Once members of the British Empire, the citizens of New Zealand were far more progressive than the rest of the commonwealth on a number of essential issues — learning to coexist with the native population, for one — but also in the fight for women’s rights. In the late 19th century, while Britain and even more modern nations like the United States were still debating and petitioning for the vote for women, New Zealand, tucked away in a corner of the globe, emerged as the unlikely tinderbox of the first-wave feminist movement.
Equality was definitely on the table, but the worldwide suffragette movement was also driven by moral concerns: alcoholism was a blemish on society, and giving women a voice was seen as a way to fast-track prohibition. It is not surprising, then, that it was the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, British-born suffragette Kate Sheppard (whose likeness appears on New Zealand’s 10-dollar bill), who took on the cause.
Whatever the motive, Sheppard proved to be both an inspiring writer and organizer who mobilized women, including members of the Māori population, with exceptional efficacy. On September 19, 1893, after nearly 32,000 signatures (almost a quarter of the adult female population at the time) were secured, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which women gained the right to vote. The nearby colony of Australia followed 10 years later. It would take 27 more years for Britain to achieve the same result.
The Electoral Act passed in 1893 simply stated that every qualified person aged 21 years or over could register to vote. The clincher was that the act now clarified that the definition of “person” included women. Think about it: this was just over 150 years ago, yet men and women have been living side-by-side since the dawn of humanity.
In the next election, held that same year, 84 percent of the female population cast a vote. Prohibition never passed, but New Zealand cemented its legacy as a torchbearer for women’s rights. Today 38 percent of the members of parliament are female and, to date, there have been three female prime ministers, including the current one, Jacinda Ardern. Ardern is also the second woman in the world to give birth while in office. Consider how many women become mothers (and that we all have one), and this statistic serves to further highlight how politically underrepresented women remain today.
As we have seen from the recent #MeToo movement — the battle cry of third-wave feminism, which has reverberated around the world — it is not just the biggest players or countries in the world that can change the agenda. New Zealand’s victory for women’s rights offers a vital example of the power of the underdog. Often the most exciting things can take place in the most unexpected places. In a time when we are feeling let down by those who appear to hold all the cards, we can indulge in a little wellspring of hope.