Suffragists – Mary Ann Muller and Kate Edger


A woman who concealed her true identity under the pen name Femina was New Zealand’s pioneer suffragist. A few years later the founding principal of Nelson College for Girls lent her support to the suffragist movement to gain women the right to vote.

Working like a mole - Mary Ann Muller (1820-1901)

Mary Ann Muller's feminist ideas were formed in England, where she became concerned at the degree of legal discrimination against women.

Mary Ann Muller and grandsonMary Ann Muller and her grandson, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Print Collection, 299160
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Separated from her first husband, James Griffiths, on the grounds of cruelty, Mary Ann Wilson emigrated from London to New Zealand with her children. She met her second husband, Stephen Muller, the ship's surgeon, on board the Pekin in 1849. She worked as a teacher for two years in Nelson, before she married Stephen in Nelson in 1851. They lived in Waimea East.

Stephen was an elected member and Secretary of the Nelson Provincial Council. Mary Ann met politically influential men through her husband and discussed women's rights with them.1 Her particular concern was the loss of women's property rights upon marriage, and she also felt strongly that women should be able to vote. Some men were sympathetic, but many others, including Stephen, were firmly against notions of women's rights.2

The couple moved to Blenheim in 1857, when Stephen was appointed Resident Magistrate for the Wairau. Mary Ann felt unable to voice her views publicly. ‘Working like a mole'3 she enlisted the support of her son-in-law Charles Elliot, the editor of The Nelson Examiner, who agreed to print her feminist articles anonymously, under the pen name Femina4 (or Femmina). He ensured that her articles were widely distributed, and Femina became well known throughout the country.

In 1864, she met British women's rights advocate Maria Rye, who was visiting New Zealand, connecting her to feminist movements in Britain and the United States.

In 1869 Mary Ann wrote the first women's rights pamphlet in New Zealand. ‘An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand' by Femina argued that women should not be discriminated against in law or politics because of their sex, and should have the right to vote. "How long are women to remain a wholly unrepresented body of people?" 5

As a result, Mary Ann met with and influenced numerous politicians, although she herself was reluctant to become a public activist because of her husband's position.  Parliamentary Acts to protect the property of married women were passed in 1870 and 1884. In 1893 women won the right to vote, and Mary Ann wrote that, while now an old woman, she thanked God she had been able to register herself an elector.6

Mary Ann's identity as Femina was finally revealed in 1898, after Stephen's death.Kate Sheppard, who led the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union campaign to win women the vote, referred to her as New Zealand's pioneer suffragist.8

Kate EdgerKate Edger at Nelson College for Girls 1889, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, part 179045/3
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Educated with the boys - Kate Edger (1857-1935)

Kate Edger was the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree, and the first woman in the British Empire to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She received an unconventional education, studying with top boy pupils at Auckland College and Grammar School, which was affiliated with the University of New Zealand, through which she earned her degree in 1877.9

In 1882, while teaching at Christchurch Girls' High School, Kate gained an M.A.10 Soon after, she was appointed as the founding principal of Nelson College for Girls,11 where she gained a reputation as a gifted teacher, respected by pupils. She became a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union while in Nelson, running meetings and making speeches in support of its suffrage campaign.12

Kate married Welsh Congregational Minister William Evans in Auckland in 1890 and resigned from the college.13 The couple moved to Wellington, where Kate taught privately at home while raising three children. She continued her suffrage work in Wellington and was there when women gained the vote in 1893.14

2008 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Devaliant, J. (1992). Kate Sheppard, The Fight for Women's Votes in New Zealand. Auckland N.Z.: Penguin, pp.11-12
  2. Coney, S. (1993). Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Wellington, N.Z.: Penguin, p.16
  3. Dalziel, R. (1993), Mary Ann Muller. In, The Suffragists, Women Who Worked for the Vote: essays from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography / with an introduction by Dorothy Page Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books and the Department of Internal Affairs, p.101.
  4. Dalziel, R., pp.101,103
  5. Dalziel, R., pp.102,103
  6. Devaliant, J., pp.126,172
  7. Devaliant, J., p.172.
  8. Dalziel, R., p.103.
  9. Hughes, B.(1993), Kate Edger. In The Suffragists, women who worked for the vote: essays from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography. Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books and the Department of Internal Affairs, pp.61, 63.
  10. Hughes, B., p.63
  11. Voller, L. (1982), Sentinel at the gates, Nelson College for Girls 1883-1983. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson College for Girls Old Girls Association, pp. 14-16, 20-33
  12. Hughes, B., p.63.
  13. Voller, L.,p.33
  14. Hughes, B. (1993, pp.64, 65).

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Further sources - Suffragists – Mary Ann Muller and Kate Edger



[Where no hyperlink is supplied ask at your local library about full text access to the articles.]


Held Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Grigg, L K V (Ed.). (c1955). The tale of years: compiled for the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union. Christchurch, [N.Z.]: Weeks Ltd.
  • Henderson, C. (c1945). The WCTU in action: a long view. Christchurch, [N.Z.]: Weeks Ltd.
  • Smith, W. Sidney. (1905). Outlines of the women's franchise movement in New Zealand. Christchurch, N.Z.: Whitcombe & Tombs.
  • Women's Christian Temperance Union. (9.9.1945).Diamond jubilee programme, September 9th, 1945. Nelson, N.Z.: R. Lucas & Son.

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