Whakatū Wahine: Voices of Women Voters of 1893

In late 1893 New Zealand women, both Māori and Pākehā, were able to vote in an election for the first time, thanks to tireless campaigning for many years.

Above Image: Kate Shepard Memorial, Suffrage Campaign

Between 1890 and 1893 organisations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Women’s Franchise Leagues organised a series of massive nationwide petitions, getting the signatures of over 30,000 women over the age of 21, asking for the right to vote to be extended to them.

In the sound archives of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision we have a handful of recordings of women who signed those petitions and voted in 1893, recalling that milestone and their part in it. This exhibition highlights those voices of first voters – and tries to fill in some details about their lives and their possible motivation for signing and voting. 

The Teacher and Editor - Nellie Jane Peryman (1868-1947)

Our oldest recording of a voter of 1893 is that of Nellie Peryman, who was born Ellen Jane Levy in Wellington in 1868. 

Her voice was recorded in 1943 in the lead up to a general election – which also coincided with the 50th suffrage anniversary. She was something of a public figure, as the long-time editor of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union newspaper, “The White Ribbon”, and a regular newspaper correspondent writing on women’s issues, such as the need to have indecent assault cases heard in closed courts and a public speaker on the evils of "the drink traffic."

She was a grand-daughter of Solomon Levy, a founding member of Wellington’s Jewish community, who had arrived with the New Zealand Company in 1840. Her father Alfred Lipman Levy had married a Wesleyan (Methodist), Mary Ann Mordin in 1867 and it appears Nellie was also a Wesleyan.

As she explains in her recording, she was a teacher at Petone School when she voted in 1893. She refers to helping gather names for the suffrage petitions and the difficulty getting some women to sign. Her name appears on the earlier 1892 suffrage petition, and she may have already been a member of the W.C.T.U. at that point. 

In 1897 Nellie married Reverend Samuel Huxtable Dewsbury Peryman, a Wesleyan minister. His mother and sister-in-law had both also signed the suffrage petition in Canterbury. Nellie remained active in leadership roles of the W.C.T.U. and became editor of its monthly paper “The White Ribbon” in 1913, a position she held until 1945.

In the 1925, Nellie Peryman wrote an article and short booklet entitled “How We Won the Franchise in New Zealand.” In it she wrote the lines which were chosen in 1993 to appear on the Kate Sheppard Suffrage Memorial that was erected in Christchurch to mark the centenary of women getting the vote: "We, the mothers of the present, need to impress upon our children’s minds how the women of the past wrestled and fought, suffered and wept, prayed and believed, agonised and won for them the freedom they enjoy today..” 1

  1. Peryman, Nellie, “How We won the Franchise in New Zealand”, published by N.Z. Women’s Christian Temperance Union Inc. 1925

Collection reference 31618
Year 1943
Credits Peryman, Nellie

The Centenarian - Helen Augusta Percival Dixon (1862-1969)

Fame came to Helen Dixon at the end of her life. She was aged 101 at the time of her radio interview in 1963, and every year newspaper articles were published to mark her birthday, until she finally passed away in 1969 at the age of 107, the oldest Pākēha New Zealander at the time.

She was born Helen Augusta Percival Jordan in Parewanui, near Bulls in 1862. 

She married Charles Dixon in 1885, and lived ‘in most cities of New Zealand’ before settling in Auckland in the 1920s.

In her interview she chuckles infectiously when recalling that men felt “very wild” about women getting the vote in 1893. She notes they were worried women would vote for Prohibition and close all the hotels, observing wryly that would have been ‘very awkward.’

In a newspaper article marking her 102nd birthday, she confessed she herself had voted for Prohibition in the election of 1893, ‘” I must have thought it was my duty or something, but I never did it again,” she says. The same article notes that she was waiting for delivery of a half-gallon of port, her regular birthday present from her wine merchant! 1.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 08 Jul 1962

Collection reference 156726
Year 1963
Credits Dixon, Helen

The Wesleyan - Winifred Mona Hills (1869-1970)

As she recalls in her 1963 radio interview, Winifred Hills was born in Greymouth in 1869, ‘at the time when all the miners were there.’ She was one of the 16 children of Wesleyan (Methodist) minister Reverend William Cannell and his wife Annie.

