Through the Glass Ceiling

Suffrage – the right to vote in political elections.

New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy where the people choose their government by electing their representative. Prior to 1893 New Zealand women were unable to vote and thereby influence the composition and direction of government, its policy and reform.

In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world where women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections thanks to the commitment and perseverance of Kate Sheppard and her fellow suffragists. Many Lyttelton Harbour women participated in this achievement.

Lyttelton Harbour, Whakaraupo, has been home to numerous women who have made significant contributions in their community and to New Zealand, when they broke through the invisible barrier and into spheres previously dominated by men. In 1933 Lyttelton also contributed to the shattering of a substantial New Zealand glass ceiling by electing Elizabeth McCombs, the first woman MP, to parliament.

This exhibition also looks back at the women from Lyttelton Harbour who broke through the barrier into local body politics; it also remembers the 1993 Harbour Suffrage centenary commemorations that celebrated the achievements of Harbour women.

Kate Sheppard (1847–1934)

Catherine Malcolm (she preferred Katherine or Kate) was born in Liverpool. She emigrated to New Zealand with her family and arrived in Lyttelton on the Matoaka in 1869 and settled in Christchurch. In 1871 she married Walter Sheppard who was a successful merchant and grocer. They had a son Douglas in 1880 and built a house at 83 Clyde Road, Ilam. Walter died in 1915 and later in 1925 Kate married William Lovell-Smith.

Kate became involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By 1888 she became President of the Christchurch Union and was elected national Superintendent of the Franchise and Legislation Department.

Kate became the driving force behind the achievement of women’s suffrage in New Zealand through her tireless work writing letters, distributing papers, speaking around the country, lobbying politicians and organising the Suffrage petition.

After the suffragists’ success in 1893 Kate continued her work for women’s rights at home and abroad. In 1895 she became the editor of “The White Ribbon”, the first New Zealand Newspaper to be entirely owned and run by women. In 1896 Kate was elected as the inaugural President of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and in 1909 became honorary Vice-President of the International Council of Women.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.)

American temperance campaigner, Mary Clement Leavitt, established the first New Zealand branch of the W.C.T.U. during her visit in 1885. The Union’s motto was “For God, Home and Humanity” and their policy was “Peace, Purity, and Prohibition”. They believed that alcohol was the source of social problems and that banning it would solve them; they were associated with other causes, including education and welfare reform. Without the power to vote women had negligible political influence with which to further these goals and so achieving women’s suffrage became an important objective for the W.C.T.U.

The Lyttelton branch of the W.C.T.U. was established in 1886. Its membership peaked at 33 in 1890, dropping to 19 by 1894, but it retained a strong membership in comparison to much larger centres (possibly a reflection on the particular issues experienced in a port town).

A key objective of the Lyttelton W.C.T.U. was the establishment of a Seamen’s Rest. As thousands of sailors visited Lyttelton every year and public houses were often their only option for an evening’s entertainment, the intention was to supply an alternative (liquor free) venue for relaxation. The Lyttelton Seamen’s Rest eventually opened on Norwich Quay in 1893 and provided rooms for smoking, reading and writing, billiards and refreshments.

Universal Suffrage

During the 1870s and 1880s a number of bills or amendments giving women the right to vote failed to pass in Parliament. In 1891 and 1892 bills succeeded in the House of Representatives, but failed to pass through the Legislative Council.

There was much opposition to the campaign for women’s suffrage. One argument from the objectors was that most women did not want the vote. Numerous petitions were organised in response to this, which culminated in 1893 with 13 separate petitions with nearly 32,000 signatures and included the 25,000 signature petition organised by Kate Sheppard and the W.C.T.U. This was approximately one quarter of New Zealand women of voting age.

In June 1893 a further Electoral Bill that contained provision for women’s suffrage was presented to Parliament. It was this bill that was passed into law on 19th September that granted all women over the age of 21 the right to vote. With only eight weeks until the general election the W.C.T.U. engaged in enrolling as many women as possible, resulting in the hundreds of Lyttelton Harbour women listed in the 1893 Lyttelton and Ellesmere electoral rolls. Approximately 65% of eligible women voted in the 1893 elections on 28th November (European) and 20th December (Maori).

Elizabeth McCombs and Women in Parliament

Although the Electoral Act of 1893 gave women the right to vote, they were not able to stand for Parliament. This finally became possible when the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act was passed in 1919; but while women contested the 1919 and subsequent elections, it wasn’t until 1933 that this milestone was achieved.

