Not just the vote

Suf­frage was just a step­ping stone to other ma­jor so­cial re­forms for women.

New Zealand Listener - - SUFFRAGE: 125 YEARS - By SALLY BLUNDELL

The fight for women’s right to vote was not an end in it­self. For Kate Shep­pard and the thou­sands of women who pe­ti­tioned and cam­paigned for women’s suf­frage, it was a nec­es­sary path­way to in­flu­ence pol­icy re­lated to poverty, vi­o­lence and al­co­hol. In their sights were pro­hi­bi­tion, equal wages, eq­ui­table di­vorce law, im­proved health, ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion, re­peal of the Con­ta­gious Dis­eases Act – un­der which any woman sus­pected of be­ing a “com­mon pros­ti­tute” could be picked up off the streets, taken to hos­pi­tal and com­pul­so­rily treated for vene­real dis­ease – and an end to the de­tested corset.


In 1885, Shep­pard co­founded the Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union (WCTU), ar­gu­ing, as did women around the world, that the ex­ces­sive use of al­co­hol led to poverty, ill health, abuse and ne­glect of women and chil­dren. With al­most 2000 pubs in the coun­try – one for ev­ery 150 adults – colo­nial New Zealand was no stranger to the ef­fects of al­co­hol abuse. The tem­per­ance move­ment was gal­vanised by the visit of Mary Leav­itt from the Amer­i­can Woman’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union in 1885. By the end of that year, 15 branches of the WCTU had been set up in New Zealand. Shep­pard’s first cam­paign as the WCTU’s head of fran­chise and leg­is­la­tion was aimed at a ban on the em­ploy­ment of bar­maids, on the grounds that women in bars were, as Barbara Brookes writes in A History of New Zealand Women, “a strat­egy to lure men into vice”. To­tal pro­hi­bi­tion was never adopted, but be­tween 1894 and 1908, 12 of 76 gen­eral elec­torates “went dry”. In 1910, the em­ploy­ment of new bar­maids was banned, although ex­ist­ing bar­maids could keep their jobs.


Other cam­paigns were more suc­cess­ful. For suf­frag­ists, the modern bi­cy­cle, an im­prove­ment on the pre­car­i­ous penny far­thing, was a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal boon. Quicker than walking and cheaper than the new­fan­gled mo­tor car, bi­cy­cles al­lowed women, par­tic­u­larly ru­ral women, to meet, or­gan­ise and col­lect many of the 32,000 sig­na­tures that se­cured them the vote. They also brought in dress re­form, as heavy lay­ered skirts were re­placed with knicker­bock­ers and the ever-so-fash­ion­able split skirt. In 1892, the Ata­lanta Ladies’ Cy­cling Club in Christchurch, the first all-women cy­cling club in Aus­trala­sia, counted among its mem­bers Shep­pard and dress re­former Alice Burn, who shocked au­thor­i­ties at Can­ter­bury Col­lege by wear­ing knicker­bock­ers un­der her uni­ver­sity gown. Brav­ing ver­bal abuse and stone-throw­ing, club mem­bers set out on pic­nics, day trips and cam­paign trails. As 19th-cen­tury US women’s rights ac­tivist Susan B An­thony wrote in 1896, “Bi­cy­cling has done more to eman­ci­pate women than any­thing else in the world … I stand and re­joice ev­ery time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”


If tem­per­ance was the end goal, ed­u­ca­tion was the means. Shep­pard, who was born in Liver­pool in 1847, was well ed­u­cated in Eng­land and, af­ter her fa­ther’s death, in Scot­land, where she was tu­tored by her un­cle, a min­is­ter in the Free Church of Scot­land. In New Zealand, where she ar­rived with her mother and three sib­lings in 1869, Shep­pard ar­gued for ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing for women and girls as the key to “self-evo­lu­tion” and for the “bet­ter­ment of hu­man­ity gen­er­ally”. This was per­haps an eas­ier win – New Zealand’s first girls’ sec­ondary school had opened in Dunedin in 1871 and New Zealand uni­ver­si­ties were open to women

Par­lia­ment raised the age of con­sent first from 12 to 14, then, in 1896, un­der the Crim­i­nal Code Amend­ment Act, to 16.

from the be­gin­ning. In 1877, Kate Edger be­came only the sec­ond woman in the Bri­tish Em­pire to earn a de­gree, but un­til 1944, when sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion be­came com­pul­sory for all chil­dren up to the age of 14, girls were still less likely than boys to at­tend school.


