Suffrage Day reality check: NZ not the first to give women the vote

Ian Wishart | 19 Sept 2017
If you open up any New Zealand school history textbook, it will proudly declare that New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote, back in 1893.
If only that were true.
Magnificent as the efforts of Kate Sheppard and the other suffragettes were, they were not the exclusive pioneers of a worldwide movement, no matter how much the claim has been romanticised and enhanced by proud kiwis, documentary-makers and politicians.
Instead, Sheppard and co were standing on the shoulders of giants – women in other countries who had already won full or partial rights to vote and whose efforts the New Zealanders appropriated.
Whereabouts? I hear you ask. Well, an American state gave women the vote back in 1869, and the story of how successful that was made the New Zealand papers before 1893:
Kate Field[2]: Is woman suffrage a success in Wyoming?
Chief Justice of Wyoming: Decidedly. When I came here in 1880 I was prejudiced against it. The first woman I saw vote was a half-breed Cherokee Indian, without the ghost of an idea of the responsibility of her act. On inquiry I learned that she was a much better ‘man’ than her husband.
The next woman was a native of Massachusetts, who came to the polls with her blue-eyed boy. She bore the name of the Concord sage and philosopher, and then I thought of what Emerson had said, that if all the vices were represented on the list of voters surely some of the virtues should be.
Field: Do you think women appreciate the importance of voting more than men?
CJ: On the whole, yes and they are more unselfish. It brings the home element into politics, and serves as a check to the ‘bummer’ element. Women will not support candidates who are known to be drunken or immoral. Hence both parties are compelled to nominate men of clean private and public record.
Field: You paint a cheerful state of things, Mr Chief Justice: Eastern opponents declare that, by the introduction of tins woman element into politics, confusion will be confounded, as disreputable women will vote and good women will not.
CJ: This is a slander as far as Wyoming is concerned, where there are more respectable women in proportion to the population than elsewhere. Our polls are alike for both sexes, and no woman ever was insulted at the ballot-box. Saloons are closed, and the utmost courtesy is paid to women voters.
Field: Are political meetings frequented by women?
CJ: Yes, and it sometimes happens that husbands and wives vote differently, yet no more discord ensues than where male members of a family disagree.
Field: Is woman suffrage a party question?
CJ: No. The clause incorporating equal suffrage was passed in convention with one dissenting voice. Republicans and Democrats met on common ground.
Field: Was there ever an attempt made to abolish woman suffrage once upon a time?
CJ: Yes, the measure passed both Houses, but was vetoed by Governor Campbell in 1871 since then no retrograde movement has been advocated.
Field: Is any discrimination shown to the salaries of public school teachers on account of sex?
CJ: None, whatever. Our school system is fine, and our State University at Laramie is well maintained. According to the census of 1880, Wyoming had the smallest percentage of illiteracy of any State in the Union, and I hope that the last census will tell an equally flattering tale.
Miss Field adds: “Thus ended my interview with Wyoming’s Chief Justice. Later in the day I met a number of Cheyenne’s leading men and women at the residence of Senator and Mrs .Warren. Not a man but assured me he approved of woman suffrage, but seemed to take pride in the privilege accorded by an enlightened public opinion.”
So, far from New Zealand being the first place in the world to give women the vote, it turns out we were beaten to the draw by a bunch of American cowboys in 1869 – a full twenty-four years before New Zealand got around to it. What makes it even more galling is they were boasting about equal pay rates in the public sector for women as well!
Even the polygamist state of Utah beat New Zealand to the punch by two decades, giving the full vote in 1870, although women ironically lost the right to vote in 1887 as a punishment from the state legislature because they kept voting in favour of polygamy rather than against it.
OK, you say, maybe we weren’t the first ‘place’, maybe we were the first ‘country’ to do so. Or maybe we weren’t. It turns out Sweden introduced the vote for taxpaying women in the mid 1700s, formalising it nationally in 1862 although it was restricted to one vote per household, which meant married women effectively did not vote. True full suffrage came after New Zealand so although Sweden was ahead on points they didn’t go all the way.
For all of the issues regarding sex abuse on Pitcairn Island, the women descended from the Bounty mutineers had been voting since 1838 and continued the tradition when they resettled on Norfolk Island in 1856.
