The woman question, Patricia Sargison

Kate Sheppard: A Biography. The fight for womens votes in New Zealand: the life of the woman who led the struggle
Judith Devaliant,
Penguin, $34.95

Recognition of the role Kate Sheppard played in New Zealand history has been slow, and it has taken nearly a hundred years for a full biography of this important figure to appear. Judith Devaliant has done a major service in bringing to New Zealanders a thoughtful and down-to-earth account of Sheppard’s life in time for the suffrage centenary celebrations next year.

The biography’s primary focus, comprising nearly half the text, is a detailed chronological narrative of the franchise campaign from the late 1880s until 1893. While fully acknowledging the contributions made by others, notably Sir John Hall, Alfred Saunders, Helen Nichol and Marion Hatton, Devaliant argues that Sheppard was the accepted leader in the struggle and focuses on her role and activities. Her account includes some useful interpretation and comment, but cannot be said to replace Patricia Grimshaw’s Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand (Auckland University Press, 1972). Devaliant does not, for example, attempt any assessment of the reasons for New Zealand achieving votes for women earlier than elsewhere. Nevertheless, she has written a clear and very readable history of the long, hard battle fought by women, which will be an important resource both for the centenary and for other purposes.

Other sections of the book also provide valuable source material on the ‘woman question’. While she believes Sheppard’s strong charismatic leadership was important in all the organisations to which she belonged, Devaliant is careful to give space to the work of other women, such as Ada Wells and Anna Stout, and does not attempt to give unwarranted prominence to Sheppard’s role. A brief chapter on the Canterbury Women’s Institute, although oddly placed amid surrounding franchise chapters, provides what is as yet the only readily available history of this organisation. Several chapters examine the founding of the National Council of Women in 1896 and its reorganisation in 1916, as well as the many reforms for which Sheppard and the Council fought. Extended extracts from Sheppard’s prolific writings on women’s issues are particularly valuable in this connection, and emphasise that Sheppard and her colleagues saw the franchise as only the first step in righting the injustices under which women suffered. This material provides a much-needed addition to Betty Holt’s brief and woefully inadequate Women in Council (National Council of Women, 1980). Devaliant also looks at Sheppard’s work for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, arguing that her devotion to temperance was both very real and very important to her. Finally she notes Sheppard’s significant though limited international role, particularly within the British suffrage campaign and the International Council of Women.

Devaliant acknowledges that the absence of private letters and diaries makes Sheppard’s private life something ‘we can only guess at’. Nevertheless, she has made skilful use of Sheppard’s public statements to offer suggestions about her views on such issues as feminism, marriage and family. With the help of the Lovell-Smith family, descendants of Sheppard’s second husband, she has attempted to confront the rumours and innuendoes which surround Sheppard’s two marriages – greatly intensified in recent years by the publication of Rachel McAlpine’s novel, Farewell Speech (Penguin, 1990). In a chapter entitled ‘Personal problems’, Devaliant discusses the birth of her son in 1885, the deteriorating relationship with her first husband, Walter Sheppard, after 1900 and the nature of her relationship with William Lovell-Smith (until 1908 William Smith), whom she married in 1925, but in whose house she lived, along with his first wife and 10 children, from at least 1909.

Devaliant’s approach is un-sensationalist and does not place Sheppard on a pedestal. She acknowledges her subject’s selfishness and the hurt suffered by the Lovell-Smith family, while retaining her admiration for her charm, intellect and efficiency. The resulting picture is one of balance and commonsense. Devaliant’s biography will undoubtedly not be the final word on Kate Sheppard. Her early life remains shadowy and the book’s chronological approach limits opportunities for analysis and thematic discussion. It succeeds admirably, however, in its stated aim: ‘to provide a reliable account of Kate Sheppard’s life and work which can be used as a starting point for further study’.


Patricia A Sargison is the author of two bibliographies, Victoria’s Furthest Daughters (1984) and From Candles to Computers (1987). She is currently writing a collection of biographies on women health workers, to be published in 1993, and is working on a social history of nursing in New Zealand at Canterbury University.



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Posted in Biography, Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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