A most persuasive document

Today, 125 years ago, the main women’s suffrage petition was tabled in Parliament. Mike Houlahan looks back at a struggle for voting rights in which Otago was front and centre. A mini documentary to go with this report is on odt.co.nz.

Weighing in at 546 pages and with more than 25,000 signatures, the 1893 suffrage petition looks the part when it comes to constitutional documents.

Presented to Parliament by Sir John Hall on August 11, 1893, the petition was a physical manifestation of changing public opinion — that the time for women to have the right to vote had come.

By 1893 petitioning had become a perennial pastime for suffragists — a similar petition in 1891 had drawn 9685 signatures, and the 1892 edition 18,724.

While Christchurch’s Kate Sheppard is commemorated on the $10 note and political intrigue centered on Wellington, Dunedin — then New Zealand’s largest city — was the engine room of the suffrage movement.

Otago/Southland, with 8901, provided the largest share of signatures on the 1893 petition, reflecting that votes for woman had been a fermenting issue in the province for years.

Historian Dorothy Page in her home office. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Historian Dorothy Page in her home office. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Many suffrage campaigners developed their campaigning skills as members of the Women’s Christian Temperance League, battling the demon drink.

Brewers had political influence and no interest in allowing temperance campaigners to succeed in banning booze — which saw many temperance activists regard gaining the vote as crucial to advancing their cause.

Otago (which included Southland after 1876) was one of the first provinces to allow women to vote in local body elections, and in 1878 then Dunedin MP Robert Stout failed in a bid to pass enfranchising legislation through Parliament.

Harriet Morison
Harriet Morison
Women also gained the right to sit on education boards, liquor licensing committees and hospital and charitable aid boards, but efforts by politicians in 1880, 1881, 1887 and 1890 to secure  women the Parliamentary vote came to nought.

Frustrated, suffragists turned to moral persuasion via petition.

After the petitions of 1891 and 1892 failed, 1893 was a critical year for the suffrage movement: it was an election year, and women wanted their say.

The previous year three Dunedin women, Harriet Morison, Marion Hatton and Helen Nicol, founded the first Women’s Franchise League, with Robert Stout’s wife Anna as its president.

As the new year dawned, the league threw itself into gathering the signatures for the 1893 petition — achieving an impressive total given the petition period ran just six months, from February to July.

Miss Morison, secretary of the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union (WCTU), was already a hardened campaigner for improved working conditions in the female-dominated trade.

She and Miss Nicol were both active members of the WCTU, a cause to which Mrs Hatton had already devoted years of service.

Despite their beliefs, they made a pragmatic choice to constitute the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) as a non-sectarian organisation campaigning solely for the vote for women.

Marion Hatton
Marion Hatton
"I suspect it might have been almost counter productive being so closely linked to temperance — there are references to heckling at public meetings," historian Dorothy Page said.

"They were quite different women, although they had common interests ... but I don’t know how close they were as friends."

The WFL had its first major success in Dunedin later that year, when it successfully derailed Henry Fish’s mayoral campaign.

A leading but controversial figure in local and national politics, Mr Fish was a vocal opponent of votes for women, and thus targeted by the WFL.

Mr Fish was narrowly defeated and did not hold back his frustration after the result was declared, telling 6000 people outside City Hall: "There has never in my experience been a system of such gross and scandalous persecution as I have been subjected to, and particularly do my remarks refer to three or four women in this town ... their conduct has been a disgrace to their sex."

"He was deeply established and had a strong following, particularly among working-class men and their families," Dr Page said.

"They were quite bitter in their opposition to him, but he played some  quite dirty tricks as well, including setting up a petition against suffrage, which a lot of women signed thinking it was pro-suffrage."

Helen Nicol
Helen Nicol
Invigorated, the WFL then turned its considerable energies to gathering signatures for the great petition.

"The sheer efficiency of the canvassing in Otago should not be underestimated," Dr Page said.

"They said at the beginning that they wanted to make sure every street and every house was canvassed.

"I’m not sure if they did, but the University of Otago Caversham project found that around 60% of the women in South Dunedin signed."

The petition achieved its objective, and saw another suffrage Bill introduced to the House of Representatives by Premier Richard Seddon — who did all in his considerable powers to defeat it.

It passed the House, but in the Legislative Council, New Zealand’s now abolished second chamber — where it was expected to fail — Mr Seddon overplayed his hand.

By pressuring a council member to vote against the Bill, Mr Seddon so incensed two nay voters that they switched sides, which saw the legislation pass.

That was not the end to the drama, as suffragists nervously watched the Governor-General  to  see if he would give assent.

Despite last-minute lobbying by the liquor industry, assent was granted on September 19, 1893.

On election day, November 28, Greymouth women Mrs McPherson and Mrs Benyon vied for the honour of being first woman to vote in a New Zealand general election — a claim to fame Mrs McPherson secured.

A day later Elizabeth Yates was elected Mayor of Onehunga, the first woman in the British Empire elected to such a position.

Robert Stout
Robert Stout
The first female MP, Elizabeth McCoombs, would not be voted in until 1933, but women’s political progress subsequently has been marked.

Few of those who signed the 1893 petition would have envisaged an unmarried Prime Minister taking time away from the job to have a baby.

Today the petition is on permanent display at the National Library in Wellington, alongside the 1835 Declaration of Independence and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

It can also be accessed online, and families of several signatories have appended biographies detailing their ancestors’ life stories — and ensuring their voices remain heard to this day.



The signatories

The 8000+ Otago/Southland signatories of the 1893 Suffrage Petition included. —

• Bridget Morrissey, Cashel St. Married in Australia at age 16, moved to Dunedin with her husband, lost two children to scarlet fever in 1876. Signed alongside her next door neighbour Mrs Mulrooney.

• Margaret Darlison, Leith St. Mother of nine, she kept house in Dunedin while husband Charles worked as a miner on the West Coast.

• Grace Fruhstuch, Melbourne St. Wife of Dusenius Fruhstuch, a Dane and gardener of Caversham mayor T K Sidey.

• Susannah Martinelli, George St. Widow of umbrella maker Andrew Martinelli, the third husband she outlived. She kept the business going after his death the previous year.

• Jane Louttet, Melville St. An Irish widow who migrated to New Zealand with her five children. Moved to Palmerston with her second husband, but moved back to Dunedin after they separated. Daughters Martha and Margaret also signed.

• Ada Shacklock, South Dunedin. Wife of John Shacklock, whose father established the Shacklock coal range firm. John went on to become mayor of South Dunedin, and of Dunedin in 1914.

• Ettie Coupar, London St. A keen suffragist, she signed the petition at least three times, as Ettie and as Margaretta, her full name. 

• Euphemia Given, Castle St. Signed alongside her sister Patience. Married draper Maxwell Fyfe in 1897 — his wife and child had died in a shipwreck three years earlier.

• Mary Bischiskie, Filleul St. Arrived in New Zealand on the Palmerston in 1872, married fellow Palmerston Polish migrant Julius after his wife died a year later. Three children were killed in a house fire in 1882, and a brewery they founded in Gore was also destroyed by fire.

• Isabella McLandress, Duncan St. Daughter of a bootmaker, she won a scholarship which afforded her the rare chance of obtaining a BA, and then an MA in Chemistry in 1890 — despite her father declaring bankruptcy. Had a long career as a teacher.

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