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One-hundred-twenty-five years ago today, the Electoral Act
1893 was passed, giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote.
One woman of interest to me around this time was Elizabeth
Yates who became known as the world’s first lady mayor. In 1893 she won the
mayoral election by 120 votes to 107, of her residence in Onehunga in Auckland.
As a pioneer of women’s political rights she faced many
challenges. In fact, four councillors and the town clerk resigned immediately
after she won the election. Of the remaining councillors, three councillors
opposed every proposal she submitted.
Council meetings were reported as being ‘dramatic’, drawing
the attention of large crowds who showed up just to see her - often tactless
style in action; they found meetings entertaining.
So why did Elizabeth Yates put herself up to this?
You might find it surprising that while she was a strong
supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and was the first woman to record
her vote in the Onehunga electorate in the general election held on 28 November
1893, her electoral campaign was not directly related to the suffrage movement
Her nomination was “simply in the interest of ratepayers”,
as quoted in the New Zealand Herald (20 April 1894).
After a difficult year in office however, she was soundly
defeated at the polls, but not without leaving a valuable legacy. In her brief
tenure she was able to liquidate the borough debt, established a sinking fund,
upgraded roads, footpaths and sanitation, and reorganised the fire brigade
As I recall my own interests and ambitions growing up in
Tinwald, I never expected to get involved in local government. That came later after
experiencing what it was like dealing with council around the time my husband
and I built the new Regent Cinema. Like Elizabeth, I too became concerned about
the interests of our ratepayers and felt I could make a difference by serving
After two terms as a councillor and a great deal of
soul-searching, I decided to put my hand up for the mayoral spot, dedicating my
time and effort to make Ashburton, my beloved town, the best place to live,
work, and play. While not intentional, I became Ashburton District Council’s
first woman to be elected mayor.
As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s
suffrage in New Zealand, consider getting involved in Suffrage 125-related
activities. Support individuals, groups, and organisations that are
participating in recognising this significant landmark legislation for New
You may find yourself being inspired to do
something that that you wouldn’t have done otherwise, contributing to our
wonderful history and future success.