Through her in­volve­ment with the

WCTU and the Young Women’s Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion, Shep­pard pro­moted is­sues to do with girls’ and women’s health. Girls, she be­lieved, were ham­pered by lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­stricted by im­prac­ti­cal cloth­ing. As she wrote, “While their broth­ers are rac­ing, play­ing cricket, and gen­er­ally lay­ing up a re­serve of en­ergy for their life’s work, our girls are be­ing taught to walk de­murely, and to feel that all vi­o­lent ex­er­cise is un­wom­anly. Can we won­der that so few women re­joice in the pos­ses­sion of per­fect health?” The WCTU pro­moted walking, cy­cling, sport, sen­si­ble cloth­ing (Shep­pard loathed the corset) and healthy food. As con­vener of the Can­ter­bury Women’s In­sti­tute (CWI), she also joined ef­forts to raise the age of con­sent. Un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from the CWI

and WCTU, Par­lia­ment raised the age of con­sent first from 12 to 14, then, in 1896, un­der the Crim­i­nal Code Amend­ment Act, to 16.


New Zealand laws in the 19th cen­tury were heav­ily bi­ased against women. Although both sexes could di­vorce for adul­tery, a woman had to prove vi­o­lence as well. If a hus­band died, a woman did not have au­to­matic guardian­ship of her chil­dren. There was no such thing as equal pay, even when women were do­ing the same work as men. Although a sin­gle woman or a widow could own prop­erty in her own right, a mar­ried woman could not – any earn­ings she made be­came her hus­band’s, even if he aban­doned her. The suf­frage move­ment ad­dressed all these is­sues with some suc­cess. In 1884, the Mar­ried Women’s Prop­erty Act en­abled mar­ried women to own prop­erty in their own right, and in 1898, a new di­vorce act made con­di­tions equal for men and women.

At the first meet­ing of the Na­tional Coun­cil of Women, in 1896, mem­bers en­dorsed a res­o­lu­tion that “the wife’s de­mand for a just share of her hus­band’s earn­ings for her sep­a­rate use” was fair and rea­son­able. women are not clear about Müller’s early life, other than her birth­date of Septem­ber 22, 1820.

At 21, she mar­ried James Whit­ney Griffiths, a chemist, in Lon­don and they had two sons and a daugh­ter. Eight years later, she and her two younger chil­dren left Eng­land on the Pekin, bound for New Zealand.

The then Mary Griffiths was de­scribed on the ship’s pas­sen­ger list as a widow but it has been sug­gested by sev­eral writ­ers that her hus­band was still alive and that she had left him be­cause of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

She and her chil­dren ar­rived in Nel­son in Jan­uary 1850, and in De­cem­ber 1851, she mar­ried Stephen Lunn Müller, a wid­owed doc­tor with four chil­dren, who had also come here on the Pekin.

Mary Anne Müller had looked af­ter his chil­dren with her own while Dr Müller had to travel, and the pair were mar­ried only af­ter it was con­firmed her hus­band had died.

Six years later, the fam­ily moved from Nel­son to Blen­heim, where Stephen Müller took up the po­si­tion of res­i­dent mag­is­trate. There, they were joined by Mary’s el­der son.

Based on her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, Mary Müller had a keen sense of the le­gal and po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles faced by women. Her first and great­est con­cern was that, on mar­riage, women lost all rights to own and con­trol prop­erty. Her sec­ond con­cern was that women were not able to vote.


Af­ter meet­ing English women’s rights ad­vo­cate Maria Rye dur­ing her 1864 visit to New Zealand, Müller be­gan to closely watch the course of the women’s rights move­ment in Bri­tain and the US. This spurred her into writ­ing ar­ti­cles as “Fém­mina” for the Nel­son Ex­am­iner.

W Sid­ney Smith, in his 1905 book Out­lines of the Women’s Fran­chise Move­ment in New Zealand, wrote that her hus­band was “heartily shocked” by his wife’s views.

“A good and learned man, an af­fec­tion­ate

If a hus­band died, a woman did not have au­to­matic guardian­ship of her chil­dren. There was no such thing as equal pay.

hus­band, he was rigid in his views as to the im­pro­pri­ety of women man­i­fest­ing an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics,” Smith wrote.

“Mrs Müller was con­fronted with a choice be­tween do­mes­tic dis­cord and the ad­vo­cacy of views she felt to be both just and ur­gent. In this painful dilemma, Mr Charles El­liott, a rel­a­tive by mar­riage, came to the res­cue. Not only a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, he was the pro­pri­etor of the Nel­son Ex­am­iner, which at that time was prob­a­bly the most in­flu­en­tial news­pa­per in the colony.

“Care­fully pre­serv­ing Mrs Müller’s anonymity, he re­ceived and for­warded her cor­re­spon­dence, placed the col­umn of his own news­pa­per at her dis­posal, and pro­cured pub­li­ca­tion for her ar­ti­cles in other parts of the colony.”

