Wanganui Women's Political League

1893 – c.1902

Wanganui Women's Political League

1893 – c.1902

Theme: Political

Known as:

  • Wanganui Women's Franchise League
    1893 – 1893
  • Wanganui Women's Political League
    1893 – c.1902

This essay written by Bronwyn Labrum was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Wanganui Women's Political League (WWPL) provided a forum for political activity and education on issues of concern to women. Although closely linked to the National Council of Women (NCW), the league was a decidedly local expression of 'first wave' feminism.

Inaugurated toward the end of the struggle for women's suffrage, the WWPL began as the Wanganui Women's Franchise League (WWFL). It lacked a strong temperance connection, because of the weakness of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Wanganui and the driving vision of its founder, Margaret Bullock, writer, journalist and partner in her brother's newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. She was also a parliamentary correspondent, and her practical knowledge of the workings of government proved extremely useful to both the league and the NCW. She later became a prominent NCW executive member.

Margaret Bullock

Whanganui Regional Museum Collection.

Margaret Bullock, founder of the Wanganui Women's Political League.

The WWFL held its first meeting in June 1893, and Ellen Ballance, wife of the late Liberal premier, accepted the office of president until she left for England; Bullock, the first vice-president, then became president (1893-97), and remained on the committee until 1901. Jessie Williamson, another long-serving member of both the WWFL and the NCW executive, shared Bullock's interest in social welfare and was an early hospital board member.

The league initially focused on parliament, local politicians, and collecting signatures for the suffrage petition. At the end of May 1893, only 200 names were recorded; one month after the league's formation, 2806 signatures were counted between Hawera and Otaki. Links with other leagues were also fostered.

Once the vote was won, the renamed WWPL immediately set about getting women onto the electoral roll; in less than two months, 1460 women were enrolled locally.

After the 1893 election, league meetings moved on to the wider agenda of nineteenth century feminism, including its maternal basis and social purity ethos. Bullock argued: '. . . [When our| purpose is to fit ourselves for increased usefulness, for the better discharge of our duties to the state, and to each other, there should be no holding back.' [1] These 'duties' confirmed women's role as guardians of moral health and welfare: 'a world's regeneration will attest the fact'. [2]

The league decided to become a discussion group, its aims 'rather educative than aggressive'. [3] Ellen Ballance donated her husband's library, and it was expanded with money received from registering women for the electoral roll. This change in emphasis indicates the opposition which feminist groups encountered after 1893.

At monthly meetings, the topics discussed included familiar feminist concerns such as the liquor traffic—although regulation rather than prohibition remained the league's policy throughout the period; welfare issues, such as institutional reform, the work of charitable aid boards, illegitimate children, larrikinism, and the protection of young people; equal pay; marriage and divorce laws, and the question of economic independence for women; repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act; and general constitutional reform. In debating these issues, league members were not prepared to concede to other races and social groups the freedoms they claimed for women such as themselves; for instance, they supported restrictions on 'mongolian [Chinese] immigration' and the removal of parental rights from parents of illegitimate children.

The principal focus was the removal of 'women's disabilities'—civic and political discrimination. Members supported the mandatory appointment, and later the election, of women to charitable aid boards; the appointment of women inspectors to gaols, hospitals and asylums; and provision for women to sit on other local bodies.

The involvement of Bullock and Williamson strengthened the league's already close connection with the NCW, and the agendas for the NCW's annual conferences constituted much of the year's programme. Wanganui hosted the NCW's annual conference in 1901. League delegates, though bound to vote as instructed, expressed their particular interests as women from Wanganui, such as regulation of alcohol and a focus on welfare matters. In 1901, in response to a call from the North Canterbury Women Teachers' Association, urging women teachers to join their campaign for equal pay, the league helped to form a Women Teachers' Association in Wanganui, which aimed to secure 'a proper recognition of women's work'. [4]

The extent of WWPL membership is unknown, but activity evidently declined over time. Apathy was reported as a recurring problem. Although attendances at meetings were often described optimistically as 'steadily increasing', the 1898 annual report regretted that 'our excellent President still had to do the lion's share of the work'. [5] The league took an unexplained long recess in 1896, and in 1898 its library was transferred to the public library, where it was felt it would be of more use. The unthinkable in 1893 was suggested in 1900: that meetings should be thrown open to men as well as women, 'a step that would doubtless do much to popularise our work'. [6]

The last reported meeting, which some men did attend, occurred just two years later. As at the national level, any unity of purpose or interest among women that the suffrage campaign had temporarily provided was long gone, and there was no new generation of leaders ready to take up the fight. Bullock died in 1903 and Williamson moved to Christchurch the following year.

Bronwyn Labrum

Notes

[1] Yeoman, 3 June 1893, p. 6.

[2] Yeoman, 3 June 1893, p. 6.

[3] Yeoman, 1 1 August 1894, p. 10.

[4] This organisation was apparently short-lived. In July 1917, a new Wanganui WTA was inaugurated; it affiliated with the New Zealand WTA in 1924. See E. A. Chaplin, Our First Quarter Century 1901-1926: A Retrospect of the Women Teachers' Association of New Zealand, Willis & Aiken, Christchurch, 1926, p. 11.

[5] Yeoman, 27 August 1898, p. 5.

[6] White Ribbon, September 1900, p. 5.

Published sources

The WWPL's records have not survived; the main sources for this entry were the reports of its monthly meetings in the Yeoman, 1893-1902, and articles in The White Ribbon and The Prohibitionist in the same period.

Labrum, Bronwyn, '"For the better discharge of our duties"; Women's Rights in Wanganui 1893-1903', Women's Studies Journal, Vol. 6 Nos 1/2, 1990, pp. 136-52

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