Salvationist, Suffragist, Soldier: The Salvation Army and the fight for women's right to vote | Women

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Salvationist, Suffragist, Soldier: The Salvation Army and the fight for women's right to vote

Explore the explosive surroundings of 1900's Aotearoa, as Salvationist women fought for the right to vote alongside their male peers.
The Salvation Army Suffragists
Posted July 28, 2020

The term ‘suffrage’ means the right to vote. But did you know it also means intercessory prayer? Women's Ministries' writer Rosy Keane examines how suffrage walks hand-in-hand with salvation.

On September 19, New Zealand celebrates 125 years since we were the first country in the world to redress an historic imbalance: to gain women’s suffrage—legally recognising women’s right to vote.

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’.

A Māori proverb (known as whakataukī) says, ‘Inā kei te mohio koe ko wai koe, I anga mai koe i hea, kei te mohio koe. Kei te anga atu ki hea. If you know who you are and where you are from, then you will know where you are going.’ Our heritage in The Salvation Army was inherently radical, as Catherine and William Booth gave ministry rights to women, as well as men. This was a social and spiritual benchmark that mobilised a generation of women onto the mission field, both in their home countries and abroad. Catherine Booth said, ‘If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present’. So what was it that allowed New Zealand all those years ago to ‘disturb the present’?


In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered a landmass in the Pacific Ocean. He incorrectly surmised it to be part of South America and promptly christened it: ‘Staten Landt’. Dutch mapmakers renamed it ‘Zeelandia Nova’. A hundred years later, British explorer James Cook renamed it ‘New Zealand’, even though it already had a Māori name: Aotearoa—Land of the long white cloud.

But, in Aotearoa, pre-colonial Māori women already held a place of mana (dignity) within Māori society and, according to Annie Mikaere in Māori 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 Māori whānau (family), reinforced and passed on through the oral traditions in haka, waiata tawhito (traditional Māori songs) and whakataukī (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’.

Māori 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, 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 kākaho ka whati, Ki te kapuia e kore e whati. Alone we can be broken. Standing together, we are invincible.’

One notable leader of WCTU, from Rotorua, was an outstanding Māori warrior known as Heni Te Kiri Karamu. Heni gained notoriety for both her battle skills and compassion, as she tended to wounded allies and enemies alike at the Battle of Gate Pā, in the Waikato land wars of 1864.

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 proselytizing 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.

At the same time, virulent anti-suffrage petitions and campaigns emerged: one in 1892 had over 5,400 signatories and was presented by Dunedin MP Henry Fish (who had multiple ties with the liquor industry and did not want to see his business dry up). Fish, who was later accused of bribery and forgery in the collecting of petition signatures, eventually caused a back lash and two voters swung in support of women and helped the final Bill to pass.

Unflattering anti-suffrage pamphlets were produced and distributed, depicting women suffragists as promiscuous, neglectful, unattractive, brash and anti-religious. Women had to write under pseudonyms. The very first pamphlet titled ‘Appeal to the Men of New Zealand’ was published in New Zealand by Mary Muller of Nelson, who signed herself as ‘Femina’, due to her husband’s strong opposition. It included: ‘How long are women to remain a wholly unrepresented body of the people? ... Why should not New Zealand also lead? ... Why has a woman no power to vote, no right to vote, when she happens to possess all the requisites which legally qualify a man for that right?’

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 mobilized 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 ten 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 Māori.

Māori campaigner Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia fought for suffrage in Te Kotahitanga—Māori Parliament—and won suffrage in 1897. Her advocacy became the basis for Nga Komiti Wāhine—locally-based Māori women’s committees, which furthered issues, such as 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 Rātana became the first Māori woman to become a member of Parliament.

Disturbing the present

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

We have 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 here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. 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 2018, the Territorial President of Women’s Ministries’ Commissioner Yvonne Westrupp and Territorial Secretary Colonel Heather Rodwell announced that on the Sundays either side of Suffrage Day (Sep 19th), all across The Salvation Army New Zealand, corps would have all women preaching from our platforms.

The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Women’s Ministries released a video on our Facebook page entitled ‘Put That On Your Resume’, to celebrate 125 years of suffrage. In it, Salvationists detail the women of the Bible and their whakapapa (lineage) of faith and courage.

A digitized, searchable version of the petition is available online at Why not check to see if any of your family were part of this historic list?

by Rosy Keane, adapted with permission from 'Disturbing the Present' 'War Cry' magazine, 8 September 2018, p7-9) -You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.