Likewise, the newly independent former French Pacific colony of “Franceville” gave women full voting rights in 1889 – four years earlier than New Zealand, thus becoming the first country to formally give women ‘the vote’. Franceville’s place in history was eclipsed, however, when the territory was re-annexed by France several years later, renamed the New Hebrides, and its voters came back under the control of French law.
If you want to be really pedantic, New Zealand was not even a sovereign country in 1893, merely a self-governing British colony. It was actually similar in status to Wyoming or Utah or, for that matter, the Isle of Man where women who owned property (and thus paid tax) were given the full vote back in 1881.
No matter how you slice and dice it, New Zealand’s claim to have been the first country to enfranchise women is rapidly falling into the ‘legend in your own lunchtime’ category.
In New Zealand in the 1880s, however, public debate over women’s rights was raging and while the full story of our journey to suffrage is covered in more detail in other history books, nonetheless the flavour of the debate is captured well here:
(To the Editor of the Express) Dear Mr Editor,— I was enjoying your excellent paper the other night as I always do (I think people who are getting a little older generally like a newspaper) when I came to a letter signed ‘Sophia Tompkyns’, on a subject which always roughs me up the wrong way.
That subject is Woman’s Rights, coupled with Universal Suffrage. Of course I don’t know Mrs Sophia Tompkyns personally, but I should like to tell her that when she talks about mothers leaving their babies at home, while they attend meetings and vote in Parliament, she is speaking very plainly of neglecting her rightful duties.
Just think of the poor little dears screaming themselves black in their sweet little faces while their mothers are interfering with other people’s business! No, no, my dear Sophia, you have rights, and plenty, but they are ‘the rights to soothe, and cheer, and bliss, with woman’s own true tenderness,’ and you will not maintain them by going into Parliament or meddling with votes.
Then I saw last night that another young woman had written upholding Sophia, and talking about “tyrannical husbands,” etc. Now, I should have been positively ashamed to confess that grandfather ever was a tyrant. My dear Mr Editor, don’t you think that it is the fault of the wives if husbands are tyrannical?
I wouldn’t give much for a woman’s tact if she can’t ‘coax’ and ‘wheedle’ all the tyranny out of a man in six months. I used to be a great horse woman when I was young, and I always think that men are exactly like very tender mouthed horses; with a light hand you can do anything with them, but touch the curb heavily, and they rear directly – you must not even let them feel you have a hand on the bridle.
I should advise Sophia and Seraphina to rule their homes and their children well before they think of ruling nations, and I should like to see myself leaving one of my grandchildren at home whilst I went to a voting meeting, much less Tom or John, or William, or Jane, or Kate, or Lucy, or any of the others when they were little. The very idea made me so angry that I shook my specs off with indignation.
Believe me dear Mr Editor,
Yours faithfully,
September 28 1884
And on the other hand:
To the Editor
In the weekly issue of the Southland Times of the 5th September, appears an article headed “Woman Suffrage,” a well written letter, concise, to the point.
To attack a problem we must begin by clearly defining its position, which the writer on the above subject has very clearly done. The brilliant array of names she quotes of men at Home who are in favor of giving women the power to vote, constitute a very respectable representation of the world, in intellect at any rate, which is the point in question.
The Isle of Man is quoted as a proof, that the method of giving equal political rights to women as with men, has been in operation for the past nine years, and the Governor, Sir Henry Holt, testified that the results had been good; also in the states of Wyoming and Washington in America they were equally satisfactory.
Such writers, who think the granting of the franchise to women as a prodigiously foolish project, seem to overlook the part women will take in bringing on the much needed reform in religion. It is quite possible that eight-tenths of the religious instruction is imparted to the children by the mothers, more praise to them, but who at present get their views in theology from the minister, but the more enlightened woman of the future will clearly see for herself what is historical and founded on facts and teach accordingly, and then the reform will be taking giant strides, and like the pent-up waters of a dam escaping, sweep away forever what is nothing more than trading on the imbecility of their hearers.
Saint Gregory Nazianzen in the early days was of the opinion that words are sufficient to deceive the vulgar who admire the more the less they understand, and followed the instructions of the pious Bishop Eusebius who declared, in the thirty-first chapter of the twelfth book of his Evangelical Preparation ‘that it may be lawful and fitting to use falsehood as a medicine for the benefit of those who want to be deceived’.
The digiously foolish project writer’s experience must be taken from not a fair average in Mr Trollope’s domestic manners of the Americans, amusing sketches from life of the kind of women George Eliot[5] detested.
