Nelson and Women’s Suffrage


The Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1893, which was a major contributor to the success of the Electoral Act in that same year, giving women the right to vote, was signed across the country at different times in a series of rolls. These rolls have been digitised and are now available online with the original version available for all to see at the National Library in Wellington. While there are virtually no Nelson names on this Petition, this certainly does not indicate that the women of Nelson were passive in the movement which got women to this point, as the first women in the world allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections.

Womens suffrage Petition

Women's Suffrage Petition 1893. Archives New Zealand

Nelson was actually one of the first regions to allow women ratepayers to share in the affairs of the local Council. From 1867, with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, “which contained no provision to prevent females using the franchise”1, women in the Nelson Province were allowed to vote. This was made optional in the Act and only Nelson and Otago Provinces allowed it in practice. It was made compulsory in 1875.2  An editorial in the Nelson Evening Mail reflected the opinions of many in the Province: "..the exclusion of women from Parliamentary rights is an infringement of the primary law of constitutional government..”3

Mary Ann Mueller

Mary Ann Mueller, 1900

That there was substantial support from the newspapers of the Nelson Province for Women’s Suffrage was largely due to Mary Ann Muller, whose son-in-law edited the Nelson Examiner. Mary, who moved to Blenheim in 1857, was an active feminist who wrote articles under the name of Femina.  These were published in the Examiner and attracted much interest. Her pamphlet "Appeal to the Men of New Zealand", published 1869, arguing for the right of women to vote in national elections, is regarded as the work which kick-started the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand. It also received interest from overseas, attracting the notice of leading British figures like the influential political thinker, philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill.4

appeal to men of nz

An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand. Cover of original pamphlet, held Hocken Library

The suffrage campaign in New Zealand began as part of the late-nineteenth century movement for women's rights that spread through Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe. The movement was shaped by two main themes: equal political rights for women (as promoted by Mary Ann Muller) and a determination to use them for the moral reform of society, through, for example, the prohibition of alcohol.


Kate Edger as Principal of Nelson College for Girls, 1889 Tyree Studio Collection, part 179045/3

Kate Edger was a Nelson woman who became a leader in the movement to prohibit alcohol, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) – and hence in the Women’s suffrage movement. She was a figurehead both locally and nationally by the 1880’s and was described as an example of the women “who were achieving equality with men in every sphere of life”.5 Kate was the first New Zealand woman to obtain a university degree and was the founding Principal of Nelson College for Girls.

By the time Kate Edger was active in the WCTU there was a growing national movement for women’s suffrage, under the leadership of Kate Sheppard. Many politicians were supportive, particularly Edward Stafford, Alfred Dommett and David Munro - all Nelson men. There were also opponents of course, many representing the liquor lobby.

In 1877 Robert Stout introduced an electoral bill which would allow women to vote. This was followed by debate across the country, and much activity in the WCTU, with  meetings and petitions thoughout the 1880’s, in which they advocated strongly for women’s suffrage.  The Colonist reports a large meeting in Nelson “considering the question of Woman’s suffrage”. Arguments in favour were passionate and a petition was signed.6 This petition, organised by Mrs F. Nightingale, is believed to have had at least 16 signatures.

Activity reached a crescendo in 1891, and in that year the Women’s Suffrage Bill was presented to Parliament, and reintroduced as the Government Electoral Bill in 1892. The Woman’s Suffrage Petition of 1893 was presented in the Parliamentary Session which debated this Bill. It was signed by over 30,000 women across the nation.  The Bill was assented and New Zealand women became the first in the world to vote in Parliamentary elections, in 1893.

He tohu

He-Tohu. The National Library's permanent exhibition of the Suffrage Petition, Declaration of Independence and Treaty of Waitangi

And why the lack of Nelson names on the 1893 Petition? Nelson produced its own, apparently very large petition of names, submitted alongside the Petition we have today. Unfortunately this was lost, and there is no record of the names recorded on it.7


Sources used in this story

  1. Parliamentary Debates, volume 20, 1876, p403.
  2. Grimshaw, P. (1972) Women's suffrage in New Zealand. Wellington p. 13
  3. Nelson Evening Mail Monday December 16 1867 [editorial], p.2
  4.  An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand (1870, May 7) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.3
  5. Grimshaw p. 84.
  6. Woman’s Suffrage (1891, March 11) Colonist, p.3
  7. Kate Edger signed the Petition in Auckland, see Archives NZ/ National Library of New Zealand (2017)  The Women’s Suffrage Petition, 1893. Bridget Williams Books,  p.26

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