KATE SHEPPARD
Suffragette
1848-1934

New Zealand's first female newspaper editor and pioneering suffragette

The New Zealand women who worked to win the vote for their sex were many, but it is Kate Sheppard whom history has remembered as their leading champion.

An English immigrant who landed at Christchurch in 1869, she married a grocer and general merchant, Walter Sheppard, two years later, when she was 24.

Intelligent and imbued with the principles of Christian socialism, she was active in the Congregational Church and the Ladies Association.

In 1885 she was a founding member of the New Zealand Christian Women's Temperance Union, a leading vehicle in the campaign for women's suffrage. Two years later she was in the driving seat as the national head of the union's franchise and legislation department.

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She wrote pamphlets and letters, spoke at meetings and organised progressively bigger and bigger petitions to persuade members of Parliament. She was a clear, logical speaker and writer who "could also conduct an argument without rancour", her Dictionary of New Zealand Biography says.

The Hawkes Bay Herald said of her conference writings in 1893, six months before the Governor signed the bill granting women the vote: "There is nothing of the 'Shrieking Sisterhood' style in Mrs Sheppard's paper. It is couched in terse, masculine language, pleasantly tempered by a genial sarcasm, which hits right home but does not wound."

The newspaper was amused by Sheppard's regular refrain that denying women the vote grouped them with "criminals, lunatics, and aliens".

In 1894, the year after New Zealand became the first self-governing country to give all women the vote in parliamentary elections, Sheppard went to England with her husband and son. She met leading feminists from around the world and was in demand to speak at women's franchise meetings. But some argue her absence overseas contributed to the delay, until 1919, in New Zealand women being allowed to become MPs.

Back in New Zealand she was elected, at the establishment of the National Council of Women in 1896, as its president. She was at the height of her powers and as editor of the temperance union's White Ribbon newspaper, oversaw campaigns on women's issues, including rational dress, equal pay, and married women's economic independence.