George Eliot writes, “I hate the sound of women’s voices – they’re always either a buzz or a squeak.”
She had no doubt in her mind’s eye the gossiping small-intellect woman; the true womanly women, with the religious element well in hand, are the great purifiers of the world, and would certainly help considerably in getting better men returned to Parliament. We sadly want, at the present time, good and capable men, less log-rolling and working only when influence can bring pressure to bear upon them.
A proper and useful representative requires no pressure if he is satisfied with the equity of the case, whatever it may be, and does his best in the matter. The other man is guided in these matters in quite a different manner and will do nothing for you however just and reasonable your request may be, unless you are some person of influence and he sees his bread and butter in danger, then he yokes to, but only in a half-hearted manner.
The people of New Zealand should rise to a man and insist upon a less expensive system of Government. Something on the Swiss or American method would be more in accordance with our means and heavy liabilities. When women hold the position they are entitled to and are fast approaching, witness their latest achievements, viz., Miss Fawcett and Miss Ramsay, and when they honor the public through the Press on subjects of importance and general interest, they will demand, and should receive due courtesy, which I certainly think the following devoid of.
From the pulpit we expect to hear the truth, and from the Press surely a good example might be set in courtesy. “Not even a Person,” the writer on above “Woman Suffrage” of Sept. 5th., might for all we know be a woman, one might be proud to know, and she sees what is written [by the editor] below attached to her letter as if she was some child or doll in intellect: “Our correspondent should not trouble her wise little head wondering what horrid man wrote the leader she objects to. That is a question of mere curiosity, a waste of pains, and of our valuable space, a due proportion of which she is always welcome to for the discussion of any question she thinks herself fit to tackle. But let us have something more cogent than a few negations, an array of authorities who after all do not constitute ‘the world’, and an assertion or two.”
Such a method of discussing a great question is no doubt very womanish, but accomplishes little in the way of elucidating the matter. The result of a little unprejudiced thinking on all the points involved in the proposal might be highly beneficial, might even convert the editor.— I am, &c,
Seaward Bush, October 1.
It is worth remembering that not even all men had the vote back in Britain at this time:
The programme of the Democratic Federation, the new political party forming in England, and a leading member of which is Mr Joseph Cowen, M.P. for Newcastle, embraces manhood suffrage for all parliamentary and municipal elections, triennial Parliaments, equal electoral districts, payment of members election expenses to come out of the rates.
In addition to discussing this programme, a conference that was to meet in London on June 8 was to be asked to consider the following subjects: Adult suffrage; nationalisation of the land; abolition of the House of Lords; bribery at elections to be made an act of felony; legislative independence for Ireland.
We often presume, in the 21st century, that the nineteenth century was akin to the Dark Ages, yet the ancient newspapers disclose attitudes and trends – even then – well familiar to us in ‘modern’ times:
A favourite topic of discussion just now in feminine circles is the women who do not marry, and among men there is a certain amount of curiosity as to why they do not wed.
It seems to be conceded that there is a growing disinclination on the part of women to commit themselves to wedlock, and this seems to have been the inspiration of a recent article by Mrs. E. Lynn Linton on the “Revolt against Matrimony,” in the Forum, and of Mrs. Kate Gannet Well’s paper in the North American Review, entitled “Why more girls do not marry.”
A hundred years ago marriage and motherhood were regarded as the crown and consummation of female life, and the girls of every household were trained solely with the view to becoming qualified heads of homes in which they should be installed by the marriage service.
It is only of late years, since what is known as the higher education has come into vogue and our modern civilisation has absorbed women into so many pursuits, that the disinclination to matrimony has arisen and the “superior woman” of the day found herself looking down with contempt on the work of sweeping the domestic hearthstone and rocking the cradle.
The college graduate, highly educated, capable of earning a salary and making a place for herself in the world, is a new factor in femininity, and she finds herself refined up to a point where she is unwilling to sink her identity in that of a man and play second fiddle in his household. In the opinion of one of the writers whom we have spoken, “woman has heretofore commended herself to man by reason of her simpleness and silliness,” and now that these have outgrown their sweet simplicity, the ordinary man has ceased to admire them or fears their power in the household of which he is the recognised head.
