In the 19th century New Zealand women were part of an international movement fighting for equal rights. Women campaigners, and the men who supported them, were reacting to inequalities in marriage, education, paid employment and politics.
Most of those who fought for women’s rights valued differences between women and men. Woman’s place was seen as domestic: she was mother and homemaker, the source of love and moral guidance. Men were in charge of the public world of business and politics; theirs was the task of building the new colony. At the same time, many women firmly believed that if women had access to education and training they could achieve as much as men.
Both beliefs were apparent when women campaigned for change. They argued that their positive moral influence on public life was needed to ensure the protection of women, children and home life, and they also asserted their right to the privileges of citizenship that men enjoyed.
Local and international influences
Thinking and events in Britain and the United States had a powerful influence. Movements for women’s rights in these countries were reported in letters and newspapers, with further news from the continuing flood of British migrants. Barbara Bodichon’s campaign for married women’s rights, and the writings of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor on the position of women, were known and discussed in New Zealand. Overseas speakers travelled around the country, holding meetings in cities and towns.
Arguments for women’s rights had a particular strength in a new colony in which many women worked alongside men and struggled to set up and maintain homes. As men headed for speculative ventures like gold mining, some wives were deserted, or left in charge of home and family, and sometimes of business.
First moves: 1860s and early 1870s
‘Femmina’ and ‘Polly Plum’, the assumed names of writers in newspapers during the 1860s and early 1870s, argued for equality in marriage, the education of girls, and the vote for women. They drew strong support, as well as fierce opposition, stirring up vigorous controversy.
Some women joined temperance organisations, campaigning to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol. These provided a base for many budding activists. Individuals or informal groups campaigned for local initiatives on issues, notably education.
1870s and 1880s
The debate and the number of women involved expanded in the 1870s and 1880s. Women’s rights within marriage, the sexual double standard (which allowed men to be sexually assertive, and condoned their affairs outside marriage, while requiring women to be sexually passive and chaste), education, employment, corsets and the vote were all discussed at meetings and in the columns and editorials of local newspapers.
‘We used to hear only of women’s rights,’ wrote the editor of the New Zealand Herald in 1878, ‘now we hear about their liberty and even what seems like their licence’.1 Some women wanted not only an equal partnership in marriage, but also sexual fulfilment and the right to control their fertility.
By the end of the 1880s the right to vote in national elections was the focus of a mass movement, spearheaded by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women (both Pākehā and Māori) the right to vote in general elections. After this, activists turned their attention to other issues. Debate and lobbying focused on women’s rights within marriage, employment rights, and the repeal, reform or passing of legislation concerning prostitution, the age of consent, incest and other matters.
Māori women sought the right to vote for, and stand for, Te Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament. They also joined with other women in the temperance movement.
In the early 1900s the radicalism of the 1880s and 1890s died down. Differences between some groups and the ageing of many of those involved led to less activism around women’s issues. Although some groups continued to campaign, others faded away.