Elizabeth Henderson was born in Kaiapoi in 1873. She gained early political experience alongside her older sisters and Kate Sheppard in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, then the Progressive liberal Association (a socialist group). She married socialist James McCombs in 1903. James became first President of the Labour Party when it was founded in 1916 and Elizabeth was on the Party’s executive. In 1921 Elizabeth became the second woman to be elected onto Christchurch City Council: a position she held for the rest of her life. She also worked on hospital boards and other charities. She was made a Justice of the Peace in 1926. She stood unsuccessfully for MP in her home seat of Kaiapoi in 1928 and in North Christchurch in the 1931 elections.

James McCombs was MP for Lyttelton 1913–1925 and again from 1928. His death triggered a by-election; Elizabeth stood as the Labour candidate and on 13th September 1933 achieved a resounding victory and became the first woman elected to New Zealand’s Parliament. In 1935, shortly before her untimely death, Elizabeth was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal for her services. Her son Terence McCombs won the 1935 Lyttelton by-election and ‘kept the seat in the family’ for 38 years until 1951.

Following Elizabeth McCombs, it was 40 years before Lyttelton elected another woman MP: Colleen Dewe, 1975–1978. However, since then women have represented the electorate for all but two terms of Parliament: Ann Hercus 1978–1987 (also the first woman Minister of Police, and the first ever Minister for Women’s Affairs); Gail McIntosh 1990–1993; Ruth Dyson 1993–1996 and for the Banks Peninsula electorate 1999–present day.

The first woman elected to represent the Southern Maori electorate was Tini “Whetū” Mārama Tirikātene-Sullivan ONZ in 1967. This was also a by-election, in this case, following the death of her father Sir Eruera Tīhema Te Āika Tirikātene KCMG who had held the seat since 1932. She held the seat until 1996 becoming the longest serving woman MP and in 1972 became the first Maori woman to hold a cabinet portfolio when she was appointed Minister of Tourism.

Women in Local Body Politics

Numerous Harbour women have dedicated many years service and made significant contributions to local body politics through their roles as members of Community Boards and as Councillors on the Borough, District, and City Councils. In the 1983 elections Lyttelton made history as the first Borough to elect a majority of women to the Council. The women below led the way through the Harbour local body politics glass ceiling.

Gladys Boyd

Lyttelton Borough Councillor 1947–1966

Born in Lyttelton, Gladys was one of the first two women elected to the Council in 1947. She was also the Chair of the Health and Sanitation Board, a Justice of the Peace and involved with numerous other organisations including School Committee Associations, the North Canterbury Health Board, the Aged Welfare Council, Māori Women’s Welfare League, Lyttelton St. John’s Ambulance and the R.S.A. Lyttelton’s first Pensioner housing: Boyd Cottages on Winchester Street are named after her.

Irene Gilmour

Lyttelton Borough Councillor 1947–1953

Irene moved to Lyttelton with her husband Dr B. H. Gilmour in 1920. She formed the Lyttelton Plunket Society in 1921 and was its President for many years. She was elected alongside Gladys Boyd in 1947, she had moved to Diamond Harbour so was its representative on the Council. Irene was keenly interested in Diamond Harbour affairs. She was responsible for convincing the Council to provide the land next to the recreation ground for the Diamond Harbour Community Hall.

Waikura McGregor

Lyttelton Borough Councillor 1977–1989

Waikura was the first Māori woman Councillor for Lyttelton Borough. Her father, Frederick Briggs, was a former Mayor of Lyttelton and her mother Anihaha (Dolly) was New Zealand’s first Māori Mayoress. Waikura fundraised tirelessly for the community at Rapaki and for the Lyttelton Kohanga which she founded with Ann Hercus in the 1980s. After the Kohanga closed she worked for Matua Whangai where she was known as Aunty Sissy. Ōtautahi Social Services’ “Waikura House” was named after her.

Noeline Allan

Mayor, Banks Peninsula District Council 1992–2001

Descendant of the Allans of Allandale, Noeline was a Borough Councillor from 1983–1989 and District Councillor from 1989–1992 before being elected Mayor. Known as a keen promoter of Harbour and Peninsula and an opponent of council amalgamation, she oversaw the improvement of important Harbour infrastructure. More recently, Noeline was involved in establishing the Lyttelton Community House Trust and Whakaraupo Carving Centre.

Women’s Suffrage Whakatū Wāhine 1893-1993

Wendy McKay and Dawn Kottier QSM lead the dawn walk up the Bridle Path, 19th September 1993. Photo courtesy of Wendy McKay

1993 was the 100th anniversary of universal suffrage in New Zealand and numerous commemorative events and activities occurred all over the country. The local celebrations were organised by the Lyttelton Harbour Basin Suffrage Committee, comprising Wendy McKay, Coordinator and Community Board Member, Anne Kennedy and Deborah Rhode, Community Activity Officers, Dawn Kottier QSM, Community Board Member, Sue Truscott and Tess McPartlin.

