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World-Changing Women: Kate Sheppard

Updated Wednesday, 25th February 2015
New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote, thanks to Kate Sheppard. Find out more about her time as a political activist...

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Kate Sheppard New Zealand 1847-1934 Political Activism

Kate Sheppard image Photograph of Kate Sheppard. In late nineteenth-century New Zealand, as elsewhere in the world, women’s roles were believed by many to have been assigned to them by nature: these consisted of managing the home, looking after their children and cooking.  Yet, in 1893, New Zealand was to become the first country in the world to grant women the vote on equal terms with men.

Kate Sheppard, born in Liverpool, relocated with her family to Christchurch, New Zealand in 1868 following the death of her father. Following marriage and the birth of a son, she became active in the church and in the temperance (alcohol prohibition) movement. Along with other women, she attributed many of the social problems that she saw around her to dependence on alcohol and helped to found the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It soon became clear that social and legislative reforms related to temperance and to women’s and children’s welfare could be more readily achieved if women had the vote. This had previously been extended to men over 21 years which, since they were excluded, women argued, classed them with juveniles, lunatics and criminals.

Sheppard travelled the country, wrote to newspapers, organised petitions, arranged public meetings and lobbied members of Parliament. She was a gifted public speaker and held strong humanitarian views. She believed that the differences between people, such as race, class, creed, or sex, should be overcome.

Sheppard’s final last petition was the largest ever presented to Parliament and in 1893 women were finally given the right to vote. When the general election was held ten weeks later, 65% of New Zealand women over 21 used their vote.

Kate Sheppard continued to work for women’s rights for as long as her health allowed and became editor of The White Ribbon, the first newspaper in New Zealand to be owned, managed and published solely by women.

This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.


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