‘All that separates, whether of race, class, creed or sex is inhuman and must be overcome.’
Born Catherine Wilson Malcolm on 10 March 1847 in Liverpool, England, Kate – as she preferred to be called – spent her early childhood in London, Dublin and Nairn. Kate’s uncle, who was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn, was influential in her religious and moral education and her later adherence to Christian Socialism.
In 1869 after almost a three month journey, Kate, along with her mother and three of her siblings, arrived in New Zealand to join her sister, who had already been living in Christchurch. In 1871 Kate married Christchurch grocer Walter Allen Sheppard. During the early years of her marriage she became an active member of the Trinity Congregational Church and with other members of her family was involved in the temperance movement.
In 1885 Kate became a founding member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The union quickly realised that in order for legislative reforms pertaining to women and children to be carried out more effectively, women would need the right to vote and the right to representation in parliament.
Franchise departments within local unions were formed in 1887. As national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department, Kate had various responsibilities. Recognised as an accomplished public speaker and writer, she prepared and distributed pamphlets promoting women’s right to vote, wrote to the press and stimulated debate and discussion about this and other women’s rights issues within both the WCTU and the wider community.
In 1891, the first of three petitions was presented to parliament by the franchise department of the WCTU containing the signatures of more than 9,000 women. The second petition in 1892 had more than 19,000 signatures. Kate continued her work for women’s suffrage and by 1893, the WCTU had managed to obtain nearly 32,000 signatures from women demanding the right to vote.
The petition was presented to parliament and on September 19 1893, the Electoral Act was passed giving women the right to vote. Adamant that all women of all classes exercised this right, Kate and the other members of the WCTU attempted to enrol as many women as possible leading up to the 1893 election. By the time the election had arrived, approximately 84% of the female population had enrolled to vote. On polling day 82% cast their votes. New Zealand had become the first country in the world that allowed women to exercise their right to vote.
Kate continued her work both at home and abroad for women’s rights. Her practical proposals for reform were many and included proportional representation, marriage equality and the right for women to run for parliament. Nevertheless, the first woman MP, Elizabeth McCombs, would not be elected into the New Zealand Parliament until 1933.
Kate Sheppard died on the 13 July 1934, The Christchurch Times stated:
‘A great women has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures.’
Written for Sheroes of History by Anne Saunders @fantasmoo. “I love history and all things tech, especially when they both work properly.”
References: Tessa K. Malcolm. ‘Sheppard, Katherine Wilson’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Feb-2014
‘Women vote in first general election’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/page/women-vote-first-general-election, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Aug-2014
Find out more…
Find out more about Kate Sheppard’s life here.
Kate Sheppard appears on the New Zealand ten dollar note! Have a look at it here.
New Zealand was the first place in the world to give women the vote. Watch this fascinating infographic to see how and when other countries followed suit:
Is there a Shero of History you want to tell the world about? Why not write a piece for us? If you want to submit a piece, or just find out more, get in touch here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.