Her in­flu­ence soon ex­tended well be­yond the top of the South Is­land, when her pam­phlet call­ing for the women’s vote was pub­lished.

In it, she ar­gued that women should not be dis­crim­i­nated against in law or pol­i­tics on grounds of their sex, that they had as just a claim to the vote as men, and that with­out po­lit­i­cal rights they could not make their full con­tri­bu­tion to the progress of the na­tion.

“How long,” she wrote, “are women to re­main a wholly un­rep­re­sented body of the peo­ple?” She urged men to take the ini­tia­tive in elec­toral re­form and made a spe­cial plea to par­lia­men­tar­i­ans: “Women’s eyes turn in hope – nay trust – on some lead­ing spir­its who will not fail them.”

It at­tracted great in­ter­est at home and over­seas and prompted a con­grat­u­la­tory let­ter from Bri­tish philoso­pher John Stuart Mill, who was deeply in­ter­ested in jus­tice and equal­ity for women.

De­spite her hus­band’s view that women should not be in­volved in pol­i­tics, Müller met with many prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the time, in­clud­ing Ed­ward Stafford, Al­fred Domett, Sir Wil­liam Fox, Sir John Hall and Sir David Monro, and was an in­flu­en­tial net­worker and lob­by­ist.


In the mid-19th cen­tury, a mar­ried cou­ple was a sin­gle fi­nan­cial and le­gal en­tity con­trolled by the hus­band.

All of a wife’s money and prop­erty, whether ac­quired be­fore or af­ter mar­riage, was her hus­band’s. A wife had no right to a share of her hus­band’s (or their joint) earn­ings or prop­erty dur­ing mar­riage, or to part of his es­tate af­ter he died.

Be­fore then, it was not un­known for men to go to the West Coast to dig for gold, leav­ing their wives and chil­dren with­out sup­port. The hus­bands, on their re­turn, had ev­ery right to seize ev­ery­thing saved by their wives, to ac­tu­ally sell the fur­ni­ture from the house, and re­turn to the dig­gings leav­ing their fam­i­lies des­ti­tute again.

Home own­er­ship was near im­pos­si­ble for mar­ried women be­fore 1884 and it re­mained un­usual for them to own prop­erty for decades af­ter­wards.

Par­lia­ment passed laws in 1860 and 1870 to im­prove the po­si­tion of wives de­serted by their hus­bands, and in 1867 to al­low di­vorce.

In 1884, the Mar­ried Women’s Prop­erty Act gave women within mar­riage a le­gal ex­is­tence for the first time. It let them hold prop­erty and make con­tracts in their own right, and al­lowed them to sue and be sued.

In 1893, women won the vote. In Marl­bor­ough, about 200 women had signed the suf­frage pe­ti­tion and about 1000 women reg­is­tered to vote – Müller was among them.

She wit­nessed these re­forms with plea­sure and, in March 1898, wrote to Shep­pard to thank her as she “liked to feel in touch with those car­ry­ing on this strug­gle”.

“‘Old and fail­ing, it is cheer­ing to watch the ef­forts of the younger and abler women striv­ing bravely to suc­ceed in ob­tain­ing rights so long un­justly with­held.

“It was a tri­umph to ob­tain the suf­frage; the Mar­ried Women’s Prop­erty Act was, to me, even greater, for I had suf­fered greatly. The ef­fort will give us a free­dom that thou­sands yearn for.”

In De­cem­ber 1898, seven and a half years af­ter her hus­band’s death, her iden­tity as Fém­mina was fi­nally re­vealed in a no­tice in White Rib­bon, the newslet­ter of the Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union.

Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor Raewyn Dalziel has writ­ten about Müller, no­tably for the New Zealand Dic­tio­nary of Bi­og­ra­phy.

She says that Müller’s ad­vo­cacy of women’s rights grew out of her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and her wide read­ing of con­tem­po­rary af­fairs and de­bate.

“There is a lot we will never know about her – just what hap­pened in her first mar­riage, why she came to New Zealand, her re­la­tion­ship with the Müllers, and so on.” Is she still rel­e­vant?

“In the way that all writ­ers on women’s rights are rel­e­vant – we are not there yet.”

In the mid-19th cen­tury, all of a wife’s money and prop­erty, whether ac­quired be­fore or af­ter mar­riage, was her hus­band’s.


1. Kate Shep­pard. 2. English suf­frag­ists cy­cling to a meet­ing in 1913. 3. Tem­per­ance Ladies’ Brass Band, Auck­land, around 1910. 2


Stephen Lunn Müller; right, Mary Ann Müller and her grand­son.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.