Women's Suffrage and Local Government

2018 marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. On 19 September 1893, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed, giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote. However, it would not be until 1919 that women were able to stand for election to become Members of Parliament.

To mark this anniversary, Auckland Council Archives has compiled an online exhibition which includes a timeline and photographs of the female elected representatives of the former borough, city, county, regional and district councils of the Auckland region.

On 29 November 1893, Elizabeth Yates was elected mayor of the borough of Onehunga – the first woman in the British Empire to hold such an office. The Municipal Corporations Act 1876 had given all property owners and ratepayers the right to vote and to stand for election in local government. This law made no distinction between male and female property owners, thus Elizabeth Yates chose to exercise this right and stand for office believing that she could represent the interests of the town and do the job well. It was not an easy job, especially being subjected to intense public scrutiny due to the novelty of being the first woman mayor. By the end of her term as mayor she had succeeded in reducing the debt of the council, kept the streets and footpaths maintained and had made an impression on parliament when lobbying for the Onehunga Cemetery Bill. Elizabeth also later served as a councillor between 1899 and 1901.

Ref: E.S. Pegler. Elizabeth Yates, Mayor of Onehunga.
OHB 030/11, Auckland Council Archives

Mrs Ellen Endean is believed to be the first woman to ever stand for office for the Auckland City Council. Mrs Endean was hotel-keeper, and with her husband John, they managed a number of Auckland hotels including the Waitemata Hotel. In 1894, Mrs Endean decided to stand for election as an Auckland City councillor in the Grafton ward. The retiring councillor, George Powley, suggested to Mrs Endean that she would make a good councillor and should put herself forward for nomination as a candidate. According to the newspapers of the day, Mr Powley later said that he was only joking and he intended to contest the seat after all. Despite the joke, Mrs Endean saw no reason to withdraw her candidacy.

Many journalists thought Ellen Endean would be the better candidate and expected her to do well at the polls.  However, Mrs Endean lost the election to Mr W. B. White. She only received 10 votes compared to Mr White’s 115. It is thought that she only lost the election because she was an hotelier and Grafton was a strong temperance ward. Mrs Endean does not appear in the Auckland Council Archives online exhibition. The photograph below of Mrs Endean is held in Sir George Grey Special Collections and there is a portrait held at Auckland Art Gallery.

Ref: Herman Schmidt. Full length portrait of Mrs Endean, 1910.
Heritage Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-60186 

The first female Māori councillor for Onehunga Borough Council was Mrs Mere Newton, who served as a councillor between 1938 and 1944. Mere Newton was born about 1889 and was of Te Ati Awa iwi from Taranaki. In 1909 Mere Tutere Hadden married Charles Paretahinga Newton. Mrs Newton was a well-regarded social welfare worker and was a first grade licensed interpreter. As well, she was the founder of the Tamaki Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1930 and was the branch secretary for the Epsom-Royal Oak branch of the Labour party. Mrs Mere Newton was appointed as a Justice of the Peace in August 1937; only the second Māori woman to be honoured with this appointment. Mere Newton died in 1955 at the age of 66.

Ref: T. H. Ashe, Onehunga Borough Council portrait,with Mrs Mere Newton in the second row, 1941-1944. OHB 009/23, Auckland Council Archives.

Auckland Council has three archives offices where the public and Council staff can access legacy council material and undertake research.  Archivists can advise visitors about the nature of the information they can expect to find, research strategies and navigating the archives database.

Author: Vicky Spalding, Senior Archivist, Auckland Council Archives