Fantastic female role-models you’ve never heard of: No.3, Kate Sheppard

Leader of the first successful campaign anywhere in the world to get women the vote

Kids need role models. But more than that, they need role models to whom they can relate. How many kids today can relate with rather stuffy looking middle-aged, wealthy white men with huge sideburns and whiskers? Yet these are often the people we hold up as role models and put on banknotes. I am doing my own little bit to try to address this by bringing you a new ‘fantastic female role-model you’ve never heard of’ each fortnight. Previous weeks have looked at the world’s first ever computer programmer (Ada Lovelace) and a mixed-race Brazilian composer (Chiquinha Gonzaga) who was wildly successful in her lifetime, but who is hardly remembered now. This week I’m going to look at a pioneer of votes for all (not just women) who made her country the first to give women the vote. But, no, she isn’t a Pankhurst and, no, it wasn’t in the UK. This week our 'fantastic female role model you’ve never heard of' is Kate Sheppard: the woman who made New Zealand the first country to give women the vote.

So who was Kate?

Kate in 1905

Image attribution: Author unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kate Sheppard was a Scouser, that is to say, she came from Liverpool in north-west England. She was born there in 1847, but moved to New Zealand as a young woman when her mother emigrated there after her father died.

What did she do then?

Once she arrived in New Zealand, she became part of something called the ‘Temperance Movement’. This movement encouraged people to drink less alcohol or stop drinking it all together. Very soon, though, through talking to other women in her group, Kate became interested in the idea of votes for women. For her it wasn’t simply a political subject, but a question of what was morally right. Kate said at the time, "all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome." She quickly became a popular speaker on the topic and organised many events.

Hold on a second, women couldn’t vote in New Zealand at this time?

Women couldn’t vote in general elections in any democratic country at this time. What Kate was talking about was hugely controversial and campaigners in other countries had been put in prison.

OK. So what happened with Kate?

A newspaper cartoon of the presentation of the 1893 petition to parliament.

In 1887, Kate helped with the creation of the first women’s suffrage (voting) bill. It wasn’t passed, but this only encouraged Kate to work harder and the following year she published a pamphlet entitled ‘Why the women of N.Z. should vote’. This helped to gain more support for the cause and in 1891 she led a petition which was presented to the New Zealand parliament. Again, it failed, but Kate kept going. She led another petition the following year which, again, failed. Undeterred, in 1893 Kate launched another petition and this time she gained support in parliament for another women’s suffrage bill. And this time, the bill was passed.

Kate didn’t have long to celebrate - the 1893 general election was ten weeks away and no women were registered to vote. Kate and her colleagues from the Temperance Movement toured around the country (believe me this isn’t easy even today) getting women to register. In the election two-thirds of women cast a vote, which is incredible, particularly when you consider turn-outs for elections in the UK these days.

Why’s Kate so important?

Kate's image on the NZ$10 note

Kate was the leader of the women’s suffrage campaign in New Zealand. Without her perseverance, her charisma and her flair for organisation, women would not have received the vote as early as they did. Not only that, but the successful campaign made her an inspiration for other women’s suffrage movements, including in the US and UK. She worked with campaigners in both countries, particularly in the UK where she returned briefly to live in 1903-4. Kate was not only the woman who got women the vote in New Zealand. She started the process that saw women in all the world’s major democracies receive the vote over the next thirty years.

I hope you enjoyed this latest delve into the history books. If you want to find out more about me and my books and GET YOUR FREE EBOOK, sign up to my mailing list here.

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