New Zealand's Political Revolution: Women's Right to Vote

New Zealand: Pioneers of Women's Suffrage

On September 19, 1893, Governor Lord Glasgow signed a groundbreaking Electoral Act into law, making New Zealand the world's first self-governing country to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

New Zealand's Political Revolution: Women's Right to Vote
International Women's Day, 8 March

In many other democracies, such as Britain and the United States, women did not secure the right to vote until after the First World War. New Zealand's pioneering role in women's suffrage became a central part of its identity as a forward-thinking 'social laboratory.'

This achievement was the result of years of dedicated work by suffrage campaigners, notably led by Kate Sheppard. They collected massive petitions in 1891, 1892, and 1893, urging Parliament to grant women the vote. Kate Sheppard's significant contribution to New Zealand's history has been honored on the $10 note.

Today, the idea that women cannot or should not vote is entirely foreign to New Zealanders. In 2022, there were 61 women MPs, constituting 51% of Parliament. In 2023, for the first time, the cabinet had equal numbers of men and women, with the majority of ministers being women.

Furthermore, women have occupied all of the nation's significant constitutional roles, including Prime Minister, Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Attorney-General, and Chief Justice.


In late 19th-century New Zealand, women's suffrage emerged as a significant political issue. Initially, women were banned from political involvement, reflecting European societies. However, public opinion shifted in the latter half of the century. After dedicated efforts by suffrage campaigners led by Kate Sheppard, New Zealand became the world's first nation to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections with the Electoral Bill receiving Royal Assent on September 19, 1893.

Women voted for the first time on November 28, 1893 (Māori electorate elections on December 20). In 1893, Elizabeth Yates made history by becoming the first woman in the British Empire to hold the position of Mayor, serving in Onehunga. In the 21st century, there are more eligible female voters than males, and women also vote at a higher rate.

Early campaign and Supports:

In Polynesian and European aristocratic societies, women could attain formal political status through ancestry. However, charismatic women had limited direct influence in Polynesian and Māori societies due to restrictions on speaking at certain community meetings.

The New Zealand suffrage movement, inspired by similar groups in the British Empire and the United States, began in the late 19th century. The right to vote was primarily pursued to enhance social morality, women's safety, and overall quality of life.

"An appeal to the men of New Zealand," written by Mary Müller in 1869 under a pen name, was in favor of women's suffrage. It was one of the first pamphlets on the topic in New Zealand and aimed to encourage men to support giving women the right to vote. This publication marked an early effort to promote women's suffrage in the country's history.

Mary Ann Colclough (known as Polly Plum) was a prominent advocate for women's rights, including suffrage, in the 1870s. John Larkins Cheese Richardson played a key role in promoting women's equality, allowing women to enroll at the University of Otago in 1871 and removing other barriers to their entry. Several politicians, including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel and William Fox, supported women's suffrage.

Political Duplicity and Challenges:

In the early 1890s, some people didn't want women to vote. They worried it might change how men and women acted, and they were afraid women might support making alcohol illegal. The alcohol industry talked to friendly politicians and made their own petitions against women voting.

The link between the women's suffrage movement and the push for alcohol prohibition caused some challenges. Some people thought that the suffragists were too strict and serious about moral issues, so they were often portrayed as being too strict in the local media.

New Zealand's Political Revolution: Women's Right to Vote
Image Source: Google, Image By: NDLA

There were politicians, like MP Henry Fish, who were connected to the alcohol industry, and they didn't want women to have the right to vote. They feared that if women could vote, they might support laws to ban alcohol, which would hurt the alcohol business. He paid people to get signatures against it in pubs. Here Pubs are establishments where alcoholic beverages are served, and people gather for socializing. However, it's worth noting that some of those signatures were fraudulent.

The government at that time, led by Premier John Ballance, couldn't agree on women voting. Ballance thought it was okay, but he worried that women might vote for his political rivals. Some of his Cabinet members, like Richard Seddon, who was connected to the alcohol industry, really didn't want women to vote too.

So, this connection between women's suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol created conflicts and made some politicians oppose giving women the right to vote.

In 1891 and 1892, the House of Representatives passed laws that would let all adult women vote. But the people against it added tricky changes in the Legislative Council, a more conservative group, and stopped the laws both times.

Victory at last and Women at the Polls:

The real challenge was in the Legislative Council. The liquor industry wanted the bill rejected. Suffragists held rallies, sent telegrams, and gave white camellias to supporters in Parliament. Here White camellias were a symbol of support for women's suffrage in New Zealand. Suffragists gave these white flowers to their supporters in Parliament as a way to show their solidarity with the cause.

New Zealand's Political Revolution: Women's Right to Vote
Image Source: Google, Image By: Wikimedia Commons

Seddon and others tried to stop the bill secretly, but it didn't work this time. Two opposition councilors changed their votes to embarrass Seddon. On September 8, 1893, the bill passed with 20 votes to 18.

The fight wasn't over. Anti-suffrage petitions circulated, and some councilors asked the governor not to approve the law. In the end, on September 19, 1893, Lord Glasgow signed the bill into law. All women aged 21 and older, including Māori, could now vote.

Suffragists celebrated, and women's rights activists worldwide congratulated New Zealand. However, it took until 1919 for New Zealand women to be allowed to run for Parliament, and the first female Member of Parliament wasn't elected until 1933, 40 years after women got the right to vote.

An Illustration of History and Further advances:

16 January 1894, Elizabeth Yates made history as the first woman to become a mayor in the British Empire. However, women couldn't be elected to the House of Representatives until 1919. It was only on 13 September, 1933, during a by-election, that Elizabeth McCombs became the first woman to win an election. She succeeded her late husband in the Lyttelton seat. Women had to wait until 1941 to be considered for appointments to the New Zealand Legislative Council, which is the Upper House of Parliament. In August 1989, Helen Clark achieved another milestone by becoming the first female Deputy Prime Minister.


Women's suffrage, also known as woman suffrage, refers to the legal provision of voting rights to women in national or local elections. New Zealand made history by becoming the world's first self-governing nation to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1893. Ongoing political analysis in New Zealand also demonstrates that women's participation in state governance is one of the fastest-growing trends globally. The progress of women in New Zealand is serving as an inspiration for women's empowerment around the world.

We are all human. Women are our mothers, sisters, wives, or children. Therefore, every individual possesses equal rights as human beings. It's crucial to remember that all creations in the world are naturally valuable; half are crafted by women, and half are crafted by men.