First woman mayor in British Empire elected

29 November 1893

Elizabeth Yates, c. 1893 (Enos Silvenus Pegler, Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-NEG-C17351)

By becoming mayor of Onehunga, Auckland, Elizabeth Yates struck another blow for women’s rights in local-body polls held the day after the first general election in which women could vote.

Elizabeth’s husband, Captain Michael Yates, had been a member of the Onehunga Borough Council since 1885 and was mayor from 1888 until 1892, when ill health forced his retirement. The following year Elizabeth, who was a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement (see 19 September), accepted nomination as mayor. After a ‘spirited contest’, she defeated her only opponent, local draper Frederick Court, by just 13 votes to become the first ‘lady mayor’ in the British Empire.

Yates’s victory was big news in New Zealand and around the empire, and she received congratulations from both Premier Richard Seddon and Queen Victoria. But her reign was short: opponents undermined her leadership and she was soundly defeated at the next mayoral election, on 28 November 1894. Yates served as a borough councillor from 1899 to 1901 and died in 1918.