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.
On the 10th October 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose members came to be known as suffragettes, was founded at the Manchester home of Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst. Frustrated by the lack of progress made by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from whom the group had split, the WSPU soon became known for its militant and sometimes violent actions under the motto “Deeds, not words”.
The WSPU did not seek universal suffrage, rather votes for women on the same basis as votes for men. Considering many men at the time were denied the vote due to the property qualifications, the proposals by the WSPU were seen by some not as “votes for women” but “votes for ladies”. The WSPU even split from the Labour Party after Labour voted in favour of universal suffrage, leading the suffragettes to became more explicitly middle-class.
However, the actions of the suffragettes soon brought into question the traditional ideas of ladylike behavior as they were routinely arrested for various activities that were designed to shock the refined members of the establishment. It was to distinguish these actions from the more genteel suffrage groups that the Daily Mail newspaper reporter Charles Hands coined the term ‘suffragette’ to describe members of the WSPU.
Actions such as window breaking and arson routinely saw members of the WSPU imprisoned, where they would often go on hunger strike and be subjected to force-feeding by the authorities. However, the best known action is probably that of Emily Davison who was killed after stepping in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
On the 4th June 1913, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was hit by King George V’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby after she stepped onto the track. She died four days later from a fractured skull and other internal injuries.
Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, and soon began to take part in their militant and confrontational activities that were designed to win the right to vote for women. She quickly developed a reputation as a particularly violent campaigner, and was imprisoned nine times for various illegal activities. During her prison sentences she went on hunger strike, and so was subjected to force-feeding by the prison authorities.
The Epson Derby is a highlight of the British horseracing calendar, and historians agree that Davison wanted to use the event to draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement. Newsreel footage of the event showed Davison ducking under the barrier and running onto the track as the horses began to race past her. She tried to grab the bridle of one of the last horses – which happened to be the King’s horse, Anmer – but was thrown to the ground by the force of the horse and trampled by its hooves.
Most people hold the view that Davison did not intend to martyr herself, but rather to attach a Votes For Women scarf to the horse. Various pieces of evidence support this view, including the return portion of a train ticket found in her purse. However, she did not share her plan with anyone so her true intentions will never be known.