If it is true that there is a growing disinclination on the part of women to marry, it is still doubtful whether the world is to be the gainer by the change. True, there are too many unfit and hasty marriages, and the tie is made a cloak for vulgar passion whose satiety finds refuge in divorce but, in spite of all this, marriage remains the divinest institution of the world.
With the rapid growth of the world’s population under the peace and sunshine of modern civilisation, what is needed is not so much large households of children, but better, healthier children. These are to be the fruit of wedlock, honoured and honourable, and the mother’s care, love and example are still to be the grandest pictures that life can paint. To the end of time the hand that rocks the cradle is to shape the destinies of the nations.
Meantime, the unmarried woman is to have her own place and her work. The rewards of genius, of philanthropy, of money, of scholarship and art are all within her reach, and it may be that in the field of politics, as well as professional life, she will achieve, fame and fortune. But that her influence will equal that of the woman who finds in wedded life and motherhood the field for all that is best and purest in woman’s nature, no thoughtful man will admit.
It is a pitiful thing on the part of woman or man to despise matrimony and so to deliberately cut themselves off from life’s purest joys and prepare for themselves that worst of all fates—a homeless old age. Theories are all very fine on paper, but when it comes down to practice the girl who is willing to marry will carry the suffrage of masculine hearts, and her influence will outweigh that of a hundred blue-stockings and spectacled female foes of wedlock.
It is evident the factious opposition of Mr Fish and a few other obstructionists to the woman franchise question is having the effect of putting their opponents upon their mettle.
The chief advocates of the measure, at a caucus held yesterday, expressed themselves resolved not to permit the majority to be coerced by the stone-walling tactics of a noisy minority.
The Premier …acknowledged the justice of their demand, and promised that a special sitting of the House for Monday should be moved for to discuss the female franchise question, which is to be brought down in a separate Bill.
Apart from the merits of the subject, the obstructive conduct of Mr Fish has given a prominence to it which it had not before assumed, and at Wellington woman suffrage is being forced to the front and rapidly becoming the burning question of the hour.
The tactics of Mr Fish and his party are neither likely to secure their immediate object nor to raise those members in the estimation of the more intelligent portion of their constituents. If sound and cogent reasons can be advanced against woman suffrage, they will no doubt have all due weight given to them both in the House and out of it. It is quite another thing, however, when a senatorial windbag persistently obstructs a measure of public policy involving important issues, apparently from no other than the most sordid motives.
The contemptible nature of the procedure becomes still more glaring when, instead of advancing something like rational arguments, Mr Fish spends two hours in ranting and gesticulating, taking up the time of the House with what …demonstrates chiefly the utter ignorance of the honourable gentleman of the subject be is treating.
It is characteristic of the tribe of Fish that they can only deal with the subject of female suffrage either as something particularly funny and affording an excellent opportunity for evolving senseless jokes and threadbare criticisms, or else as a measure to be used by designing individuals and societies, each with some special axe to grind.
Mr Blake, for instance, predicted the House would make itself the laughingstock of the world by advocating female franchise. In the opinion of this ‘intelligent’ member, the whole question is evidently a screaming joke, which will appear so comical when the world hears of it that old Cosmos will split his sides with laughing. It is really sickening at this time of day that the patience of the House should be taxed with listening to such drivel.
Messrs Fish and Blake are probably unaware that what to them is such a rich joke forms a subject that has been strenuously advocated by some of the most eminent political economists of the age, and that the measure has already, in one instance at least, passed beyond the experimental stage. Among great authorities who have supported woman suffrage may be mentioned, the names of Beaconsfield, Salisbury, Sir John Macdonald, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Kingsley, while Mr Gladstone has declared that a number of circumstances rendered it inconsistent “to grant men the extended suffrage and to exclude women.”
In the territory of Wyoming women had been admitted to Government offices, and when Wyoming was admitted by Congress as a State in the Republic, although the recognition of woman suffrage had not been embodied in American law, Congress made an exception in the case of Wyoming, and on the ground of the success with which the principle had been carried out there, it was embodied in the laws of the State. The question of further extending the principle has made such headway of late years that it is proposed to amend the Constitution of the United States that the franchise may be extended to women in every State of the Union.
Whether this be ultimately accomplished or not, the question of female suffrage is regarded by sensible men in all English-speaking communities as within the range of practical politics, arid it is left to the Fish and Blake mental calibre to find in it food for that mirth which is not inaptly described as “the crackling of thorns under a pot.”
