Why were New Zealand women first in the world to achieve suffrage?

new zealand 1893 women suffrage vote

If you know anything about New Zealand history at all, you probably learned that New Zealand women were the first in the world to achieve the right to vote in 1893.

This is true, but clarifications are in order:

  1. New Zealand was the first full nation to afford women the right to vote, but if we’re talking about territories, conditional women’s suffrage was in effect for Swedish women over a century earlier during the Age of Liberty (1718–1772). There are other examples of sporadic extended rights.
  2. Across history, women’s suffrage has been granted and then taken away, so the story gets a bit more complicated depending on whether we’re talking about ‘the continuous’ right to vote, or maybe it was just a one-off, temporary kind of thing. Pitcairn Islands was the first territory (British) to afford women the continuous right to vote, starting in 1838.
  3. The Isle of Man (a self-governing British Crown Dependency) granted women the right to vote in 1881, but only if they owned property.

New Zealand achieved something grand, because in Aotearoa New Zealand, women without property have been voting continuously in New Zealand elections since 1893, regardless of race. This development worked partly in tandem with the enfranchisement of Māori, who did not own land as individuals — but rather collectively. Māori were therefore excluded from colonial notions around who counts as important when it comes to having a say.

I think one of the myths we have in Australia — and I think New Zealand is much further along with this than we [in Australia] are — we still think of ourselves as culturally a European culture. But we’re not. We are the issue of the invaders and the invaded. As much as there was a process of colonization, there was a process of indigenization. Whether people wish it or not, we are not European in our outlook. We think differently. We feel differently. And so much of this comes from a 65 thousand year old culture that wasn’t extinguished on day one of the invasion, or ever.

Richard Flanagan: chain reactions, Friday 24 November 2023, Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, RNZ


Some factors for your consideration.


Because Māori peoples and Europeans have such a different attitudes towards land “ownership”, even white New Zealanders (Pākehā) of the 1800s were exposed to a very different way of looking at the world.

New Zealand of the late 1800s was a colonised land with all of its attendant racial issues, but the fact that Māori people did not “own” land in the same way no doubt had an impact on wider cultural views about the unjust rule imported from England that only land “owners” get a say in what goes on. Once you realise it’s not fair that only land owners get a say, you probably start to question whether it’s fair that only men get a say.

This in itself doesn’t explain why colonial invaders of other lands refused to look and learn from the cultures of native peoples around the world, because Māori weren’t the only group of people with a collectivist approach to life. That’s a more complicated issue but, for starters, New Zealand is a geographically compact country. Unlike, say, Australian colonisers, who rarely interacted with Aboriginal Australians in the vast continent that is Australia, European settlers to New Zealand had much interaction with Māori peoples.

As part of that story, Māori tribes were very interested in acquiring muskets, which required ongoing interaction with white people. (White people provided the supply of bullets during the infamous musket wars.) Because of this intercultural contact, Māori ways of looking at the world were not wholly foreign or unknown to European colonisers of the 1800s. It is therefore possible that some colonisers looked at the culture of the pā (meaning meeting house, or the entire defensive settlement where the pā is located).

The culture around the pā (owned by the community) probably started white people questioning traditional aristocratic voting rules requiring land ownership — especially, perhaps, in the colonisers who did not themselves come from money. The vast majority of emigrants from Europe to New Zealand did not come from money. (My own New Zealand immigrant ancestors were carpenters and farmhands.)


Sure, New Zealand women were comparatively early to get the vote, but let’s not put too rosy a tint on the state of late 1800s feminism in Aotearoa.

Ironically, extending the vote to women was a partly sexist act. Benevolent sexism, but still sexism.

Conservatives of the late 1800s were starting to get really worried that society was turning to crap. Men were drinking too much, there was too much violence, not enough civility! In an 1800s precursor to the “glass cliff” phenomenon, (men mess it up; only a Good Woman can fix it) it was thought that if women got a say in politics, society might fix some of these issues. After all, women are more cautious and scared and concerned and affected and ultimately, the responsibility for preventing male violence comes down to our women folk, right?! Women would get behind the temperance movement, so it was thought.

Sure enough, once women were afforded the vote, many of those women already belonged to The Women’s Christian Temperance Union which had formed in the mid 1880s. The WCTU did petition against liquor licences. Ultimately, the pubs took them to court and won, arguing that 1890s Christians were ‘incurably biased’ against alcohol. (Fair point.) In 1893 a compromise was reached: Rather than an all or nothing approach, government would issue a limited number of liquor licences per region. (It’s been the same ever since.)


