Heroines needed, Dale Williams

Leading the Way: How New Zealand Women Won the Vote
Megan Hutching
HarperCollins, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869507923

“Tis the glory of New Zealand that her sons were first to see/That there never was a free land where the women were not free!” wrote Henry Lawson when, in 1893, legislation was finally passed that extended the suffrage to women in this country:

But New Zealand’s great leap forward did not reflect the farsightedness and clear vision of New Zealand men, as Lawson seems to think, nor did it arrive solely because of a miscalculation by Premier Richard Seddon and his supporters, as historian William Pember Reeves believed, writing that “one fine morning … the women of New Zealand woke up and found themselves enfranchised.”


Thanks all the same, Henry and William, but some stories need heroines, not heroes. It was the female activists and their supporters who had put in the years of hard slog: networking, campaigning, public speaking and writing, and old-fashioned lobbying. Women who had been close to the process were in no doubt where the credit was due; as one congratulatory letter from Australia to suffrage leader Kate Sheppard put it: “Your long, patient, faithful, untiring, earnest, zealous effort is finally rewarded … .”

Although the story of our progress towards female suffrage is certainly well told, the focus of this book is not so much on process as on personality. The first third outlines a concise history of the events in the suffrage story, and the rest of the book is devoted to biographical profiles of the individual men and women who were prominent in the struggle, and of those later women who were the first to stand for office.

The suffrage movement was a widespread, grassroots one that involved cooperation between numerous associations, notably branches of the Women’s Franchise League and various temperance groups, such as the Alliance and the fervent Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Women had laid the groundwork in the latter half of the 19th century by discovering committee work.  They established the numerous social, political and charitable committees, and the Tailoresses’ Union, through which they were able to meet and work together towards various social ends. Hutching details their persistence in organising successive nationwide suffrage petitions in 1891, 1892 and 1893, which met with huge public support.

Although she does not devote as much space to the suffragists’ opposition, nor the dirty tricks used by the liquor industry, which feared the strength of the female prohibitionist vote, Hutching does offer a useful look at one of their noisiest opponents, the Dunedin tradesman and MP Henry Fish. He was generally reckoned to be hand in glove with the liquor trade, and his unsavoury reputation and underhand political tactics, which included passing off his rival petition as “the suffrage petition”, spurred the women’s organisations to greater activity. Once they had the vote, Dunedin women swiftly dumped him from office.

With the legislation passed, Hutching looks at media response, the overseas congratulations that poured in, and the jubilation among suffrage supporters. She outlines the excited election campaign which followed, with some candidates setting up women’s committees, and Maori women becoming politically active. The election day itself, and the effects of having women present at the polls for the first time, are well described. Opponents had predicted rioting and unrest, but the presence of women at the polls proved to be a civilising influence. Even the usual polling day larrikins modified their behaviour in the presence of the ladies.

Hutching then switches from how to who: four leading suffrage activists – Kate Sheppard, Margaret Sievwright, Annie Schnackenberg and Kate Edger – get a biographical chapter each, and a further two, Marion Hatton and Helen Nicol, a half-chapter. Four influential men of the suffrage movement – Alfred Saunders, John Hall, John Ballance and Robert Stout – follow. The Quaker influence on the views of Saunders and Ballance makes for an unexpected sidelight.

Being able to vote decision-makers into office was a first step, and many women were satisfied with that. But becoming a decision-maker oneself became the suffragists’ next goal. Women kept up the pressure to be allowed to stand for office until the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act was passed in 1919.

The profiles of the first three extraordinary women to stand for Parliament – twice-divorced Shearers’ Union worker Aileen Cooke, American university graduate Rosetta Baume, and lawyer and later long-serving local body politician Ellen Melville – make fascinating reading. Colourful women with powerful personalities, they were nonetheless unsuccessful candidates. One can’t help but imagine that they would fare better under MMP.

A final chapter examines the success of the first woman to gain office, Elizabeth McCombs. With a solid background in local-body politics, and on her third attempt, she entered Parliament on a by-election in 1933 when her husband, MP James McCombs, died in office. She was made of stern stuff: he had been buried only 10 days when she started her campaign. Having become an MP, like her husband she worked till she dropped, dying two years after her election.

“We are a young country, and all the work that has gone into building up this country has been shared by the women,” wrote McCombs. This more than any other factor was probably the reason the female suffrage got off to an early start in this corner of the world. In a country with a lot to build in a short time, it had been a case of all hands to the pump. New Zealand women did not have to produce abstract or philosophical arguments to prove their worth and their equal value, as their overseas counterparts were obliged to do. They had already demonstrated their merits and resourcefulness in the building of a new society; the men had the evidence of their eyes.

Another factor Hutching believes contributed to our early start was the nature of pioneers themselves, settlers generally being adventurous and less hidebound by rigid concepts of social order. There was, she says, a general notion of reform in the air in the 1880s and 1890s – at the same time other social reforms were being enacted, of which suffrage was only one part. Many suffragists belonged to multiple social reform groups, including dress reform and health reform organisations, and there was a great deal of overlap in the membership of progressive organisations.

Some of the time-capsule vignettes Hutching offers are enlightening in their own right.

Picture, for example, the group of women who were auditing Parliament from the Ladies’ Gallery one day, assiduously stitching away at their needlework to counter allegations that an interest in public affairs made women unfeminine. Hearing Henry Fish state that women did not want the vote, they instantly passed a petition round the gallery, saying that that was exactly what they wanted, and obtaining 68 signatures.

Or suffragist stalwart Kate Edger, a formidable presence in the movement and the first woman in the British Empire to graduate from a university. Studying for her maths degree in Auckland, she described her university college as “a disused military hut, the floor of which is not quite safe to tread on, the roof of which is open to the sky, and which, as a residence, would be simply uninhabitable”.

Glimpses like these of conditions and mindsets in late-Victorian New Zealand make the achievements of our early women all the more remarkable.

Although the suffrage story is often the stuff of passion and excitement, Hutching’s clear expository style is no-frills – plain and simple, calm and easy. If I were to be finicky, I would wonder why a couple of subheads suddenly appear in chapter three, and a stray one in the opening chapter, as it tends to give the appearance of insufficient editing.

Leading the Way seems a natural acquisition for school libraries. Any history book needs a comprehensive index, however, and the absence of any index in this volume is a real hindrance to its practical use.

Nevertheless, it makes a worthwhile contribution to the literature of suffrage. Some of the ground it covers has been chronicled previously by historians Patricia Grimshaw, Charlotte Macdonald, Margaret Lovell-Smith, Roberta Nicholls and others, but there’s plenty of room for this one. The women’s suffrage story is a gripping tale of the unfolding of minds and the blossoming of civil rights; it’s our story and we can retell it with pride.


Dale Williams in a Waikanae reviewer. 


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