Every New Zealand woman over the age of 21 was able to vote in the world’s first general election in a self-governing colony.
The issue of women’s suffrage in New Zealand began to gain momentum in the second half of the 19th century. Like in other countries, women in New Zealand had been excluded from political life. Drawing strength from the broader American and northern European movements for women’s rights, some of New Zealand’s leading suffrage campaigners argued that equal rights for women were necessary for the moral improvement of society.
The New Zealand branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a driving force behind the movement, which was energised by campaigners such as Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller. By the start of 1893 they had secured widespread support for women’s suffrage, as shown through the thousands of names that appeared on petitions.
After previous attempts to pass bills to give women the right to vote had failed to make it through Parliament, the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition led to a new Electoral Bill that would grant suffrage to women of all races easily passing through the Lower House. Although the Upper House was divided on the issue, a late switch by two councillors who had originally opposed the bill led to it passing by 20 votes to 18 on 8 September 1893. Lord Glasgow signed it into law 11 days later, enabling women to vote in the general election. The European part of the election took place on 28 November and saw 65% of all eligible New Zealand women turn out to vote.
Exactly 26 years later, on 28 November 1919, Lady Astor became the first elected British female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons.