New Zealand women – were/are they lunatics and criminals?

New Zealand WCTU Leader – Suffrage Campaign

The temperance cause was intertwined with the campaign for votes for women in New Zealand in the 1880s and early 1890s. At the time all women were denied the vote, along with ‘juveniles, aliens, lunatics and criminals’. Kate Sheppard, the WCTU’s national franchise and legislative WCTU department’s superintendent was a woman of courage and persuasion, filled with energy, passion and commitment to the aims of WCTU – For God and Home and Every Land.  She was no lunatic. The WCTU had been established in 1885. She and they believed, along with some others, that if women had the right to vote, governments would be more likely to pass laws to reduce or ban alcohol consumption. Therefore Kate mobilised, encouraged and coordinated women across the country to sign the suffrage petitions in 1891, 1892 and 1893. Nearly 32,000 signatures were obtained which represented nearly 30% of the women in New Zealand at the time. This resulted in New Zealand becoming the first country in the world in which women were granted the vote in general elections.


Those original signatures, on a long glued-together parchment roll, are now safely stored in a new depository and display cabinet in the National Library of New Zealand. The official opening of this new exhibition took place in Wellington, New Zealand on 19 May, 2017. Kate Sheppard, along with other early NZ history makers, was honoured. I was there at this historic He Tohu (signs) event along with some hundreds of Maoris and European descendants – all New Zealanders.

In1895 the WCTU began publishing its own newspaper, the White Ribbon. Kate Sheppard was the papers’s first editor and women contributed, wrote and managed this first women’s newspaper in New Zealand.

Kate had come to New Zealand with her mother and siblings in 1869 at 22 years of age, after the father had died. She and her sister soon became concerned about justice for women and children. She was an early cyclist, just like Frances Willard, the radical women’s leader of WCTU and suffrage movement in America, and helped modernise clothing for women. Kate travelled to and campaigned for women’s suffrage in England and America. She married Walter Sheppard, a wealthy merchant and they had one son. She outlived both of them and her one granddaughter. Kate helped set up the National Council of Women in New Zealand and she became the first president in 1896.

Memorials, streets, bank notes, houses in schools, a play – have all been named in honour of this excellent lady.  When I crossed the the road near the Parliament buildings in Wellington, I was surprised and delighted to see the green pedestrian light revealing the silhouette of Kate, walking determinedly.  She died in 1934, aged 87 years and is buried in Christchurch, New Zealand. She will long be remembered and is honoured on Women’s Suffrage Day or White Camellia Day on 19 September each year.

She was never a lunatic or criminal but she was probably a ‘fierce female’ as Hana Olds said in her presentation at the He Tohu event. I take pride in being one of those women from New Zealand and work hard to help the hurting and abused women of the world and rather than a lunatic I would be glad to be known as a ‘fierce female’ from ‘down-under’.


Some ‘fierce females’ from New Zealand.


Dirty Church

The church floor was filthy.  I had never seen such a dirty church floor.  Clods of black dirt covered the shiny white tiles and black bare feet stood on it or traipsed in more.  At first I thought, “Why don’t they clean this up and take more pride in their church?”

But then I looked at the eager devoted faces, then at their dress, then at their feet.  If they wore shoes they were all now left at the door and by removing their shoes at the door, they were showing reverence for God’s House.  This was the church at Bulolo in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The flower decorations were brilliant and vases of bright lilies and crotons filled the many vases at the front of the church.  Obviously the women had contributed and created these marvellous displays.  Besides, I had seen them preparing the church with flowers on a previous visit.

Hundreds of faithful church members had come from near and far to see and hear the important people from the church Union office in Lae.  They wanted to hear the news of the world church, to hear a sermon that would encourage them and to share their music with us.  A number of fine singing men’s groups sang their hearts out and the congregation joined in beautiful harmony  when we sang the old time hymns.  The deacons passed the offering bags along the rows and over the heads of the many children filling up the aisles.  They bags were bulging when they reached the rostrum.

When they were told that PNG had the highest offering/tithe percentage per membership in the South Pacific region, they were elated and broad smiles precipitated a loud applause.  They were justifiably proud of their church.

The divine service proceeded followed by the Sabbath School lesson because the electricity would be cut off at that time and no loud speakers would be available.  The teacher was an enthusiastic school master and many men responded to his proddings and questions.  The president of the Union, Leigh Rice and then Bob Butler, CFO, spoke after the lesson time with more news and current event stories from across the country of PNG.  Many men again asked further questions or asked for clarification about this or that.  Not one woman spoke although all had eager anticipation written all over their faces. 

I turned to the women near me and said,  “Why don’t you ask something?  You must have some questions.  Ask what the church is doing for women.”

They shyly looked at me and said “Oh no, the men can speak.”

I was disappointed with this lack of confidence but was well aware that these same women led the community with their activities of caring for their own homes, for the cooking and cleaning of homes and churches, for the flower arranging, for the teaching in the Sabbath School and the nearby church school, for the heavy gardening work they would do and the carrying of huge loads of firewood on their backs.  They were the ones who put together the exquisite flower arrangements in the church – put there to honour my visit and to bless me with their kindness.

I knew that ultimately they held the society together and without them, this church would be empty, the town would be wild, the streets dangerous for it is here that there has been big tribal tensions with men warring with each other.

But I wished that these same women might feel freer to stand up, speak out and be leaders in their church – equal with the men as Jesus taught us.  PNG has one of the highest rates of domestic violence and abuse in the world.  It is time for my church to help change that by demonstrating their acceptance and support of women in equal partnership in the church.

I thank God for the women of PNG who clean the church floors, arrange the flowers, care for the children, grow and cook the food and are wiling to sit back and let the men speak.  I suspect they might be just a bit too tired.

Written July 25, 2015