With the Kiwis on the verge of thoroughly beating the good old US of A and taking away America's Cup right in the University of California's very own backyard (aka San Francisco Bay), it seems an appropriate time to offer thanks to the great country of New Zealand. No, not for wiping us out in sailing. Not even for gifting us with some great Cal athletes, such as Olympians Lauren Boyle (swimming), Betsy Hassett (soccer), and Sean Marks (basketball -- also the first New Zealander to play in the NBA). No, it is appropriate to celebrate today as the 120th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first nation on earth to recognize full and equal voting rights for women.
Prior to September 19, 1893, women had had some restricted and/or short-lived voting rights in other parts of the world. Swedish women had conditional voting rights from 1718 to 1771. In colonial America, women could vote in some local elections, with Lydia Taft gaining the distinction of becoming the first woman in America to exercise the franchise when she voted at a town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts on October 30, 1756. Unmarried women who owned property were given the right to vote in New Jersey in 1776 -- a right which was taken away from them in 1807.
The first significant modern effort in any country to gain universal voting rights for women was begun in United States in the 1840s, led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. Their first great success came in 1869, when the Wyoming Territory recognized equal voting rights for women. Of course, because Wyoming was still a territory, neither the women nor the men in Wyoming could vote for President or Congress.
A few other countries, cities, and localities gave limited or temporary voting rights to women in the 1870s and 1880s. But it was not until a group of women temperance advocates in New Zealand, led by Kate Sheppard, Anne Ward, and Mary Anne Muller, decided to turn their efforts toward votes for women in the late1880s, that the women of any country were finally able to gain equal and permanent voting rights nationwide. Kate Sheppard is the best remembered of the leaders, in part because of her powerful speaking ability and her outstanding skills in organizing and motivating followers, in part because of her charm, good humor, and patient resolve. But most of all, Sheppard's success came from her understanding that the movement needed to be broadened to one of human rights. As she famously proclaimed: "All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome."
As a frontier society, the role of educated women in building New Zealand was far more highly regarded than in older, more settled societies. Indeed, it was a New Zealand woman who received the first university degree anywhere in the British Empire, and by 1873 half the university students in the country were women. But the movement did not rely solely on the educated elite. It made a point of drawing in women from all classes and backgrounds.
In the 1880s, New Zealand suffrage supporters began a sophisticated campaign of argument and persuasion, writing tracts and speaking at public meetings. In 1887, they succeeded in getting a suffrage bill introduced in Parliament. It lost, but by a surprisingly narrow margin. Then, borrowing the tactics of the anti-slavery movements of the preceding generation, they began circulating mass petitions for women to sign and submit to Parliament -- the very act of signing a petition providing the first opportunity for women to have a political voice. The first petition, submitted in 1891, had 10,000 signatures, in a country with a population of less than 130,000 adult women. The second petition, submitted in 1892, had 20,000 signatures. And in 1893, Kate Sheppard and her organization submitted a petition carrying 31,871 signatures -- a quarter of all the adult women in the country, and the largest petition that had ever been submitted to the New Zealand Parliament. The women created even more of a sensation by bringing the petition into the Parliament building and unrolling it there -- all 300 yards of it. To this borrowed tactic of petitions, they added a new one, which embraced modern technology: the women began bombarding members of Parliament with telegrams, demanding equality.
They were opposed by an anti-suffrage movement, secretly funded by the liquor interests who feared women voters would restrict alcohol sales. The opponents' counter-petition drive fell flat when it was learned that men were being given free drinks in exchange for signing, and their arguments of "if women are at the polls, who will rock the cradle?" did not gain much traction.
Not everyone favored votes for women
The 1893 suffrage bill passed by a wide margin in the lower house, and then squeaked through the upper house 20-18. On September 19, 1893, the Royal Assent was given by the governor, Lord Glasgow, and women's suffrage became law. With a general election only 10 weeks away, Kate Sheppard and the rest of the women's suffrage supporters went into high gear to get as many women as possible registered and to the polls. And despite the short time period, over two-thirds of New Zealand women turned out to vote in the November 28, 1893 general election, putting an end to the oft-heard argument that "most women" really didn't want to vote.
The successful tactics of the New Zealanders were closely studied by women's suffrage supporters in other countries, including the United States. Kate Sheppard herself traveled throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States meeting with local suffrage leaders and lecturing about New Zealand's successful tactics in gaining votes for women. But progress remained slow in the rest of the world. South Australia did grant women full suffrage in 1895, with the rest of Australia following in 1902. It was not until 1907 that Finland became the first European country to grant women equal voting rights, followed by Norway in 1913. In the United States, women obtained the right to vote in a number of states before the 19th Amendment guaranteed that right to all American women in 1920. Women in Colorado obtained equal voting rights by an 1893 ballot measure. It was followed by Idaho and Utah (1896), Washington (1910), and California (1911). In all, 15 of the 48 states had recognized full women's suffrage before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Several countries were surprisingly late in recognizing equal suffrage rights. While Canada adopted full women's suffrage in 1918, Quebec was excluded, and did not allow its women to vote until 1940. After one of the most acrimonious suffrage struggles anywhere, Britain granted voting rights in 1918, but only to women over 30 who met certain property qualifications (for men it was 21, with no property qualifications). British women had to wait until 1928 for equality. France did not allow women to vote until 1945. And it was not until 1971 that Switzerland became the last western democracy to permit women to vote. Bizarrely, some restrictions on voting in Swiss local elections remained until 1990!
Sadly, there are still many places where people are denied the right to vote in practice because of gender or race, or where the right to vote, although universal, is of little or no value to anyone because of the dictatorial nature of the regime. But happily, there is only one country left on earth, Saudi Arabia, where women are still officially denied all voting rights. And in 2011 the King of Saudi Arabia announced that women would have the right to vote and run for office beginning in 2015 (for whatever that right may be worth in a fundamentally undemocratic country).
All the women and men who worked so hard for so long to make equal women's suffrage a reality deserve our thanks. But since New Zealand was first, and today is the 120th Anniversary of that great event, it's a good time to say: Thanks, Kiwis! (And please take good care of our Cup until we get it back.)