Kate Sheppard, Women's Rights Campaigner (1847 - 1935)

Kate Sheppard (image: Wikipedia.org)

Kate Sheppard (image: Wikipedia.org)

Most New Zealanders will be familiar with Kate Sheppard's face on the $10 note and will know she was involved in the women's movement, but who was she?

Kate was a fighter. She was the leader of the NZ women's suffrage movement in the late 19th century, a time when most women were encouraged to stick to domestic affairs. Thanks to her drive and passion for gender equality, in 1893 NZ became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. She was also a pioneering cyclist (when women riding bikes, or performing any kind of rigorous exercise for that matter, was frowned upon) and a newspaper editor.

Born in 1847 in England, as Catherine Malcolm, Kate moved to Christchurch, NZ, in 1869. She married grocer Walter Sheppard in 1871, aged 24, and they had a son.

At a time when heavy drinking and social unrest was the norm in NZ, she quickly became involved in temperance activities and founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The union soon realised that having the right to vote would give them far more control in affecting change in society, from controlling liquor laws to improving family welfare. 

Kate travelled the country, giving rousing speeches and collecting signatures for petitions to Parliament asking for women to have the right to vote. She eventually collected almost 32,000 signatures from around NZ  - an impressive feat, given this involved travelling to remote areas.

There was fierce opposition from conservative politicians who believed a women's place was at home, not meddling in politics. But Kate was highly intelligent, well educated, and an excellent writer and public speaker, so she soon gained support from several influential politicians and much of the general public. 

In 1893, her efforts were successful and NZ women were granted the right to vote - the first country in the world to give men and women equal suffrage. 

Kate never stopped campaigning for women's rights. She fought for women to have more control over their finances, helped them gain access to contraception, and campaigned for them to be liberated from the lung-squishing restriction of corsets. She also encouraged women to become actively involved in politics, inspiring generations to come.

"We are tired of having a 'sphere' doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is 'unwomanly'. We want to be natural just for a change… we must be ourselves at all risks."