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Kate Sheppard & Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia

Aotearoa New Zealand led the world in legislating for women to have the right to vote, but it was not an easy pathway. These two women made key Suffragists contributions to this fight.

Kate Wilson Sheppard. Ref: 1/2-C-09028-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Frederick W. Mason, [Copy of Portrait of Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia.]. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-CNEG-C5101.

“Do not think your single vote does not matter much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made up of single drops.”

Kate Sheppard

Catherine Wilson Malcolm (who became known as Katherine, or Kate) was born in Liverpool in 1847 and sailed with her family to Lyttelton, arriving in 1869 on the Matoaka. The family settled in Christchurch. Kate married Walter Sheppard in 1871 and they had one son. An active member of the Trinity Congregational Church, Kate became involved in the temperance movement, which promoted voluntary restraint or complete abstinence from drinking alcohol, which was becoming an issue in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In 1885, Kate became a founding member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). They realised that if women had the right to vote, and be represented in Parliament, it would be easier to achieve social and legislative reforms regarding temperance and the welfare of women and children. By 1887 local unions formed franchise departments, and Kate was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department.

Kate was responsible for co-ordinating and encouraging local unions. She prepared and distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the press, and travelled extensively to speak with WCTU members, church groups, political societies, and temperance groups.

The WCTU took three major petitions to Parliament. The first, presented in 1891, was presented by Sir John Hall, and supported by the Premier, John Ballance. It was signed by more than 9,000 women. The second petition, presented in 1892, was signed by more than 19,000. In 1893, the WCTU presented their third petition – the largest petition ever presented to Parliament at that time, with nearly 32,000 signatures. Parliament could no longer ignore their demands.

On 19 September 1893, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed, giving all adult women in New Zealand the right to vote in general elections. Kate received a telegram congratulating her from her former political rival, Premier Richard Seddon. Lord Glasgow, the Governor, presented her with the pen used in signing the bill granting women’s suffrage. When the general election was held in November 1893, 65 per cent of New Zealand women over the age of 21 voted.

Kate played a key role in getting women out to vote, reminding the public:

“Let not babies, the wash-tub, or even dinners prevent the women going.”  

Her friend Amey Daldy arranged for women to be at voting booths, enabling children to be looked after while their mothers voted.

In 1894, Kate and her family travelled back to England, via Canada and the United States, to meet with other leading feminists, and she embarked on a hectic round of public speaking and debate in support of women’s franchise. She helped establish the National Council of Women in April 1896, and served as their president for three years. Kate continued to argue for women’s rights, especially for the right of married women to control their own money, and she encouraged women to become more involved with society and politics.

In 1895, the WCTU began publishing the White Ribbon, the only newspaper in New Zealand to be owned, managed, edited, and published by women, with Kate as editor, and writer of many articles. After eight years as editor and contributor, she resigned, in part due to her failing health, and her husband’s pending retirement to England. She departed in July 1903 to join Walter and their son Douglas, who was studying at the University of London.

However, the English weather didn’t suit Kate and she was advised to spend winters in the South of France. Instead, she and her husband returned to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1904. She retired from public speaking but continued to write and work with the franchise and legislation department of the WCTU. Sadly, her son died in 1910, and her husband in 1915.

Kate was made a national life member of the National Council of Women in 1923. She died at her home in Christchurch on 13 July 1934.

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Te Rēinga, Ngāti Manawa, Te Kaitūtae) was born on 22 May 1868, near Panguru on the Hokianga Harbour. The daughter of Rē Te Tai, an influential chief of Te Rarawa in the 1890s, and Hana Tēra, she was the eldest of the four children born into this marriage. Her mother also had three children from a previous marriage. Meri was a great-grandchild of Ngā-kahu-whero, herself a descendant of the great Te Rarawa leader Te Reīnga, and the holder of great mana (authority) in the area.

Meri was educated at St Mary’s Convent in Auckland and, at a young age, became the third wife of Hāmiora Mangakāhia (Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Huarere). They had two sons, and two daughters. Hāmiora was an assessor in the Native Land Court, and attended the meeting in 1889 at which Te Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament movement, was formally initiated.

In June 1892, Hāmiora was elected the first Premier of the Kotahitanga parliament, and in 1893, they both attended the second session of the parliament at Waipatu in Hawke’s Bay. On 18 May 1893, the Speaker of the lower house of the Kotahitanga parliament introduced a motion from Meri, requesting that women be given the right to participate in the selection of members. At their invitation, she addressed the parliament to explain her motion later that day – the first woman recorded to have done so.  

Meri requested that Māori women be given the vote and for them to be eligible to sit in the Māori parliament – a step further than the request by the European suffrage movement. She argued that many Māori women owned and administered their own lands and deserved a voice. She said that when Māori men appealed to Queen Victoria over Māori problems, they failed to include Māori women in their appeals.

“Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well,” she said.

In the 1893 general election, about 4,000 Māori women voted, and it took four years for Meri’s vision for Māori women to be realised. In 1897, Māori women won the right to vote for members of Te Kotahitanga. However, the parliament met for the last time in 1902.  

Meri helped establish Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, committees connected to Kotahitanga parliament which discussed issues regarding the overall wellbeing of Māori culture. Loss of land and the lack of recognition for Māori women’s rights, as the legal owners and kaitiaki (guardians) of land and resources, was another key motivation. These committees were seen as forerunners of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.

Meri continued to be active in Māori politics and welfare, writing a column Te Reiri Karamu (The Ladies Column) which was published in Te Tiupiri (The Jubilee). Māori women were highly engaged in the issues of women’s rights at this time.

In 1920, Meri died of influenza at age 52. She was buried at Pūreirei cemetery in Lower Waihou, near her father.

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