Today New Zealand celebrates White Camellia Day, also known as Kate Sheppard Day, or Suffrage Day.
New Zealand was the 1st country in the world to give women the right to vote. Universal suffrage was achieved on 19 September 1893: 9 years before Australia (1902), 27 years before women in the US were given the right to vote (1920), and 35 years before women in Britain could elect their own representatives (1927).
The campaign for universal suffrage was led by a few notable women, including Kate Sheppard, who is commemorated on the NZ $10 note.
For two decades leading up to 1893 these women wrote, campaigned, and petitioned, finally in 1893 assembling a petition with 31,872 verified signatures: the largest petition ever assembled in Australasia up until that point. Pretty impressive considering that New Zealand’s population in 1893 was just over 700,000!
Those who signed the petition and supported women’s suffrage were given a white camellia as thanks and to wear to signal their support, and the white camellia is still linked with women’s rights in New Zealand.
The petition did the trick and finally convinced New Zealand’s politicians that there was widespread popular support for universal suffrage. They passed the Electoral Bill on 8 September, and 11 days later it was signed into law by the governor.
The New Zealand suffrage movement was quite unique in its strong focus on equality: everyone, regardless of class, social status, race, or property ownership, should have the right to vote. Sheppard stated “all that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”
The 1893 election came just two weeks after the passive of the bill. Over 2/3 of women in New Zealand voted, an amazing percentage if you consider that well into the mid 20th century women in rural areas of New Zealand made it to town only once or twice a year.