The two week programme in September opened on the 13th with the launch of the book “My Dear Girl” by David Gee, a biography of Elizabeth McCombs, New Zealand’s first woman Member of Parliament, plus a women’s arts and crafts exhibition, both were held in the old Lyttelton Borough Council Chambers.

Other events included Lyttelton Library Book Week, a women’s sports week, women’s suffrage and women in the community displays, such as well as “Wishes and Wellbeing” – an exhibition on the aged. On 19th September, the anniversary of the passing of the Electoral Act 1893 which had given women the vote, there was a dawn walk up the Bridle Path, and the planting of the Kate Sheppard camellia took place.

The concluding celebration dinner on 25th September included the performance of a celebration play: “Elizabeth McCombs – A Most Discerning Woman” written by Kathleen Henderson, directed by Gwyneth Hughes and performed by locals. This occasion also saw the unveiling of a commemorative quilt.

Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemoration Quilt

Some of the Banks Peninsula women involved in the suffrage commemoration quilt (from left) Aileen Rolton, Sandie Hodgson, Stephanie McEwin, Diana Beeby, Jane Swinard, Andrea Bowater, Tiny Vos and Suszanne Hides. Other women engaged in the work were Liz Baritompa, Adrienne Campbell, Millie Leicester, Pam Beardsley, Olive Bauchop and Ann Stanaway. Christchurch Star, 29.9.1993.

As part of the 1993 Suffrage Centenary commemorations the Lyttelton Harbour Basin Suffrage Committee commissioned a group of Harbour Basin women to create a quilt.

The members of the Lyttelton Craft – Quilters Group met at the Lyttelton Recreation Centre every Thursday morning for months to complete the quilt. The members of the group worked on individual panel pieces, with the central panel sewn collectively. The themes of the individual panels were also chosen by the group’s members and depict different aspects of women’s suffrage and Harbour heritage.

A key feature of the quilt is the Roll of Honour embroidered at the bottom. The community was requested to nominate successful and inspirational Harbour women, both past and present. At the time the final list of 58 names provoked much debate amongst the community, however, the intention of the list was not to be definitive but to be a representation of what Harbour women had achieved.

The quilt was unveiled at the Suffrage Celebration Dinner on 25th September 1993, and is displayed in the Lyttelton Recreation Centre on Winchester Street.

Quilt key

Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemoration Quilt, 1993. Lyttelton Museum.

Central Panel: Lyttelton Harbour Basin, sketched by Stephanie McEwin

Top: White Camellias, worked by Suzanne Hides; Dictionary Meaning of Suffrage, worked by Suzanne Hides; Elizabeth McCombs, First Woman MP for Lyttelton & New Zealand and Noeline Allan, First Woman Mayor for Banks Peninsula, piece by Liz Baritompa; Women’s Suffrage Centennial Logo, worked by Diana Beeby.

Left: Contemporary Image of Women, worked by Aileen Rolton; Women Walking the Hills Around Lyttelton, piece by Pam Beardsley; A Past Way of Life for Women, worked by Adrienne Campbell.

Right: Modern Interpretation of the Harbour Basin Maritime Heritage, piece by Ann Stanaway and Jane Swinard, Temperance Women, worked by Sandie Hodgson; Holy Trinity Church, Lyttelton, piece by Olive Bachop.

Bottom: New Zealand Suffrage Symbols, piece by Andrea Bowater; Roll of Honour, piece by Sandie Hodgson and Suzanne Hides.

Bridle Path Mural

In 1992 the Lyttelton District Arts Council proposed painting the graffiti-covered wall at the foot of the Bridle Path, above the road tunnel entrance. The Lyttelton Harbour Basin Suffrage Committee also expressed interest in this and a call for entries was advertised in November of that year.

Five submissions were received. In mid-March 1993, Lyttelton artists Ronnie and Sarah Kelly’s entry was selected. Depicting pioneer women and their families climbing the Bridle Path, the design was considered particularly suitable for the wall on this historic road as it tells a story that will continue to be understood and appreciated in the future.

Work started on the 42 metre mural in April and it was completed shortly before the suffrage centenary celebrations in September 1993.



Tribute to the Pioneers: Part of the Bridle Path mural with (from left), artists Ronnie and Sarah Kelly, Lyttelton District Community Arts Council Chairperson Ann Joliffe, and Suffrage Committee Coordinator Wendy McKay. Christchurch Star, 4.9.1993.



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