Kate Sheppard was the leading light of the New Zealand women’s suffrage movement. In recent years her contribution to New Zealand’s identity has been acknowledged on the $10 note and a commemorative stamp.
In 1885 she joined the new WCTU, which advocated women’s suffrage as a means to fight for liquor prohibition. For Kate Sheppard, suffrage quickly became an end in itself. Speaking for a new generation, she argued, ‘We are tired of having a “sphere” doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is “unwomanly”.’
Sheppard travelled the country, writing to newspapers, holding public meetings and lobbying members of Parliament. Opposition was fierce. Being told to go home, look after their children and cook their husbands’ dinners. Comments including being told they should give up and stop ‘meddling in masculine concerns of which they are profoundly ignorant’.
In 1893 Kate Sheppard and her fellow suffragists gathered the signatures of nearly 32,000 women to demonstrate the groundswell of support for their cause. A 270-m-long petition – then the largest ever presented to Parliament – was unrolled across the chamber of the House with dramatic effect. The Electoral Act 1893 was passed by both houses of Parliament and became law on 19 September. The news took New Zealand by storm and inspired suffrage movements all over the world. A familiar face found on the front of the $10 note.