Women's Suffrage Cartoon | How did Kate do it? | Professionelle

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes


It’s the eve of the 101st International Women’s Day (IWD) as I write this. For certain in the next 24 hours I will hear the words “Kate Sheppard”, “women’s votes” and “New Zealand led the way” on the radio and in TV sound bites.  Many New Zealanders will half-listen and nod, and perhaps enjoy the frisson of being reminded that our country was a true social trailblazer, back in 1893. Rather fewer people, I suspect, will be aware of the present rate of progress for women and the enduring obstacles to true equality of opportunity for women.

I’m a great believer in using the past to inform the present and future; not much under the sun is truly new, after all… So, this year’s IWD has set me wondering: how did Kate Sheppard and her close-knit team achieve their goal? Are there lessons we can take from their setbacks and strategies at the end of the nineteenth century to apply to the issues we’re grappling with at the start of the twenty first?  After even a little digging, some apparent success factors and one or two weaknesses have emerged.

Key Success Factors

An intelligent and articulate leader

Kate Sheppard was well-educated and could express herself clearly and logically both on the podium and through the pen. If she were alive today she would have been writing the press releases for her cause, blogging to a huge audience and appearing on breakfast TV and even TED talks.

Here’s an example of her lucid prose in which she advocates for women’s rights:

There is no greater anomaly than the exaltation by men of the vocation of wife and mother on the one hand, while, on the other, the position is by law stripped of all its attractiveness and dignity, and a wife and mother is regarded not only as a “dependent” on her husband’s bounty, but even the children of her own body are regarded as his legal property.’  [you go, girl!]

Also, I did love the nicely judged sarcasm of reason #2 (below) of her 1888 treatise “Ten reasons why the women of New Zealand should vote, and isn’t #10 almost spooky in how it aligns with arguments for women on boards today?

Reason 2. Because it has not yet been proved that the intelligence of women is only equal to that of children, nor that their social status is on a par with that of lunatics or convicts.

Reason 10. Because women naturally view each question from a somewhat different standpoint to men, so that whilst their interests, aims, and objects would be very generally the same, they would often see what men had overlooked, and thus add a new security against any partial or one-sided legislation.

Interestingly, Kate’s spoken voice was described as “quietly determined, persuasive and disarmingly feminine.”  For a woman whose objectives scared many people, her feminine voice might have been the essential ingredient that prevented her being roundly written off as some “shrieking harridan” or “she-male”.


Rome is never built in a day.  I was surprised to find that the cause of women’s suffrage had good momentum and some successes back in the 1870s, a decade or more before Kate became involved and two decades before the full vote was won. For example, female rate-payers had gained the right to vote in local body elections in 1873.

Kate and her suffragette colleagues kept up pressure to achieve their bigger goal with talks, letters, pamphlets and petition after petition.  They had to weather the disappointment of three bills that would have extended the vote to those female ratepayers all narrowly failing to pass in Parliament.  At least another four attempts never reached the stage of voting by the Legislative Council. Meanwhile, in 1879, the vote was extended to all European men over the age of 21! (Maori men had been free to vote for Maori representatives since 1867).

It must have seemed a long, long time till all women were granted full and equal rights to vote.

What kept Kate & Co going?

A clear, strong cause

This seems crucial. To pick yourself up after knock backs, to invest hours of time that could have been spent with your family, to find the energy to rally your flagging team, you need a fire-in-the-belly belief in your cause.  Similarly, to convince the public and make your case well, the cause and its reasons need to be clear. Even in an era when Dickens’ novels were deemed high-octane page-turners, a crisp position statement must have helped enormously.

What did they want? Universal suffrage for adult women.

Why did they want it? First, because it was fair. Second, because enfranchised women would be much better placed to improve society – temperance was a major issue.

A few good men

Politicians like John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox and Prime Minister John Ballance were the male champions of change. Their commitment and support was essential because Parliament and the Legislative Council were 100% male; the suffragettes, like the damsels of old, were obliged to rely on their knights in shining armour to fight the dragons for them.

womens-suffrage-cartoon4_300x330And there were dragons aplenty.

