Although prominently known for her impact in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard was actually born in Liverpool, England and moved to New Zealand in 1869 after the passing of her father. It wasn’t until moving to New Zealand that her inner-activist was unleashed. She soon got involved in the community and became very active in campaigning for causes she believed in. Kate was known in her community for supporting local unions, handing out flyers, writing letters to the press and inspiring debates.
Kate’s first involvement in the community was through the church, becoming the founding member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. The union was created due to fears of instability in the home and concern for the damages of alcohol which was a large problem in New Zealand at the time. This was an issue that Kate was very vocal about in her public speaking. Alcoholism was also a concern for Maori women as their husbands had a tendency of drinking away money and putting the family into debt. All women were welcomed into the union no matter of race or class. Under Kate Sheppard’s leadership the WCTU provided a safe place for women where they promoted healthy living, looking after sick children and better pay for women. The WCTU showed no discrimination and encouraged single mothers or women working as prostitutes to join the union so they could help them. Kate believed that all discrimination must be overcome. This means that 131 years ago Kate Sheppard dedicated her life to women having the same rights as men, a simple concept many countries struggle to understand today.
Kate Sheppard became a leader in the suffragette movement. She spent her time overseas trying to motivate women around the world, spreading the word of women’s suffrage. Kate was charismatic, charming, and respected by both men and women. She was a strong debater with her logical and calm approach which went a long way in her campaigning. Upon returning from her travels in 1896, Kate was elected president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand which she held for three years. During her time overseas some male members of parliament had tried to undo all her progress for women in politics. Her return came at a vital time for Kate to use her new platform to correct this. Tired of national council meetings being held annually for men to voice their opinions and concerns she unfortunately felt that a national council meeting purely for women to do the same had become fundamental. However, she continued to try and banish this stigma with the hopes of making space for both sexes to work in politics in unity.
In 1891 as part of her efforts to teach why women’s suffrage was important and should be supported, Kate published ‘Sixteen Reasons for Supporting Women’s Suffrage’ in The Prohibitionist, a magazine she regularly contributed to. Some of her reasons included:
- Because it is the foundation of all political liberty that those who obey the law should be able to have a voice in choosing those who make the law
- Because a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should mean all the people, and not one half
- Because most laws affect women as much as men, and some laws affect women especially
- Because – to sum up all the reasons in one – it is just
It is Kate Sheppard’s influence however, that those 22.8% are in parliament at all. Her grace, commitment, and authentic belief in all women have left a great legacy in New Zealand. New Zealand has had two female prime ministers, a female governor general and many successful female athletes. Her greatest legacy of all though perhaps is being one of the only women featured on a currency. However she was not about the fame or recognition, she was about the cause. Even in times of poor health when she could not campaign face to face she was writing to the press and in her own publications. She would not rest until there was justice.
I am proud to be from a country that has fought for equality since before the age of social media. Now we can, like I am doing, post online to show our support and share our views, in an easy and quick format. These women went to the streets and made their voices heard. They protested door to door and did not rest until justice was served. They left the comfort of their homes to fight for what they knew was right.
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