Elizabeth Yates

Elizabeth Yates

Elizabeth Yates (1840–48?–1918))

In 1893 Elizabeth Yates became the first female mayor elected in the British Empire.

Elizabeth and her husband Michael were long-term residents of Onehunga and active participants in the politics of the borough. When Michael was mayor from 1888 to 1892, Elizabeth assisted him; one newspaper described her as the ‘power behind the throne’. [1] Elizabeth considered standing for mayor when Michael resigned due to poor health, but he advised against it. The following year, when ‘there seemed to be no chance of the right sort of man coming forward’, she stood for election. [2] Women ratepayers had been able to vote and stand in local body elections since the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1876.

An intelligent and forthright woman, Elizabeth had experience of political debates as a member of the Auckland Union Parliament (a debating society). As a property-owner, she had the right to stand for office. She also had connections with local business owners. Last but not least, her husband remained popular in Onehunga.

'The World's First Lady Mayor' (1900) from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.

Elizabeth was an advocate for women’s suffrage and was the first woman in her district to vote in the national elections of 1893. However, her electoral campaign was not directly connected to the suffrage movement. Her nomination for mayor was ‘simply in the interests of ratepayers’. [3] She was not a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and she did not support prohibition, stating that ‘it would be a burning shame to rob the working man of his beer’. [4] 

Elizabeth clearly saw women as equals of men, remarking that ‘women are quite as well able to legislate as men’. [5] A majority of the ratepayers of Onehunga agreed, and she won office by 120 votes to 107.

During her year as mayor, Elizabeth presided over the liquidation of the borough’s debt, the establishment of a sinking fund, a reorganisation of the fire brigade, and the upgrading of roads, footpaths and sanitation. There were, of course, challenges. Four councillors and the town clerk resigned immediately after her election. Council meetings were often dramatic, with large crowds present to witness altercations at the top table. Elizabeth’s disregard for the established rules and often tactless or dictatorial manner added to the conflict – and the entertainment.

Elizabeth Yates cartoon

Ashley Hunter cartoon, New Zealand Graphic, 7 April 1894, p. 324.

Voted out as mayor in 1894, Elizabeth served as a councillor from 1899 to 1901. She continued to court controversy and drama – the Auckland newspapers reported her disputes with other councillors almost gleefully – but she was always concerned with what was best for Onehunga.

It would be more than 60 years before the country’s second female mayor was elected. Even today, less than a fifth of New Zealand’s mayors are female. [6]

[1] New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, 25 November 1893, p. 7.

[2] ‘The World’s First Lady Mayor’, New Zealand Graphic, 16 December 1893, p. 507.

[3] ‘The Lady Mayor – What She Thinks of Civic Duties’, New Zealand Herald, 20 April 1894 (supplement), p. 4.

[4] ‘The World’s First Lady Mayor’, New Zealand Graphic, 16 December 1893, p. 507.

[5] ‘The World’s First Lady Mayor’, New Zealand Graphic, 16 December 1893, p. 507.

Further reading

Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote, Penguin Books (NZ), Auckland, 1993

Judith Devaliant, Elizabeth Yates: the first lady mayor in the British Empire, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, c. 1996

Janice C. Mogford. 'Yates, Elizabeth', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2y1/yates-elizabeth 

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