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Salvation Army and the fight for women's right to vote

Salvation Army and the fight for women's right to vote

Salvation Army and the fight for women's right to vote

A group of early Salvationist women in New Zealand.

By Rosy Keane

There has been much said about the 100-year anniversary of the suffrage movement in the United States. But, did you know that New Zealand was the first country in the world to legally recognise women’s right to vote, on this day in 1893, with many Salvationists involved in the campaign?

The word suffrage has a second definition: intercessory prayers. Intercession “involves taking hold of God’s will and refusing to let go until his will comes to pass”. From the inception of The Salvation Army, we have written into regulations that “godly women ... shall be eligible for any office, and to speak and vote at all official meetings”. We had an understanding that women were created equal and not inferior to men, and deserved their rightful place in decision-making processes. It says in Amos 5:24, “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

In Aotearoa (New Zealand’s original, Maori name), pre-colonial Maori women already held a place of mana (dignity) within Maori society and, according to Annie Mikaere in Maori Women: Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonised Reality, “... women had military, spiritual and political significance, functioning as part of a wider family unit and whose voices were heard in the stories of history”. Historians praised the collectivist culture of Maori whanau (family), reinforced and passed on through the oral traditions in haka, waiata tawhito (traditional Maori songs) and whakatauki (proverbs and wisdom) written by both men and women.

This was in stark contrast to the British way, where all official institutions were governed by a male-dominated voice and perspective. Women had no say and no hope of true representation. Women were not even recognised as ‘persons’ according to the law.

The law

In 1891, the first-ever Female Suffrage Bill was presented to parliament, with a petition of 10,085 signatures. Kate Sheppard, a leading force in the suffrage movement, said this was necessary, “because it has not yet been proved that the intelligence of women is only equal to that of children, nor that their social status is on a par with that of lunatics or convicts”. The petition asked that women not be classified along with clinically insane and criminal men, or children – who were all excluded from the process of voting – “but that we might take our rightful place in the democracy by virtue of a voice in the legal system”.

Maori women also had a vested interest in these laws that were being passed, as many owned lands, had significant inheritances as indigenous owners, and were affected by the loss of personhood that this new colonial regime would enact upon them. The Bill was defeated by two votes.

A few months later, the War Cry reported that a Miss Arabella Valpy – who had previously petitioned The Salvation Army’s General, by way of letter and two hundred pounds, to found The Salvation Army in New Zealand – helped lay the foundation stones for the Dunedin Fortress Corps, Aotearoa’s first Salvation Army. Women were already fully engaged in the work of The Salvation Army at this time in history.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union

A natural alliance of The Salvation Army was a women’s movement called the ‘Women’s Christian Temperance Union’ (WCTU), which was brought to New Zealand shores by Mary Clement Leavitt, of the United States-based WCTU, in 1886. This was the first national women’s organisation, advocating for a teetotal lifestyle, and went on to include suffrage as one of their main thrusts.

As far back as the 1820s and 1830s, temperance unions had sprung up out of church groups in response to the growing flood of alcoholism sweeping the West. Women and children were the victims of alcoholism; therefore, the emancipation of women to gain the vote would help the cause for temperance. Since The Salvation Army had abstinence from alcohol as one of its core requirements for soldiership, the two groups worked together in their common cause.

‘Ki te kotahi te kakaho ka whati, Ki te kapuia e kore e whati ... Alone we can be broken. Standing together, we are invincible.’

The attack

Christian women’s groups, unions and franchise leagues were mobilising throughout Britain and New Zealand. Tracts, newspaper columns and speeches were produced, with women fervently proselytising local communities to recognise women’s right to vote.

Kate Sheppard encouraged women to sign the women’s suffrage petition. She said, “Do not think your single vote does not matter much. The rain that refreshes the parched ground is made up of single drops.” A total of 24,000 women signed the petition – and many Salvationist women among them.

The victory

When the Female Suffrage Bill first passed the Legislative Council in 1893, not a single woman was in the room when the verdict was read. Kate Sheppard received the telegram from MP John Hall: “Bill passed by two ... Hurrah.” There had been 20 votes for and 18 against.

Eleven days of lobbying nationwide resulted in the ‘Battle of the Camellias’, where the Wellington and Auckland women’s franchise leagues gifted white camellias to the legislative councillors who voted for women’s suffrage and awarded red camellias to the councillors who stood against women gaining the vote. Since then white camellias became the symbol of suffrage.

Governor Glasgow signed the Act into being. This mobilised the WCTU and other women’s unions and franchises to ensure there would be a heavy turnout of women to vote in the election, which was held only 10 weeks later. A total of 65 per cent of all women in New Zealand voted. The NCW’s Suffrage Trail states that this “set a unique trend of high female turn out at elections”. Of note, is that a third of this total number was Maori.

Maori campaigner Meri Te Tai Mangakahia fought for suffrage in Te Kotahitanga – Maori Parliament – and won suffrage in 1897. Her advocacy became the basis for Nga Komiti Wahine – locally-based Maori women’s committees, which furthered issues including education, health, religion and treatment of solo mothers.

Leading suffragist Kate Sheppard went on to become the first president of the newly-founded National Council of Women of New Zealand – a flourishing network of campaigners and women’s rights advocates of which The Salvation Army has been a proud, longstanding member.

While women did gain the vote in 1893, they were not eligible to stand for parliament until 1919. And it wasn’t until 1949 that Iriaka Ratana became the first Maori woman to become a member of Parliament.

Disturbing the present

New Zealand’s female Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is only the third woman prime minister in a list of 40 to have held the role. Parliament today has the highest number of women MPs in the country’s history, at only 38.4 per cent; yet women make up more than half New Zealand’s population.

New Zealand, and the world, has a long way to go, on many issues and in many spheres for the equality of women, to regain the place that God has ordained for us – as co-heirs, image-bearers and as dominion-holders over the earth. But we are a country that is looking to remember its revolutionary roots as we commemorate suffrage this September.

We pray that The Salvation Army as a movement will rouse to hear the call of our forebears: to be a unique expression of the church. May women look to The Salvation Army once again as an army that brings life, unmoved by accolades and unflinching from the opposition.

Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui ... Be strong, be steadfast, be willing.


* In Australia, all British subjects over the age of 21 were given the right to vote in 1902. However, suffrage was not awarded to indigenous women until 1962.

This article was adapted from one that appeared on The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Territory Women’s Ministry website:




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