Women’s suffrage in New Zealand was an important political issue in the late nineteenth century. In early colonial New Zealand, as in European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. Public opinion began to change in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, and after years of effort by women’s suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard, New Zealand became the first self-governing colony in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
The Electoral Bill granting women the vote was on 19 September 1893. Women voted for the first time in the election held on 28 November 1893 Also in 1893, Elizabeth Yates became Mayor of Onehunga, the first time such a post had been held by a woman anywhere in the British Empire.
Katherine Wilson Sheppard was the most prominent member of the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand and the country’s most famous suffragist. Born in Liverpool, England, she immigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1868. There she became an active member of various religious and social organisations, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1887 she was appointed the WCTU’s National Superintendent for Franchise and Legislation, a position she used to advance the cause of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.
Kate took her message worldwide and continued to fight for women’s suffrage. Ill health brought her back to New Zealand in 1904. She died at her home at Riccarton, Christchurch, on 13 July 1934,
The local Newspaper reported her death in simple appreciation:
“A great woman has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures”
In 1934, just before her death Sheppard had the satisfaction of seeing the first woman MP enter Parliament.
New Zealand is also one of the few countries in the world to have had three female heads of government, and one of only three countries to have had a female head of government directly succeed another. The first female prime minister was Jenny Shipley of the National Party, in late 1997; Shipley was succeeded by Helen Clark in 1999. Jacinda Ardern, the second female leader of the Labour Party after Clark, became prime minister in 2017.
New Zealand is also the first country to have three women in power simultaneously – The Prime Minister (Helen Clark), the Governor General (Dame Silvia Cartwright), and the Chief Justice (Sian Elias).
On the eve of the 125th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, its three female prime ministers came together for an historic photoshoot.