Not just the vote
Suffrage was just a stepping stone to other major social reforms for women.
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.
THE BIRTH OF FÉMMINA
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.
THE FIGHT FOR RIGHTS
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.