This Week in History: 19 September 1893 New Zealand became the first country to grant women’s suffrage

Women in New Zealand achieved suffrage in 1893 – far earlier than any other liberal democracy. This day in 1893 marked a watershed moment in the history of women’s rights. This small, self-governing colony setting an example that would soon be followed by nations around the globe.

That the change occurred when it did was due to the new opportunities that were already opening up to wealthy and middle-class women in education, medicine, and religion; it therefore made sense that women’s sights would soon turn to their legal and political rights.

Inspired by the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s arguments for equal rights, British suffragists as well as the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the US, Kate Sheppard, the leader of the suffrage movement, set up a New Zealand branch of the WCTU in 1885.

Prior to this, there had been bills and amendments supported by a number of prominent politicians, which had suggested extending the vote to female taxpayers, but it was not until the formation of the WCTU in the mid-1880s that the suffragist movement began to rally public support. Under Kate Sheppard, the WCTU and other campaigners organised a series of petitions to parliament, gathering 32,000 signatures from 1891 to 1893.

Due to public support and the depth of feeling behind this movement, in September 1893, Queen Victoria approved the bill that would enfranchise women. And so, Sheppard’s dream that “all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex… be overcome” took a step closer to reality. Sadly, it was not until 1919 that women could stand for parliament, and the first female MP would not be elected until 1933.

Image: LSE Library via Flickr

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