Women's History: Kate Sheppard

New Zealand is a rather odd place for women, and it really always has been. Socially we still have a lot of work to do, many would argue that New Zealand is a very socially advanced country for women, but having lived the other side of that my eyes have been opened to a lot of suffering that women in my country still go through daily with little continued support. However politically New Zealand women have worked hard to keep women in parliament from the very start and as of right now we have a wonderful feminist prime-minister Helen Clark.

The political advancement of women in New Zealand was bought about by a handful of courageous women, particularly Kate Sheppard. Kate was born in Liverpool, England in 1847. After her fathers death the family moved to New Zealand in 1868 settling in Christchurch (my home town) a few years later, where Kate married and had one son.

Kate Shepard had received a good education in England and was a strong member of her church. She was an active woman and was known by other women around Christchurch as one of the first cyclists in the area. She didn’t like the idea that women should sit about looking pretty and not get out and live, this inspiring many other Christchurch women to join her. In 1885 Kate was one of the founding members of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Through this union Kate approached many issues that were facing New Zealand women at the time, such as contraception, abuse, Corsets crushing the organs, and divorce and guardianship.

Kate was an amazing and convincing writer, she wrote many articles and letters to politicians on the subject of women’s suffrage, and organised petitions which eventually were signed by almost a third of New Zealand Women, asking for the right to vote. Through such letters Kate managed to gain support of many back bench politicians and one politician who became a strong ally John Hall, who introduced the first women’s suffrage bill to parliament. In 1893, New Zealand Women were given full voting rights, making us the first country in the world to do so and inspiring women in other countries to do the same.

Kates work did not end there, and she went on to gather as many women as she could to enrol to vote in the next election, even reaching members in very secluded places in New Zealand to make sure all Women were able and aware that they could now vote for change in the next election. Kate was now known throughout the colonies as the woman who managed to get New Zealand Women the vote, and was in high demand to speak in these other countries about her success. In 1896 she was elected President of the National council of Women a role in which she served 3 years. She was also a writer for the first New Zealand Newspaper to be entirely run by women, ‘The White Ribbon’.

Kate tested many social barriers of the times through her personal and political life, and was and still is an inspiration to New Zealand Women and is represented on our $10 note. Kate showed that women were not incapable of thinking politically, as was the general argument of the time, and were valued members of society. My favourite piece of writing from Kate is just a small quote:

"We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’. We want to be natural just for a change … we must be ourselves at all risks."

I hope Kate is always remembered not only for her work to bring change to New Zealand women by gaining the vote, but for her pride of being a woman, at a time where being a woman was seen as a weakness, which I think is very inspiring.