In 1893, New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant universal suffrage for women over 21. The woman who led the way for this to occur was Kate Sheppard, who is a true Badass Lady of History.
Born in 1847 in Liverpool, England to Scottish parents as Catherine Wilson Malcolm, Kate (as she preferred to be known) showed her intellectual prowess early. She was well educated and used this to her great advantage throughout her life. In 1869, after the death of her father, she and her family immigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand. Three years later, she married Walter Sheppard, a grocer and merchant. In 1885, Kate became a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She had inherited her mother’s strong religious beliefs which led her to become involved in the Temperance Movement.
The Temperance Union became involved in advocating for the vote for women, as they realized having a say as to who would be making the law would help them achieve the social change they sought. Kate’s statement that
“all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome”
galvanized the movement. In 1891, a petition organized by the Temperance Union in favor of women’s suffrage was presented to Parliament. It was supported by many high profile Members of Parliament (which of course was entirely male), including the Premier John Ballance. A larger petition was presented to Parliament in 1892 and a third, larger still, was presented in 1893. In 1893, Parliament passed into law the Electoral Bill that gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote. Ten weeks later, the first election in which women could vote took place. Despite it only having been 10 weeks since the bill passed into law, two-thirds of New Zealand women voted in the election.
In 1894, Kate returned to England for a time and gave speeches on women’s suffrage that were well received. When she returned to New Zealand, she was elected the inaugural president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, and she became heavily involved in the National Council’s newspaper. Kate used her influence and persuasive communication style to advocate for improving the situation and status of women. She was particularly interested in securing women’s financial and legal independence from men. New Zealand at that time was still heavily influenced by the social and legal structures of the United Kingdom. A married woman was known as a femme covert. Her social status was solely derived from her husband. She could not buy property, sign contracts, or obtain an education against her husband’s wishes. In certain situations, it was also presumed that she could not be liable for certain criminal charges as she would be acting under the orders of her husband. Kate wanted all women to have the status of a femme sole, an unmarried woman who could buy their own property, sign their own legal documents, and generally be in control of their own affairs. Kate was also concerned with more general political reform, advocating for proportional representation and binding referendums (both of which New Zealand now has).
In 1903, Kate stepped down from the National Council of Women. She and her husband retired to England, but she also traveled to America where she met fellow Badass Lady from History Carrie Chapman Catt. In London, she advocated for women’s suffrage, but poor health meant she was unable to continue to do so in the style that had been so effective in New Zealand.
In 1904, she returned to New Zealand. She was not as active as she once was, but she was still the doyenne of the woman’s movement in New Zealand. In 1916, she and other badass ladies revitalized the National Council of Women that had fallen into decline.
Kate’s husband Walter died in 1915, and in 1925, at age 78, she married William Lovell-Smith. In 1929, William died. Kate passed away in Christchurch in 1934, where she is buried in a modest grave in the Addington Cemetery. (It’s so modest that it took me an hour to find it when I lived over the fence from the cemetery.)
Kate is a pivotal woman in New Zealand’s history. New Zealand, a small island nation at the bottom of the world became a world leader in granting universal suffrage in 1893, well before the United Kingdom in 1928, or the United States in 1920. Kate is the only woman apart from Queen Elizabeth II who appears on a bank note in New Zealand.
In 2006, New Zealand had a female Prime Minister, a female Governor-General, a female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a female Speaker of the House of Representatives. These are the five most important positions in the country (in addition to our female Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II), and they were all positions held by women. Kate’s hard work led us to this point, and that fully qualifies her as a true Badass Lady of History.