Written by Robyn Boosey
1893 was a ground-breaking year for women across the world. Kate Sheppard was the leading woman behind it all, the one who made the first domino fall.
On 19 September 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world where women could vote. Kate Sheppard was one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand fighting for this historic shift.
The radical change in New Zealand inspired suffrage movements around the world. In time more and more countries followed New Zealand’s lead and women were able to exercise their right to vote.
Born as Catherine Wilson Malcolm in Liverpool in 1847, Kate Malcolm migrated to New Zealand in her early twenties. In New Zealand in 1885, she co-founded the new Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Just two years after the WCTU was founded, she became the leader of its suffrage campaign.
The WCTU realised that the social and legislative reforms that they were campaigning for, including changes for the welfare of women and children, would be implemented more effectively if women could vote and had representation in Parliament. So this is what Sheppard and the WCTU threw their energy and talent into campaigning for. Winning the vote for women soon became an end in itself.
Despite her strong conviction and diligence, Sheppard experienced failure more than once before achieving votes for women in New Zealand. The WCTU took their first major petition to Parliament in 1891, which had been signed by over 9,000 women. They did not succeed. In 1892 they returned with a petition signed by more than 20,000. Still they did not succeed. Then, in 1893 Sheppard returned to Parliament with what she named a ‘monster’ petition, bearing over 32,000 signatures supporting votes for women. The petition, measuring 270 metres long, was the largest ever petition presented to Parliament. Despite strong opposition, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed by both houses of Parliament and became law on 19 September 1893. Finally, Sheppard and the WCTU triumphed. Women in New Zealand could fulfil their right to vote.
Sheppard’s activism, as you can imagine, did not stop here. She campaigned on many women’s issues in addition to the vote, including contraception, guardianship of children and the abolishment of corsets. She worked tirelessly creating pamphlets, giving speeches, and taking petitions to Parliament. ‘We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’, she argued.
Sheppard went on to co-found the National Council of Women in 1896 and was elected its first president. As head of the organisation, she fought for equality in marriage and the right for women to run for Parliament seats. She also established the first women owned newspaper in the country called White Ribbon and was a pioneering cyclist.
As the name suggests, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that Sheppard led was founded on Christian values. Sheppard and the women who formed part of the Union were driven to action by their faith-inspired vision for a transformed society. Sheppard’s vision and principles as a leader were rooted in her Christian faith. Sheppard had a strong sense of justice which she refused to compromise, arguing that 'All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome'.
I am inspired by her vision, strong sense of hope, and remarkable determination. Kate Sheppard dared to chase the impossible. She refused to be bound by the ‘logic’ and limited imagination of her contemporaries. And she simply would not give up. Her leadership example teaches me to dream wildly with Jesus, hope relentlessly, and persevere ‘unreasonably’.
By day, Robyn Boosey immerses herself in all the advocacy she can get her hands on at the Christian international relief and development organisation, Tearfund. By night, is co-director of the ICchange campaign for the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, which you should definitely look up and support (www.icchange.co.uk). Robyn is passionate about advocating for human rights, gender equality, and ending violence against women and girls. Oh and she also loves French and Spanish grammar a bit too much.