The family moved often (as was the practice for Methodist ministers), living in seven other centres after Greymouth, until by the time the suffrage petition was circulating the country in 1893, they were in Hawera, where William was the local minister. Annie Cannell and three of her daughters, Winifred, Gertrude and Elsie signed the petition in Hawera, and the following year Winifred married farmer Jesse Hills. 

Wesleyan church members made up about 10 percent of the population in late 19th and early 20th century New Zealand. The church became involved in many social justice causes and its followers were enthusiastic campaigners for Temperance. The church urged members to avoid the dangers of alcohol personally, as well as rallying for local and national prohibition. This lead the church to also support of the campaign for votes for women. The reasoning went, that if women could vote, they would vote to control the sale of alcohol for the good of their families – and for this reason the church put a lot of energy into the women’s franchise movement. 

The Methodist Church Archives have found 34 women who signed the 1893 petition can be linked directly to ministers from their church: wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and even a daughter-in-law and a niece. Thousands more women were probably influenced to sign, at least in part, due to the Temperance campaign. This was led by dynamic speakers such as Reverend Leonard Isitt who toured the country continually, preaching on the evils of liquor and its role in domestic violence against women and children, and the breakdown of families.

Collection reference 156726
Year 1963
Credits Hills, Winifred

The City Seamstress - Arabella Manktelow (1871-1963)

Arabella is one of three elderly women recorded in 1963 remembering voting in the 1893 election.

She was 92 at the time of the interview, but her views on why women were keen to support the Temperance movement are clear and insightful. She says like many women, she voted for Prohibition initially: “Not so much to have liquor prohibited, as to keep it in check, as to get laws for closing hours… They could see what it [alcohol] was doing to a new country. It was ruining it. A few people were getting rich, but the majority were getting poor.”

She comes across in the interview as something of a feisty character, and is cutting in her opinion of Premier Richard Seddon, calling him ‘an old hypocrite’ as he opposed women getting the vote but then congratulated them when the law was passed, saying he “always sided with the winning side.”

Arabella was born in London in 1872 and came to New Zealand with her family, arriving in March 1876 after a harrowing voyage in which their ship was dismasted, becalmed and the crew mutinied. The family settled in Hamilton, but Arabella moved to Auckland around 1890, and worked as a dressmaker. She signed the 1893 suffrage petition while living in Mackelvie Street, Ponsonby.

According to Manktelow family history, her grandmother was French and Arabella was said to have inherited both her skill as a seamstress and her good looks. She is also described as not liking men and never married. 1.

Arabella moved to Mangere to live around 1919, when this was still a largely rural area. She was active in the Women’s Division of the Farmer’s Union and maintained a well-known, old-world garden at her property “The Acre.” She moved back into Auckland city in later life and passed away less than a month after her interview was recorded in October 1963.

  1. Manktelow family history, courtesy Bill Manktelow.

Collection reference 156726
Year 1963
Credits Manktelow, Arabella

The Farmer - Helen Mary Wilson (1869-1957)

Helen Wilson and her mother Emma Ostler, both signed the 1892 and 1893 suffrage petitions in Horowhenua and voted in 1893. Helen had recently married and wrote in her autobiography that she was nailing shingles onto the roof of her house when she first met her future husband, Charles Kendall Wilson.

She and her mother had established a farm on their own near Levin in 1888. Her father had died in 1879 and the family of four had lived a precarious existence in the South Island for several years, supported by Helen's teacher's salary, until she won 20 acres in a land ballot and the two women became the first settlers on the Levin block. 

Helen’s entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography notes: “Through hard work they established a valuable property. They fenced, dug, cleared the land and extended their small dwelling. Emma Ostler became a prominent Levin businesswoman and a leader of the local Women's Christian Temperance Union and women's suffrage campaign. Helen was sympathetic to women's suffrage but had no time for some within the movement whom she saw as extremists.” 1

In the 1920s she became a founding member of the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmer's Union (a forerunner of Federated Farmers). Helen’s husband entered politics with the Reform Party and they continued farming in several locations in the North Island. Helen eventually served as Dominion President of the W.D.F.U. in the 1930s and during the Depression was involved in setting up boards to tackle women’s unemployment in urban centres. She was awarded an O.B.E. in 1937.