It is noticeable in reading the discussions on extending the franchise to women, that both in our own Parliament and the recent debate on the question in the New South Wales Assembly, it seems to be assumed by some members that the measure is designed exclusively to serve the purposes of men, while any direct interest a woman may have in recording her vote from the standpoint of her own sex is studiously ignored. Mr Fish was positive only a very few women desired the franchise, while Mr Blake, with characteristic ‘elegance’ predicted that franchise to women would “mean a continual row from year’s end to year’s end.”
The unfolding of a petition seventy yards long, signed by nearly 8,000 women, was a good object lesson for the loquacious Fish, and we should be glad to see the most voluble old washerwoman who would keep up more “row” than the screaming Blake. That both politicians and organisations are already counting on women’s votes in support of their pet hobbies, we have every reason to believe.
The Temperance Societies, for example, make no secret of their belief that women’s franchise will turn the scale of victory in their favour. The Bible in Schools party hint not obscurely that their ranks will receive an accession of strength. Some secularists imagine the influence exerted by priests over women in the confessional will be used to secure the special objects aimed at by the Catholic Church with regard to grants for educational purposes.
There may be a fragment of truth in all this, but equally doleful predictions as to the way in which the masses would be led by the nose if the one-man-one-vote principle were recognised have from time to time been urged by the opponents of that measure.
If we can educate the lowest class of men to properly exercise a vote, undoubtedly we can also do so with even the lowest class of women. Strenuous, efforts may possibly be made by designing leaders and politicians a block female vote for their own purposes, but although in some instances more, likely to be influenced by sentiment than the sterner sex, we have no doubt that with the extension of the privilege will come a sense of responsibility, and as women naturally will take an increased interest in political questions, we very much doubt whether they will be found so pliable as political, agitators suppose.
Women are gifted with a keen insight which often stands them in good stead when their logic is faulty, and they will soon begin to compute the value of their votes on the well-being of their own sex. This aspect of the case is constantly lost sight of by politicians of the Fish type. They cling to the old notion that woman is to be the mere plaything of man. They are likely to be rather roughly awakened from their dream; The world has not yet afforded many instances where women have had an opportunity of making their individuality felt in politics. An Elizabeth of England and a Catherine of Russia have proved that given the chance, there is no lack of female political personality.
When female suffrage is the law of the land, as very soon it will be, it will dawn upon the minds of some Parliamentary Rip Van Winkles that women have a distinct personality, that if they work for their bread they will demand equitable conditions: that they will not, at the same time, have equal voting powers and [yet] unequal measures meted out to them in Factory and Shop Bills, and that they have not received votes merely to secure monopolies to any class of men without a thought to the claims of their own sex.
It must be remembered the nation is half made up of women, and one object of the Female Franchise Bill is to remove what in the eyes of enlightened men is a glaring injustice. The only wonder is not that woman suffrage is now in the air, but that in an enlightened age the present anomalous system has been so long suffered to exist.
On the arrival of Dr. Kate Mitchell of London, in Chicago, the lady physicians of that city honoured her by a public reception. The number of lady students in Switzerland is continuously increasing. Out of 701 students at the Zurich University, no less than 120 are ladies.
Interesting to see then how far the emancipation of women had come, even in the late 1800s.
[1] WOMEN SUFFRAGE, Clutha Leader, Volume XVIII, Issue 931, 20 May 1892, Page 3
[2] Long before the modern feminist movement took shape, Kate Field was an established American journalist and commentator who could command big speaking fees across America in the late 1800s
[3] WOMAN’S RIGHTS, Marlborough Express, Volume XX, Issue 230, 30 September 1884, Page 2
[4] WOMAN SUFFRAGE, Bruce Herald, Volume XXI, Issue 2211, 21 October 1890, Page 3
[5] George Eliot was the pen-name of one of the Victorian era’s leading female novelists – Mary Ann Cross – who died in 1880.
[6] NEWS IN BRIEF, Tuapeka Times, Volume XIV, Issue 757, 27 July 1881, Page 5
[7] THE INFLUENCE OF SPINSTERS, New Zealand Herald, Volume XXIX, Issue 8968, 27 August 1892, Page 2
[8] Auckland Star, Volume XXII, Issue 195, 18 August 1891, Page 4
[9] THE LADIES’ COLUMN, Bush Advocate, Volume VII, Issue 644, 2 July 1892, Page 6

Leave a Reply