Outlines of the women's franchise movement in New Zealand/Chapter 2


ALTHOUGH the seeds of the Women's Franchise movement had been sown for a quarter of a century and had taken root in many thoughtful minds in the colony, the subject was still regarded as an academic one rather than a matter for practical legislation.

Among those convinced of the wrongfulness of debarring women from a share in the making of laws under which they lived and, in many cases, suffered, was Dr James Wallis. A man of education and rhetorical power, a wide reader and an acute thinker, he was in many respects well fitted to be the forerunner of the humanitarian legislation of later days. For a number of years Dr. Wallis had advocated manhood suffrage and the admission of women to the franchise. In 1877 he made his appearance in Parliament as the representative of the constituency of Auckland City West. On August 8th of the following year he moved, "That in the opinion of this House the electoral disabilities of women should be entirely removed, and that the same political rights and privileges should be granted to women as to men."

The time seemed opportune for such a proposition. Sir George Grey, one of the most remarkable empire-builders ever sent forth by Great Britain, had, after many years of Imperial service, entered the political arena as a private citizen, and was now Premier of the Island Colony in which he had for two periods exercised viceregal authority. His battle cry had been, "The rights of the people and of the unborn millions," and his eloquent tongue and courtly manner gave him an almost magic charm. There was every reason to expect that an affirmation of the rights of one-half of the people would have his fullest sympathy and warmest support. But Sir George Grey was rather for the people than with the people.

Half a century of command had ill fitted him to "play second fiddle," and he looked with coldness and indifference on the motion moved by Dr Wallis. The latter made a long and eloquent speech in support of his proposition, dwelling on the fact that our rights belong to us, not because we are male or female, but because we are human beings. The motion was seconded by Mr Fox (afterwards Sir William Fox). Mr Stout, now Sir Robert Stout and Chief Justice of the colony, drew attention to the fact that the Government was introducing an Electoral Bill, and suggested that the discussion as to the propriety of enfranchising women might be fittingly deferred until such time as this Bill was before Parliament. Dr Wallis accepted the suggestion, but by an adroit use of the forms of the House the motion was prevented from coming on again.

On August 13th, while still under the impression that the Government would afford a special opportunity for the discussion of his motion as to the enfranchisement of women, Dr Wallis advocated a universal suffrage, arguing that there was "an educative virtue in the franchise." "That Government," he said, "is noblest and best which trains the people best, and which qualifies them to perform the most important duties—the duties of citizens. We must not," he continued. "create in New Zealand an outcast class of people beyond the pale of the Constitution. All unrepresented interests are almost universally disregarded and neglected." Two days later Parliament proved the truth of this latter statement by shelving and refusing to discuss the motion as to the enfranchisement of women.

By this time Dr Wallis had earned in the House the reputation of being one of those most dreaded of all created beings—a man with a fad. When on August 23rd he rose to speak on the subject an attempt was made to use the rules of the House to stop him. He stuck to his guns, however, and receiving the support of the Speaker, delivered an able advocacy of the claim of women to suffragal privileges.

On September 16 Dr Wallis again returned to the attack. The House was in Committee on the Electoral Bill, and had come to Clause 15, "Qualification of Electors." The Clause began thus, "Every male person of the age of 21 years, etc." Dr Wallis moved as an amendment the omission of the word "male," and succeeded at last in dividing the House on the question, twenty-six voting for it and thirty-six against.

In October of the following year (1879) the Grey Government was defeated, and a new ministry with Mr Hall (now Sir John) took office.

In November of the same year the late John Ballance openly committed himself to the cause of Woman Suffrage. Mr Ballance was a man of great ability, with progressive and democratic ideas. It was only natural that he should see the logical necessity for the enfranchisement of women. On November 11th, while the House was considering the "Qualification of Electors Bill," Mr Ballance moved, "That the word 'man' be struck out with the view of inserting the word person." The amendment was lost by eight votes, nineteen voting for and twenty-seven against. On November 14th, Dr Wallis renewed his attempt once more. He objected to the unfair way in which the subject of Woman Suffrage had been evaded, and moved that the Bill be recommitted, so that provision might be made for women to vote. He was, however, again unsuccessful. In 1881 Dr Wallis introduced a Woman's Franchise Bill, which passed its first reading on July 12, but got no further. For nearly six years the enfranchisement of women seemed forgotten. Ministry succeeded Ministry in kaleidoscopic fashion, but no voice advocated the rights of women. In 1887, however, the question was brought before the Parliament by the "Female Franchise Bill" introduced by Sir Julius Vogel, who was then Colonial Treasurer in the Stout-Vogel Government.

One would hardly have expected a measure of this nature to emanate from Sir Julius Vogel. His great energies had hitherto been devoted to legislation intended to develop the natural resources of the colony and to promote its commercial and material prosperity. His undoubted sagacity and keen foresight was rather that of a shrewd speculator than that of a philosopher or reformer. It is probable, however, that, although the Bill was introduced by Sir Julius Vogel, the conception was due to other members of the Cabinet. Advanced Liberals of such calibre as Sir Robert Stout and Mr Ballance could hardly fail to strongly influence the policy of the Ministry of which they were members. At any rate, the Stout-Vogel Government earned the credit of bringing the enfranchisement of women fairly before Parliament. The Bill was introduced on April 29th, and, on May 12th, its second reading was carried by forty-one to twenty-two, support being given by members on both sides of the House. It was discussed in Committee on May 19th, and on June 3rd was discharged from the Order Paper. Whatever may have been the immediate causes for the Bill being dropped, there can be little doubt that the time was not yet ripe for the passing of so important a measure. It is always difficult and seldom wise to legislate far in advance of public opinion. And as yet no public opinion had been created on the subject, and so a great opportunity was lost. One can hardly regret it, viewed in the light of future events. It was meet and right that the work begun by Mrs Müller should be continued and completed by women. Already an organisation had been formed which was to call into existence an irresistible demand by women for more liberty. The Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand had been established, and, in spite of many sneers, women were learning to act in concert and to fit themselves for wider duties.