In 1950, although losing her sight and hearing, she published her autobiography, My First 80 Years which was very well-received as a story of pioneer life and rural New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. It was about this time that this radio talk by her entitled “The Status of Women” was recorded. In this excerpt she recalls the criticisms of those who opposed women getting the vote in 1893.

In this excerpt she recalls the criticisms of those who opposed women getting the vote in 1893. Listen to her full radio talk, The Status of Women.

  1. Bronwyn Jones. 'Wilson, Helen Mary', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Collection reference 32941
Year 1950
Credits Wilson, Helen

The Suffragist's Daughter - Hilda Kate Lovell-Smith (1886-1973)

“Kitty” as she was known, is the odd-woman-out in this collection of recordings. Born in 1886 she was only a child when the 1893 election was held, certainly too young to vote. But she is included here because of her first-hand recollections of the suffrage campaigning by her mother, Jennie Lovell-Smith - and her mother’s good friend, Kate Sheppard.

Kitty was born at Riccarton in Christchurch, the third daughter of ten children of Jennie and her husband, William, a printer. Both parents were close friends of Kate Sheppard, whose name was also given to Hilda, who was known as ‘Kitty’ for most of her life. Sheppard lived with the family for many years and after Jennie’s death in 1924, she married William, which made her Kitty’s ‘step-mother’ (although Kitty was 38 years old by that time.)

Given her upbringing, Kitty Lovell-Smith could not help but grow up with a belief in equality for women and she became active in the National Council for Women which her mother and Kate Sheppard had helped found in 1896. She was secretary of the N.C.W. from 1919 -1927 and President in the 1950s. She was also involved in other women’s organisations such as the Y.W.C.A. and Soroptimists.

In this excerpt from a radio interview from 1968 she recalls her mother’s campaigning with the suffrage petition in Canterbury and the momentous day in September 1893 when the Act was passed giving women the vote.

Collection reference 282401
Year 1968
Credits Lovell-Smith, Hilda Kate

Who is missing?

These few recordings are by no means a representative sample of all women voters of 1893. As with any archive, noting what is missing is just as important as what is held. ‘Archival silence’ is a term used to refer to the people and stories that are not captured in official records. In the case of a sound archive, it is literally a silence.

The development of sound recording technology meant the voices and views of the ‘average citizen’ were not recorded in great numbers until the mid-1950s when tape recording began to be used by radio broadcasters in New Zealand.

Between the mid-1930s and mid-1950s, sound recording was only possible on large acetate or lacquer discs, which were expensive and not reusable, so recording was more limited. This means we often only hear the voices of ‘the great and the good’ archived from this era; politicians, leaders or notable personalities. Reusable magnetic tape was a cheaper recording medium, so many more broadcasts could be recorded from the mid-1950s. Also, tape recorders were more portable, allowing broadcasters to get out of the studio more easily and reach a wider cross-section of the public.

There are no voices of Māori women voters of 1893 here and the voices of Māori women do not appear in the sound archive in number, until regular Māori radio programmes began in the 1960s (The exceptions being leaders like Te Puea Hērangi or broadcasters such as Airini Grennell.) Working class or rural voices were also much less likely to be recorded or archived until tape recording technology extended the reach of the radio microphone beyond the formal setting of a broadcasting studio.

However by the mid-1950s any woman who was at least 21 in 1893 (and therefore eligible to vote in that election) was already aged in her 80s – so in many ways it is remarkable that the few voices of women voters we have recorded, exist at all.

Some of these recordings were featured in Gaylene Preston's Hot Words and Bold Retorts – actors lip-synch the recollections of four women. 

Finally, the details which accompanied these recordings in the former Radio New Zealand Sound Archives were very sparse. Originally we did not even have the names of the three elderly women interviewed in 1963, and only established them through listening to the female interviewer and doing some archival detective work matching the names she mentions with death records. We are grateful to the family history researchers who have shared their images and information with us and , as always, if you recognise any of the women in this exhibition we would love to hear from you.