19th Century

White Camellia day

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.

Kate Sheppard, 1904. Her image on the note is based on this photograph

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.

Cartoon celebrating suffrage, New Zealand Graphic, 21 July 1894

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.


  1. This struck a chord with me because serendipitously, a quilt blogger I follow is doing a sampler quilt on the theme of Women’s Suffrage. She is posting patchwork and history about the fight for women’s rights on a weekly basis here: Grandmothers Choice: Votes for Women

    Your dashes made me curious so I looked it up:

    Australia: 1902 – 9 years
    United States: 1920 – 27 years
    United Kingdom: 1928 – 35 years

    • Oh-and Canada 1919-26 years. I always found it so fascinating that frontier states in the US gave women the right to vote early. I have a suspicion it’s because the US West provided ample opportunities for women to get out of their golden cages of manufactured insipidness.

      So how interesting that the most ‘cultured’ country: UK, followed the more “frontier” countries like NZ, Australia, US and Canada.

      • For the time period frontier=land owners; land owners= money. Politicians are always about the money and votes that go with it. It just so happens that on the frontier you had large numbers of land owning women, both spinsters and widows. Even when men were around the women did a lot of obvious work that survival depended on.
        Where as in urban areas the wealth was in the hands of men and the work women did was invisible and at times expendable if the men had enough money to compensate the loss of it with.

        • Absolutely. Also, people who headed to the frontier were often people who rejected or were rejected by conventional society, which supported a fair amount of freedom of thought and willingness to accept new ideas. And people were worth what they could do and accomplish, not where they came from.

    • Thank you for finishing my research and looking those up for me! I wrote this post 11 months ago (I kid you not) and clearly forgot to finish it.

  2. Oh oh! Does NZ have a version of the Junior League? The JL was formed in 1900 by a lady who wanted to engage in community causes–in a genteel manner–and provide opportunities to educate women in fields that would have been closed to them.

    In 1920, a chapter opened in Dayton OH. To join, the ladies had to pass a test on the electoral process. The JL wanted to make sure that the women attending the polls for the first time could be informed.

    Anyhow, it’s still around, and I love it because it’s a fast pass to community service and motivated women. Also…I get to dress up.

    But whenever women’s suffrage comes up, I always think about women’s organizations like these. Do any of you know of other organizations? Or are you involved in the Junior League? What do you know about women’s suffrage?

    • I don’t know if NZ has a Junior League, but they do have the National Council of Women, which advocates for women’s issues. Mr D’s Gran was very active with it, and has received a number of commendations from the Queen for her work with it and service to the community. There are family stories about her standing on the street back in the 1960s, gathering signatures for petitions to create Women’s Shelters, with one or more of her children in hand, getting spit on by (mostly male) passer-bys for “destroying families”. If you know NZ, and Gran (she’s tiny, frail, and always has a full cookie jar) you’ll realise how amazing that was.

      • Haha–It’s amazing what women can do when they put their minds to it. Your Gran-in-law sounds soooo super cool.

        The Dayton Junior League established a rehab and halfway-house for teenaged drug-addicts and teens coming out of jail…in the 1970s. The League in general isn’t quite as progressive, now, but I’d be hard pressed to identify a general group of women who are dedicated to improving women.

        Is it my perception that women now don’t do as much? Or is it that our memories only retain the ladies like your Grandma Dreamy? It makes you wonder just what it is that pushes a woman to the limit of no longer tolerating the status quo.

        Kate Sheppard sounds like SUCH a swell gal. And she makes me want to attach a white camillia to each place where Grandma-D was spat upon.

  3. Amazing!
    We recently had an election here in Quebec and elected our first female Premiere Ministre, although an armed gunman tried to enter her campaign headquarters during her victory speach and shot two people, killing one.
    I was shocked to discover during her campaign that women in Quebec didn’t have the right to vote until 1940!! And up until 1964, a married woman’s property and money were owned by her husband – No wonder we had the Quiet Revolution against the Catholic church and the backward social structure.

    • Yay for your first Premiere Ministre (although, of course, more important than gender is that she has the potential to be a good leader and represent the people – I’d still vote for a good male over a bad female 😉 )!

      Gosh – I can’t believe women couldn’t vote until 1940, and that property rule – that’s ghastly! I’m glad that has changed.

    • Ohhhh yeah! I do remember learning about that during the referendum in 1995. That’s crazy!

  4. It was an eye-opener for me when I married and went to live in Switzerland (I’m a New Zealander) to find that women had only recently been given the vote (1971), and that it was still treated as rather a joke. I found myself going all stiff-upper-lipped and humourless.

    I am eternally gratefull to Kate Sheppard and the other women who pushed for the vote, and to the good men then in the NZ parliament who let it go forward for a decision.

    • Gasp! Really! I’d be all stiff upper lipped too! I can’t believe the ladies let if go on that long!

  5. Hayley says

    I really hoped this post was about you sewing a replica of that dress Kate is wearing!!! In powder blue and white!!!! *swoon*

  6. And Finland is proud to be the first country where women could be elected… 🙂
    If I remember Czech history correctly, women gained the right to vote with the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 (not sure when the first election took place). Which means before the USA and Britain, but it was certainly linked to the suffrage movement in those countries, as Charlotte Masaryk came from the USA and I remember a women’s association called “American”, which basically, in their way of thinking, meant “progressive”. Ha-ha.

  7. Interesting atricle! I’m always amazed to see countries so advanced regarding women’s rights: in my own country, France, women were allowed to vote only after the end of the Second World War – and they don’t have to ask their husband the right to work only since 1966. It’s apalling!

  8. Oooooh, how about a post on suffragette-feminist-undergraduette clothing! There could be a Rate-The-Dress, too!

    I was reading how Kate Middleton has to send a lot of messages with her clothes, and it would be so fascinating how these women communicated (or declined not to communicate) with their clothes!

    • That is so so cool! The Junior League is more applied: for example, if I wanted to learn how to do web-design, then I would take a year or two as the volunteer for the chapter’s website. Next year, I want to be on the committee that asks for donations from companies. I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that…

      I read somewhere that women now outstrip men in sheer numbers at college campuses. I have a sneaking suspicion that women-run organizations like PEO are part of that. And yes, educated women tend to vote more. How did you join? That is so so so cool!

      • What I *really* want to know, though, is if the PEO is known for any clothing in particular.

        The Junior League, being the “career” of many stay-at-home wives pre-Women’s Lib is known for everyone wearing pearls. It’s more business-attire, now, but you still see a lot of pearls.

        I am *so* interested in the clothing of pre-Women’s Lib feminists…. I can’t stop checking this site!

        • This is slightly off topic, but when you were in Hawaii were you introduced to the Ka’ahumanu Society, who wear black dresses, hats, gloves and (most importantly) yellow feather lei? They serve the ill and elderly rather than being focused on women’s rights, but it’s still interesting.

          • Oh–that’s what that was? I *did* see them around…that’s really cool.

            And why would it be off-topic? I think it’s really cool learning how women’s groups are identifiable to members and others.

  9. Lene H. says

    In Denmark women were allowed to vote for local council elections (kommune) from 1908, and for the Parliament (Rigsdag) from 1915. But we have always been a carefull kind of people: Lets try it out in a small way, and if it works, scale it up 🙂

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