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On September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world where women could vote.
The Courier reporter Greta Yeoman looks at some of the South Canterbury women who signed the 1893 suffrage petition.
The 125th anniversary of this milestone will be commemorated around the country next month, including in further pieces in The Courier over the coming weeks.

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In 1893, more than 1300 South Canterbury women aged 21 or older, signed the suffrage petition given to Parliament that eventually won women the vote.

While it was not the first petition circulated by suffragists, it was the largest – amounting to almost 32,000 signatures – and the new Electoral Act was passed in early September 1893, 20 votes to 18.

Governor Lord Glasgow signed the Act into law on September 19 that year.

Historic . . . Timaru women put their names to the 1893 suffrage petition, as shown in this page of the document that has been digitised by Archives New Zealand. PHOTO: Archives New Zealand

Those who signed included Waimate resident Rose Anna Champion (nee Gain), the second wife of Richard Champion, one of the earliest settlers in the district.

Other signatories included Ann Elizabeth Dash, whose son George became a borough councillor.

Her daughter Sarah Ellen Dash, who was a schoolteacher, also signed the petition.

Several minister’s wives signed the petition, including Sarah Elizabeth Murray, the wife of Waimate Wesleyan Church minister the Rev Daniel James Murray, and Jane R. Gillies, who was married to the Rev William Gillies.

Worldwide suffrage

New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893.

Australia was the second country where women gained the right to vote, but this did not occur until 1902.

Aboriginal women and men, however, were both excluded from voting until 1962.

Finnish women won the vote in 1906, followed by Norway in 1913.

While Chinese women won the vote in their home country in 1949, Chinese men and women living in New Zealand could not vote here until 1951, as the law banned them from becoming citizens until then.

Canadian women, except for Canadian indigenous women, won the right to vote in 1917.

Canadian indigenous peoples got the vote in 1960.

American women did not receive the vote until 1920, Britain and Ireland until 1923 and Switzerland until 1971.

Women from Saudi Arabia voted in the first time in 2015.

The couple’s daughter Isabella also signed the petition.

Jane Donald Smalley, who was married to another Wesleyan minister, the Rev Joseph Smoult Smalley, in Waimate, was an active member of the suffrage campaign in South Canterbury.

She presented an address to the Waimate Debating Club in 1892 in support of women’s franchise and was also a lay preacher in the Wesleyan Church.

Timaru resident Margaret Jane Irwin was born in the town in 1865 and in 1892 married William John Hughes, a saddler.

The family lived for a time with the Toneycliffe family, who arrived from Ireland in 1875.

A “J. Toneycliffe”, probably Jane Toneycliffe, signed the petition but died only five years after gaining the right to vote.

Fellow Timaru resident Jane Young Hathaway (nee Scott) was married to Felix Hathaway, a coach painter.

They had two children, Felix David and Milbrow Jane.

As Milbrow Hathaway was born in 1883, she would have been too young to sign the petition but would have received the right to vote when she was old enough.

Only three women are listed as having signed the petition in Temuka, Annie Stewart, A. Langridge and Mrs E. Lynch.

Seven women signed the petition in Geraldine.


History of suffrage in NZ

New Zealand’s first election for Parliament was held in 1853.

Elizabeth McCombs

While most European and Maori men had the right to vote in that election, they had to be individual landowners – and most Maori land was owned communally rather than under individual titles.

In 1867, the Maori Representation Act allowed all Maori men aged 21 and over to vote for four newly created Maori seats in Parliament.

Maori women were able to vote for these seats after they gained suffrage in 1893, but along with all other women, they could not stand for Parliament until 1919.

Women contested various seats in Parliament but remained unsuccessful until 1933, when Labour’s Elizabeth McCombs was elected.

Mrs McCombs became New Zealand’s first female politician, after winning a by-election in Lyttelton triggered by the death of her husband, James McCombs.

In 1949, Iriaka Ratana became the first Maori woman to hold a seat in Parliament.

Chinese residents were not allowed to vote until 1951.

– Information sourced via nzhistory.govt.nz