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Women Vote!

Book Review
The Women’s Suffrage Petition, Te Petihana Whakamana Pōti Wahine 1893
Archives New Zealand/National Library (Bridget Williams Books, $30)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

wsp-001This 100 page A4 sized book is one of three published in connection with the establishment of the He Tohu exhibition in the National Library where the 1835 Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Waitangi and the 1893 Petition for Women’s Suffrage (the third such petition) are now housed.

I learned a lot from the 10 page introduction by Professor Barbara Brookes which set the petition in the context in terms of men’s electoral rights and of women’s rights more broadly, in both Britain and New Zealand. Women were largely ignored in relation to the 1835 Declaration and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, even though in Māori society there were women of chiefly rank who could have participated.  Brookes outlines the gradual broadening of the suffrage by the abolition of the property requirement and the inclusion of Māori men. Married women gained property rights in New Zealand in 1884. The growing temperance movement underpinned many women’s commitment to seeking the vote. Some two-thirds of all New Zealand women exercised their right to vote in the November 1893 election, only two months after the bill became law, 125 years ago this September.

The introduction is followed by potted biographies of 161 of the 24,000 signatories, drawn from throughout the country, roughly in proportion to the number of women there who signed the petition. In South Dunedin over 50% of women signed.  It is estimated there were up to 6000 signatories in the sheets that have been lost.

Women queuing to vote outside an Auckland polling booth, 1899 (p14)

Women queuing to vote outside an Auckland polling booth, 1899 (p14)

The compilers of the list worked to ensure a representative selection from various walks of life to demonstrate the diversity of women who signed. I was pleased to see several familiar names, amongst them Learmonth Dalrymple who ran a seven year campaign that in 1871 led to the establishment of the high school I went to (Otago Girls’ High School) and its first principal, Margaret Burns, and a subsequent principal, Maria Marchant. Other signatories profiled here include Kate Edgar, the first woman in the Commonwealth to obtain a Bachelor’s degree and Maud Reeves, a foundation pupil of Christchurch Girls’ High School. The list is not devoid of scandal, as it includes Sarah Macfie, a publican, who had two children by another man after her husband deserted her. Several signatories lived on until the 1950s and one, Ethel Alcorn, died in 1974 aged 104.

(l to r from top) Kate Sheppard, Lucy Masey Smith, Caroline Freeman, Catherine Fulton, Emily Hill and husband, Lydia Williams, Ada Wells , Lucy Wing, Jacobina Luke, Rachel Reynolds   (frontispiece)

(l to r from top) Kate Sheppard, Lucy Masey Smith, Caroline Freeman, Catherine Fulton, Emily Hill and husband, Lydia Williams, Ada Wells , Lucy Wing, Jacobina Luke, Rachel Reynolds (frontispiece)

Apart from Barbara Brookes’s introduction, much of the work that went into this book is relatively anonymous.  This is surprising and disappointing.  It is not clear who selected the women to be included; there is no editor mentioned on the cover and only institutions are listed on the title page.  In the Acknowledgements at the back, Briar Barry at Story Inc. is credited with researching and writing over 100 of the biographies; for such substantial authorship surely she deserved more than this mention.  Many other contributors are also named.

If women you are interested in are not here, you can check the signatories (almost all women) at the National Library on the digital version which has a search facility.