1880s New Zealand women were indeed culturally quite different from other women who were later to achieve suffrage. They were less constricted to the home. Why, though?

If you’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond or the more recent The Future of Germs by Jonathan Kennedy, you’ll be familiar with the idea that when looking for reasons behind social phenomena, answers can come from a confluence of non-obvious factors (i.e. muskets, disease, steel and… gut bacteria.)

Why might 1890s New Zealand women be more outspoken (and push for the vote) when their sisters overseas seemed less feminist?

Historian James Belich proposes that this may have something to do with the fact that New Zealand was free from wildlife perceived as dangerous to humans. In this regard, Aotearoa is quite different from places like Canada or Australia. The most dangerous spider in New Zealand is the katipō, which doesn’t hold a candle to Australia’s male funnel web. Fortunately for New Zealanders, Australia’s redback was accidentally imported in the 1980s but doesn’t like the cold. (I remember flying home to NZ from Australia in the early 1990s — back then, airlines would douse the entire cabin of human passengers with bug spray before we were allowed to disembark, but I guess there were complaints because that tradition didn’t last.)

Without dangerous creatures in 1800s New Zealand, parents let their daughters roam freer than parents of daughters in other countries.

Although it is true that other humans (specifically men) are the biggest threat to a woman’s safety, not wild animals, not even in the 1800s, it’s the perception of danger that’s at issue here. (Also, I live in Australia now, and the only interaction I’ve ever had with a male funnel web spider happened right here at my computer desk.)

So long as parents perceived their daughters were safe to roam, this effected the cultural change in which girls and women really were much more free to go out into the world. As a result, New Zealand women of the era were typically physically robust, well-nourished, adventurous and confident. New Zealand women remain proud of this cultural history, which has an impact in the culture to this day.


This difference in wildlife may have been part of what it took to create a more ‘populist’ form of feminism in New Zealand.

In late 1800s New Zealand, feminism wasn’t this niche thing which a few women were into and the vast majority were not. It was everywhere. Feminist views were the norm, across all socio-economic classes, which was less stratified than in ‘the mother country’. maor

Today, the resident population of New Zealand is just over 5 million — the size of a medium sized city in other countries. Back in 1893, the population was far, far smaller, of course:

  • 348,670 white males
  • 307,509 white females
  • 41,993 Māori

If you want an idea to spread quickly across an entire nation, New Zealand is a good place to do it. (This can be very annoying to be fair.)

In the late 20th century, New Zealand was early to adopt EFTPOS. By the mid 1990s, everyone had an EFTPOS card. But I remember working in retail as a part-time job, and American tourists were sometimes baffled. What do I mean, “Cash or EFTPOS?” Acronym aside, some had no idea of the concept of a cash card.

Likewise, international corporations use New Zealand as a test market. Also in the 1990s: Entire supermarket aisles of so-called “sports drinks”. Corporations were testing their products on the compact New Zealand population, which led to local diet and oral health issues to the point where sports drink consumption became a real concern and promotion had to be wound back.

I find it very easy to understand how even in the 1800s, before TV, before the Internet, everybody knew why women should get the vote, and had heard the arguments for and against. Even when you’ve only got word-of-mouth, it doesn’t take long for an idea to spread across a population of fewer than one million, especially when those million live on islands which amount to less than 270,000 kilometres square.


New Zealand women were first to achieve the vote due to:

  • Significant white exposure to more enlightened Māori ways of thinking about land and ownership (which is in turn connected to voting rights)
  • Benevolent sexism, in which woman voters were meant to fix the alcohol-fuelled masculinised violence problem
  • More freedom for women and girls due to a safer natural environment, ultimately leading to greater confidence
  • A populist form of feminism proliferated
  • because New Zealand was a very small population on a few small islands.


Postscript: The funnel web spider I met in my office was donated to Australia’s CSIRO in a Tupperware container which I never got back. The spider was killed humanely in a freezer and he turned out to be a super rare, super-duper poisonous variety and although I didn’t know what I was looking at when I first clapped eyes on him, something in my body had a visceral reaction. I don’t consider myself especially terrified of spiders (thanks to my New Zealand upbringing) but as soon as I saw that shiny black orb rear up on its hind (?) legs I just knew I was looking at death.

Art for this post was greatly assisted by AI.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




error: Content is protected