by David Clendon
Today is the 120th anniversary of Aotearoa becoming the first country where women won the vote. Often you hear people saying that we “gave” women the vote, but to me that sounds too passive.
Women debated, lobbied, organised and won their rights despite push back from MPs and the powerful liquor lobby (women’s votes were linked to the idea of banning alcohol as women were thought to be of greater moral conscience). Even Richard Seddon, the Prime Minister, was double-dealing and backhanded in his support of both suffrage and liquor depending on who was listening.
There are some aspects of the suffrage movement that we rarely hear about. We know about Kate Shepherd and the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but there are so many other factors in successful social change. Allies in positions of power are an important part of that, yet until recently I didn’t know much about the men who helped pass this bill into law.
From our contemporary view it seems perverse that women needed men to endorse their basic human rights, and this legacy continues today where marginalised groups must appeal to the masses, or to elite groups in power, to achieve fairness and equity.
It is interesting to contemplate what it must have meant to be a man in the late 1800’s and to be openly supportive of an idea that was widely ridiculed. Fortunately there were at least some more progressive and enlightened Members of Parliament in the late 1800’s who were genuinely supportive of women’s suffrage, largely thanks no doubt to the education and unrelenting lobbying of amazing women activists.
Alfred was elected to parliament twice, once in 1861 and again in 1878 where he remained until 1896. He was an early advocate for women’s suffrage as well as being outspoken on the merits of a secular education system. He was also staunchly against alcohol and apparently drank nothing but cold water!
He became close with Kate Shepherd and would often accompany her to events where they would both speak. He supported the suffrage legislation fully and also the idea of broader women’s independence. He once said:
“…we believe that we do not claim too much when we say that man does not make the most of his best friend and companion when he hedges her round with restrictions that are dictated, not by nature, but by ancient, deep-rooted, and unworthy prejudices.”
Sir John Hall
Sir John was in and out of Parliament from 1855 until he was elected Premier in 1876. Our 3 year election cycle was introduced on his watch, as was universal male suffrage.
He was a long-time supporter of the right for women to vote, and thought they would have a good influence on the electoral process and government.
Kate Shepherd knew of his sympathies and wrote to him, asking if he would remove the words “persons does not include female” to be removed from the electoral bill, in effect, granting women’s suffrage. He agreed, and they worked closely together until the bill passed in 1893.
John Balance and Sir Robert Stout also loudly supported women’s right to vote if you’re interested in continuing reading on suffrage allies. And for an interesting antagonist, Richard Seddon’s antics are worth noting.
Apparently Seddon even went so far, after convincing people to change their votes and actively working against Kate Shepherd, to wire her a copy of the bill once it passed with a note that said “Electoral Bill assented to by His Excellency the Governor General at quarter to twelve this day and trust now that all doubts as to the sincerity of the Government in this very important matter has [sic] been effectively removed.”
I’m not sure women should go out of their way to offer any nod of thanks to his statue next time they pass it by in Parliament grounds.