Men and women alike in New Zealand and overseas feared that giving women the vote would herald a disintegration of social order. If women moved beyond their ordained sphere of the home, and started “meddling in masculine concerns of which they [were] profoundly ignorant” then dinners would burn, children would wail for their absent mamas, and even the country’s economy would come under threat. Anti-suffragette lobbying became more poisonous the stronger the pressure for change grew. The cartoons that accompany this article are, believe it or not, fairly mild examples.

Some of the fear, I sense, was cynically manufactured, not least by politicians who were worried that women would not support their particular flavour of politics. In NZ, Prime Minister Seddon tried hard to torpedo the 1893 vote and in England Winston Churchill rumbled:

The women’s suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.

Popular opinion

A clear, strong cause pushed hard over a long period by an articulate leader with strategic support must eventually result in a groundswell of positive popular opinion and a willingness in society to entertain views that a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

In the case of women’s votes, this translated into petitions to Parliament that steadily swelled in size. In 1893, the third and largest petition contained almost 32,000 signatures. It was the largest ever presented to Parliament at the time and represented a sizeable proportion of adult NZ women, putting to bed the anti-suffrage argument that “women didn’t really want the vote”.

An aside! If your family has been in New Zealand since the early 1890s you can check if one of your great grandmothers signed this historic petition. Good luck! My female forebears don’t appear, even though, like Kate, they were Canterbury women.

A pinch of drama

Never underestimate the power of a flourish… The 32,000 signatures on the 1893 petition were collated in Kate’s Christchurch home onto a 766-foot-long piece of wallpaper. On the day of the debate, John Hall unrolled it across the floor of the Chamber of the House with great dramatic effect.


Extra goals = extra enemies

The suffrage campaign was inextricably linked with the temperance movement.  Temperance campaigners recognised early on that they would have far greater success in their goal to ban the evils of alcohol if they had women in positions of influence, specifically, in the government. They therefore lobbied hard with the suffragettes and had considerable membership overlap. Sheppard herself became politically active after hearing lectures of a visiting US evangelist temperance campaigner, Mary Leavitt.

On the one hand, the energy and resources of the temperance movement materially assisted the push for votes. On the other, it introduced a formidable enemy, the drinks barons.  They lobbied strongly to undermine the suffragettes, both on the streets and among politicians and their resistance may well have delayed the women’s eventual success.

Succession planning

A reliance on one talented, central figure is a double edged sword. Although Kate worked closely with other highly-educated and passionate women, like Maud Reeves and Margaret Sievwright, not all shared her ability to speak and lead, and after their 1893 success, some seem to have moved abroad – as Kate herself did.

Kate left for England in 1894 and for two years became deeply involved in suffrage efforts there. When she returned to NZ, she found that her absence “had resulted in some disarray among her supporters in the House” (Encyclopedia of NZ). The extent of that disarray can be measured by the fact that a bill to include women’s representation in Parliament was thwarted by none other than two previous male champions, Alfred Saunders and Sir John Hall, who wanted a separate chamber for women.

Kate “had never advocated a separationist policy, and the loss of her influence meant, perhaps, that the crucial moment for women’s complete political equality was also lost.” Certainly women did not gain the right to stand as MPs until 1919.

How Kate said she and her team did it

In later years, Kate was often asked by suffrage campaigners abroad for the secret of her success. Her response was apparently pragmatic. She believed that her campaigners had triumphed as a result of years of unceasing toil – and because NZ’s colonial beginnings meant it was less tightly bound to the societal norms that ruled Britain. “It was a kind of political experiment,” she said.


If you are embarking on a campaign that touches the lot of women in New Zealand, or if you are perhaps already deeply embroiled in one, I wonder if you have seen similarities between your situation and Kate Sheppard’s!  We’d love to hear.

To end with a little inspiration, here’s a quotation from Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist,

Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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