Outlines of the women's franchise movement in New Zealand/Chapter 6


DURING 1890 the Franchise department of the W.C.T.U. prosecuted its educative work with great vigour. A large number of the Unions were stirred to appoint local superintendents. Copies of a petition to Parliament were printed and circulated throughout the colony, and public debates were organised. The activity of the Franchise workers roused the opponents of Woman Suffrage, and coarse attacks on what was politely termed "the shrieking sisterhood" were frequent. Although unpleasant in tone these attacks benefitted the cause. Public attention was drawn to the subject, and opportunity was afforded for placing logical and temperate statements of the Suffrage question before the people. The contrast between the violent vituperation of the Anti-Suffragists and the reasonable argument of the Suffragists was greatly in favour of the movement.

Early in the session of Parliament Sir John Hall gave notice that on the motion for the committal of the "Registration of Electors Bill" he would move, "That it be an instruction to the Committee to make provision for the extension of the Parliamentary Franchise to women." But like a wary and experienced general he determined to make a reconnaisance in force before the actual battle should take place.

On Aug. 5th, on the motion to go into Committee of Supply, he moved, "That in the opinion of this House the right of voting at the election of members of the House of Representatives should be extended to women." The move was a skilful one. Not only would he be able to test the temper and quality of the Suffrage forces and gauge the strength of the enemy, but he would also be able to bring the question before the whole colony in a practical and prominent fashion. In his speech, Sir John pointed out that the principle on which the Electoral Franchise in the colony was based was that every resident adult had the right to a voice in making the laws by which he was governed. Mr Gladstone had said, "All who live in a country should take an interest in that country, love that country: and the vote gives that sense of interest, fosters that love." To every general rule there were exceptions, and the exceptions in this case were lunatics, infants, and criminals. The best of women were therefore placed by our laws on a level with lunatics, infants, and criminals. They were even on a worse footing than the latter, for even convicted criminals were allowed to vote when they had served their sentences. It seemed absurd that a man just out of gaol had a vote while the woman who had supported his children had none. Women were equally interested with men in everything affecting good government. It had often been said that a woman's sphere is at home among her children. This was quite true, and she filled it in a manner that was a credit to herself and a blessing to us all. But other people had their spheres. The doctor, the lawyer, the artisan and the seaman had their special spheres of action but were not prevented from voting. With reference to the alleged inferiority of woman's brain the University results had answered the intellect question. "We cannot afford," he said, "to bid women stand aside from the work of the nation, we need all their spirit of duty, their patience, their energy, in combating the sorrow, sin, and want that is around us." Sir John concluded by saying that he had been led by a long consideration of the matter to the conviction that woman is entitled to be placed on a perfect equality with man. If, however, he could not get equality—he would take such measure as he could get. He was aware that those who were prepared to give the whole loaf would vote against those who would give only half a loaf, and that those who would give half a loaf would vote against those who would give the whole loaf, and thus any progress would be imperilled. He urged that those in favour of out and out reform and those in favour of partial measures should unite to carry some instalment.

The debate that followed was animated and instructive. As might be expected, the solid, sound argument was all in favour of the motion. Against it was produced a strange mixture of ridicule, baseless assertion, and dire prognostication. Mr W. P. Reeves, the present Agent-General in London, eulogised Sir John Hall. He thought that a gentleman who had the courage to face the laughter, the ridicule, the empty jeers of unthinking persons, and bring forward a subject of great national importance, was entitled to the thanks of every thinking person in the Colony. Mr Reeves was in favour of Woman Suffrage, but doubted the expediency of granting it all at once. He announced himself to be a half-loaf man, and advocated restricting the franchise to women over 21 years of age who had passed the matriculation examination of the University. Mr Ballance, as might have been expected, spoke strongly in favour. He had for many years believed in the absolute equality of the sexes and had striven to give them the enjoyment of equal privileges in political matters. He wanted to know why they could not all be whole loaf men, as if it were right to

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enfranchise women at all it should be done thoroughly. He said Mr Gladstone had shown that the Universities in Great Britain had opposed every great reform of this century. Dr Hodgkinson was lugubriously antagonistic. Instead of Sir John Hall being a friend to women he was their greatest enemy, for he was trying to put them in a position for which God Almighty had entirely unfitted them. The Bible showed the proper position of women. He believed that this doctrine as to the rights of women and their claims to suffrage came from below and not from above. It was contrary to the constitution of Nature and the ordinance of God. Mr Alfred Saunders followed in a lighter vein. He reminded Dr. Hodgkinson that Abraham had been commanded to hearken unto the voice of Sarah his wife. Dealing with Mr Reeves' proposal, he remarked that it would not be even half a loaf, in fact it did not amount to more than a ginger-nut. Mr Blake was sure that there was not one good woman in the Colony who wanted the franchise. He opposed it because he did not want to see half the families in New Zealand in dire discord. Mr H. S. Fish (member for Dunedin) was most wordy in his opposition. The most salient part of his oration was that in which he implored the House to try and imagine the feelings of a man coming home tired and finding his parlour or drawing room filled with a lot of noisy and declamatory women talking politics. Mr Tanner supported the motion, but thought they should be careful to guard against women entering Parliament. He did not give any hint of what dreadful results would follow in the absence of such safeguard. This omission was disappointing to those who would fain pierce the mysterious veil that hangs over such a dim possibility. Women have sat side by side with men on Committees and Boards, have worked with them in Day Schools and Sunday Schools, have presided over large public meetings, and have even opened Parliament without any dire consequences. One would have liked some clue as to what would happen if they sat with men making laws for pure and righteous government.

Other speeches were made, but it is not necessary to reproduce either the whole of the arguments of the speakers already named or a complete list of those who spoke. The motion was carried by thirty-seven to eleven. On August 19th, Sir John Hall's Woman's Franchise Bill was read for the first time, but no further opportunity was afforded that session. The reconnaisance had succeeded, and further operations had to await a convenient opening.