125th anniversary of Suffrage in New Zealand

Women win the right to vote

19 September 1893

Women’s suffrage memorial, Christchurch (Jock Phillips, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

When the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. As women in most other democracies – including Britain and the United States – did not win the right to vote until after the First World War, New Zealand’s world leadership in women’s suffrage became a central part of our image as a trailblazing ‘social laboratory’.

The passage of the Act was the culmination of years of agitation by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and other organisations. As part of this campaign, a series of massive petitions were presented to Parliament; those gathered in 1893 were together signed by almost a quarter of the adult female population of New Zealand (see 28 July).

As in 1891 and 1892, the House of Representatives passed an electoral bill that would grant the vote to all adult women. Once again, all eyes were on the upper house, the Legislative Council, where those two measures had foundered. Liquor interests, worried that female voters would favour their prohibitionist opponents, petitioned the Council to reject the bill. Suffragists responded with mass rallies and a flurry of telegrams to members. 

New Premier Richard Seddon and other opponents of women’s suffrage duly tried to sabotage the bill, but this time their interference backfired. Two opposition legislative councillors who had previously opposed women’s suffrage changed their votes to embarrass Seddon. On 8 September, the bill was passed by 20 votes to 18.

More than 90,000 New Zealand women went to the polls on 28 November 1893. Despite warnings from suffrage opponents that ‘lady voters’ might be harassed at polling booths, the atmosphere on election day was relaxed, even festive.

Even so, women had a long way to go to achieve political equality. They would not gain the right to stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female MP was not elected until 1933 (see 13 September). Today women remain under-represented in Parliament, making up 38 per cent of the MPs elected in 2017.