Women vote in first general election

28 November 1893

Women voting in 1893 (Alexander Turnbull Library, PA1-o-550-34-1)

New Zealand women went to the polls for the first time, just 10 weeks after the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed the Electoral Act 1893 into law, thereby making this country the first in the world to give all adult women the vote.

Despite the short timeframe for voter registration, 109,461 women – about 84% of the adult female population – enrolled to vote in the election. On polling day 90,290 of them cast their votes, a turnout of 82% (far higher than the 70% turnout among registered male voters). There were then no electoral rolls for the Māori seats, but women cast perhaps 4000 of the 11,269 Māori votes that year.

Despite warnings from opponents of women’s suffrage that ‘lady voters’ might be harassed at polling booths, election day passed off in a relaxed, festive atmosphere. According to a Christchurch newspaper, the streets ‘resembled a gay garden party’ – ‘the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully’.