The power of one of the world’s most influential women’s organizations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was manifested most particularly in New Zealand, where campaigning for women’s suffrage was organized among its ranks from the late 1880s. Much of the smooth running of the WCTU campaign can be credited to the exemplary efficiency of its outstanding propagandist on suffrage, Kate Sheppard, who headed its Franchise and Legislative Department, which organized the suffrage campaign across branches of the WCTU throughout New Zealand. As a pivotal figure in one of the shortest and most effective suffrage campaigns fought anywhere in the world, Sheppard became one of the first women in the world to win the vote—in 1893—twenty years or more before most other women.
Sheppard was born in Liverpool of Scottish parents. She grew up on Islay in Scotland. Her father, a lawyer, died in 1862, leaving her mother with five children to support. After Sheppard’s elder sister emigrated to Australia, the rest of the family followed in 1868. She married a Christchurch shopkeeper and city councilor who was a member of her local Trinity Congregational Church in 1871. She had a reasonably comfortable domestic life, teaching Sunday school and Bible classes and becoming active in the local Ladies’ Association. She embraced the temperance movement when it was established in New Zealand by American Mary Clement Leavitt in 1885.
The temperance crusade prompted Sheppard’s first feminist stirrings; initially they were reflected in an advocacy of the physical emancipation of women through exercise. She was a dress reformer and cycling enthusiast and one of the first women seen on a bicycle in Christchurch. She began to question the lack of political and civil status of women, who, she argued, were classified along with juveniles, criminals, and lunatics. Without women being given a political voice, she felt that social reform could not be effected.
The first appeal in New Zealand on women’s rights had come from Mary Müller, under the alias of “Femina,” in her 1869 work, An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand. It had initiated the campaign for reform of the property laws affecting married women, but it was the temperance crusade that had brought with it the mass mobilization of women in defense of family values and social purity, with many working to raise the age of consent, to reform divorce laws, and to foster social work among the poor and destitute.
After 1887, when Sheppard was appointed National Franchise Superintendent of the WCTU, her work for temperance drew her into the suffrage campaign and helped her forge important links with suffrage and temperance workers in Britain and the United States. In 1888 she published a pamphlet, “Ten Reasons Why the Women of New Zealand Should Vote,” which was regularly quoted in debates on the subject and in which she drew on the arguments of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 work, The Subjection of Women. A petition on women’s suffrage in 1888 called into question the definition of the word elector in existing legislation. Sheppard began touring New Zealand, speaking on suffrage and organizing four further petitions. Several years of debate and campaigning followed in the House of Representatives, with the WCTU keeping up the pressure thanks to Sheppard’s skills as a propagandist. She orchestrated press coverage of the campaign; printed suffrage articles and pamphlets; and efficiently coordinated meetings, the distribution of literature, and the lobbying of members of Parliament (MPs), as well as writing countless letters. In 1888 she won the important support for the suffrage cause of Liberal MP Sir John Hall and cooperated closely with him thereafter. In 1890 and 1891, the WCTU organized two more petitions on women’s suffrage, which were presented to Parliament by Sir John. In 1892, a fourth petition contained 20,274 signatures—but all to no avail.
In order to galvanize the maximum support for yet another assault on Parliament, Sheppard took up a regular women’s page in the fortnightly temperance journal, the Prohibitionist, in 1891, publicizing the suffrage campaign under the pen name of “Penelope.” At the head of a team of 600 volunteers, she organized a final, mammoth petition, sending WCTU members out into remote rural areas to gather signatures for a document that would be 766 feet long and contain 31,872 signatures, representing nearly one-third of the entire female population. It was presented to the New Zealand legislature in 1893 by Sir John Hall and passed by the lower house despite huge pressure from the antisuffrage lobby, which had garnered considerable support from the liquor trade, with opponents setting up counterpetitions for signature in public houses and offering payment to those who went out and collected them. The lower house was in favor of women’s suffrage, however, and the governor of New Zealand gave his assent to an Electoral Act on women’s suffrage on 19 September 1893, making women in New Zealand the first in the British colonies to be awarded suffrage and the first in the world to be given the vote in national elections. Only ten weeks later, they exercised that right in a general election, at which an estimated 65 percent of newly enfranchised women cast their votes.
Sheppard followed up the suffrage triumph in New Zealand with a visit to the United Kingdom and the Continent in 1894, during which she spoke on the New Zealand suffrage campaign and met with British suffragists. She was asked to establish a New Zealand branch of the International Council of Women (ICW) and was elected its first president (1896–1899). With the help of Lady Anna Stout, Sheppard established the National Council of Women, New Zealand (NCW) and turned it into a powerful lobby for social reform, through which she advocated equal status for marriage partners, mothers’ and fathers’ equal rights in the control and care of children, improvements to divorce legislation, and various health and educational reforms. Through the NCW’s official monthly journal, the White Ribbon, which she edited from 1895 to 1903, she also furthered the cause of women’s election to Parliament (achieved in 1919, although the first woman was not elected until 1933) and women’s rights to a share of their husband’s income; she also continued to advocate dress reform and favored birth control.
In the 1900s Sheppard began suffering ill health and was forced to reduce her activities and turn down the chance of becoming franchise superintendent for the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She continued to write, publishing Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand in 1907, and maintained a considerable correspondence with international feminists and suffragists such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Carrie Chapman Catt. She became increasingly close to her old friends William and Jennie Lovell Smith and, after her husband decided to live in England, in 1905 began sharing a home with them, which prompted much speculation about the true nature of their relationship. In 1925, by which time both she and William had lost their respective spouses, they married.
Noted for her warmth, charm, and tolerance, Sheppard was also a talented and persuasive speaker who favored women’s greater access to education and vocational training, to economic independence and a career, and to a role in all aspects of public life, including the legislature, police, and judiciary. Her contribution to New Zealand women’s history is commemorated in the Kate Sheppard Memorial on the banks of the Avon River at Christchurch. Her face can also be seen on the New Zealand $10 note. A useful account of Kate Sheppard’s life and suffrage campaign can be found at http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/sheppard.html.
See also Catt, Carrie Chapman; Fawcett, Millicent Garrett; Stout, Lady Anna.