal city halls for large-scale public meetings" when the league had the big meetings. She said that the women collecting in "back lanes and alleys" had been Auckland WCTU members, and that the Auckland Star had been welcoming the WCTU as the inclusive, non-temperance, non-sectarian, home-grown group. She said that the WCTU set up the league and that Sheppard made the decision to start a national petition.
Grimshaw did what Sheppard did: wrote two sentences that made it sound as if the WCTU ruled them all. She said that the WCTU "succeeded in bringing under one leadership all who would work in its cause" and declared that the years 1891-92 had seen "the drawing together of all pro-suffrage elements in the community under one leadership" – that of the WCTU.
Today, Grimshaw's book is the standard text. The national narrative has been developed from it over half a century, coming to fruition in He Tohu and the Kate Sheppard House Museum, bought by the Government for $4.5 million and opened late last year after a $1 million transformation.
Outlier of inclusiveness
We went "hard and early" on suffrage, to paraphrase Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in a team of fewer than one million. It was early and easy, short and sweet. No marches, no arrests – though police did escort one man out of an Auckland league meeting in July 1893.
The New Zealand Mail described it as "the quietest, and perhaps, the greatest revolution in our annals". A Sydney paper said New Zealand was entering on "a political object-lesson" that "must make the world wiser in statecraft than before". It said New Zealand had "perhaps as little to learn from outside" as any other nation. New Zealand newspapers printed the quotes, and readers preened.
New Zealand was an outlier of inclusiveness. All Māori men had the vote from 1867. All Pākehā men were enfranchised in 1879 and all women in 1893 – about 40 years and 35 years before the UK. The US legislated for prohibition in 1919 and women's suffrage in 1920.
The Cabinet paper that helped ministers decide to buy Sheppard's old house said the venue would "tell the story of suffrage". Instead, everyone in the campaign apart from Sheppard is reduced to a phrase on a disk on the back of a dining chair. The implication is that these people sat there, but no evidence is offered that they did.
The problem for the designers of the museum and He Tohu displays is that by choosing to tell the story through Sheppard, they cannot include the big scenes of the suffrage story – because she was not in them. The He Tohu website gets around that by making up scenes in which Sheppard can star. In a cartoon documentary, she sits at a table as other women deliver suffrage forms, kicks at the door of Parliament and is at a rally on the lawn when the bill passes. But there is no hard evidence any other woman worked in her house on the petition, and she did not go to Parliament during the campaign.
Ministry for Culture and Heritage websites said that suffrage was a "mass movement" by the late 1880s and that "Sheppard travelled the country … holding public meetings". By unhinging the story from the facts, historians opened the door to fantasy, and it flew in during the Suffrage 125 commemorations in 2018.
The children's book Kate Sheppard showed her leading a street march. The Give Kate a Voice website had well-known women reading her sentences in an old house, each ending with "Women, take the matter up", as if this had been her catch cry; the intended archive of Sheppard speeches is not on the site. The portrait He Tohu commissioned for its poster shows Sheppard as a straight-haired blonde, even though an 1893 photo (published after the end of the campaign) shows her with brown fuzzy hair – and curls above the forehead. A documentary on Morison did not even mention the Women's Franchise League.
It is tempting to abandon the facts for fiction. I faced this temptation myself in trying to write a YA novel on suffrage. I could not find evidence of Sheppard doing what she was reported to have done, and decided to find out where our beliefs on her role had come from.
Sheppard has become the symbol of suffrage success, but that does not mean league women should be written out of the story. Archives New Zealand has agreed to change three details about the league in He Tohu. But what will it do about the storyline that Sheppard fought Parliament and won – with a petition? Pretending that a petition worked as a bill denigrates parliamentary democracy in the country that made a huge breakthrough by including women as voters.
Jane Tolerton is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to history.