Women and the Law

There were many ways in which women and men were not treated equally under the law in 19th Century New Zealand. But the century did see progress towards that equality.

Women’s Suffrage

In 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the right to vote in national  elections.

Compared with the later upheavals in England, which brought protest marches, arson, imprisonment, and even death, New Zealand’s two-decade campaign for women’s suffrage was all terribly civilised. Members of such groups as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union felt that if women were able to vote, this would encourage government policies that protected the family. Women were often thought of as the guardians of morals, so giving them the vote would increase the morality of politics. They put their case to the public, and from the beginning there was support from some high-placed men. No doubt there was also the support of many “ordinary” men who knew that their wives and sisters were capable of rational thought.

From 1887, various Bills to allow women’s suffrage were put before Parliament. Each came close to being passed, but until 1893 none quite made it. Support was gradually increasing, but there were still naysayers.

“Only a small section of the women of the colony are asking for the franchise,” Mr Fish, a particularly vocal opponent of the movement, said during an 1891 parliamentary debate. That was fighting talk. The suffrage movement, led by our best-known suffragist Kate Sheppard, began organising petitions to show that large numbers of women did indeed want the right to vote on equal terms with men. The third of these petitions, in 1893, had over 30,000 signatures. MP John Hall, a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, carried it into the House and unrolled it down the aisle of the debating chamber until it hit the end wall with a thud.

The 1893 Electoral Bill passed through the Lower House with a comfortable majority. The Legislative Council (the Upper House) was narrowly divided on the issue. Premier Richard Seddon was not a supporter, and he made a move that backfired. The Premier ordered a councillor from his Liberal Party to change his vote. This caused such offence to two other councillors that they changed sides and voted for the Bill, enabling it to pass by twenty votes to eighteen.

The suffragists now mounted a campaign to encourage women to enrol in time for that year’s election. Once again, their campaign was a success: 80% of women enrolled, and 85% of those on the roll voted in the November election.

I’ve used the word “suffragist” quite deliberately, just as it was used at the time for both male and female supporters of the franchise. There were no suffragettes in New Zealand. The word “suffragette” first appeared in print in 1906, in England, by which time NZ women had had the vote for well over a decade.

Married Women’s Property

While a single woman or a widow could own property in her own right, until well into the 19th century this was not the case for married women. To quote the English jurist Sir William Blackstone, “husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Someone who has no legal existence cannot own property.

Anything a woman might earn during the marriage became her husband’s. Even if a man abandoned his wife and family, he might return, confiscate any money or other property she had acquired, and go off again. This particular outrage was removed in the Married Women’s Property Protection Act of 1860, which made it possible for deserted women to keep whatever she earned after the desertion, though her husband could still take any property she might have brought to the marriage.

In 1884 came the Married Women’s Property Act, which enabled married women to own property in their own right. I refer indirectly to this Act in Settling the Account, when a woman receives a small legacy and tells her husband in no uncertain terms that he can keep his hands off it.


Until 1867, divorce was almost unattainable in New Zealand. New Zealand’s laws on the matter followed those of England, which meant divorce required a private Act of Parliament. It seems that no one in New Zealand took up this option.

The 1867 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce more attainable, at least in theory. The double standard of what behaviour was expected of men and women was reflected in this Act, which lasted till almost the end of the century. A man could divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery. For a woman to divorce her husband, she had to prove adultery plus at least one of: incest, bigamy, rape (of someone else; the law did not recognise marital rape), sodomy, bestiality, desertion for at least two years, or cruelty – and this meant extreme, brutal violence.

Divorce was a scandalous matter, and the thought of having such matters paraded in open courtrooms must have put many a woman off, even if she could afford to bring a case. And a husband, even an unfaithful and cruel one, might be a financial necessity. It seems likely that desertion was the most common grounds in successful cases; a man who had ceased to support the family was not worth being tied to.

A new divorce Act came into law in 1898, giving women and men the same right to divorce a spouse on the grounds of adultery. Divorce was also made less expensive; before this Act, even an undefended case might cost a good deal more than a tradesman’s annual earnings. But it was still a scandalous matter, and would continue to be so until the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, with no one declared a “guilty party”, became the sole grounds for divorce. But in 1898, that was still far in the future.