Sir George Grey’s contribution to women’s suffrage in New Zealand

Sir George Grey is famous as a governor, premier and benefactor, particularly for his donation to Auckland Libraries – but not famous enough for his contribution to women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

Grey appears in a cameo role in a new book, You Daughters of Freedom, on how women got the vote in Australia, in 1902. At a conference considering federation (the joining of the Australian states into one country) a decade earlier, he had advised Dora Montefiore to make sure women got the vote when this happened; she became committed to that aim.

Grey gets little credit on this side of the Tasman for playing a role in our campaign for about two decades, including becoming a founding (honorary) member of the Auckland Women’s Franchise League in 1892, about the same time as he inspired Montefiore in Australia.

The New Zealand campaign started in 1869 when Mary Müller, using the penname Fémmina, wrote a pamphlet titled An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand. She sent a copy to ‘Sir Geo. Grey – from the authoress’ and this is in Sir George Grey Special Collections.

Image: Mary Müller, taken by an unknown photographer, around 1900. Ref: 1/2-021456-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22708444.

Müller sent a copy of her pamphlet to British politician John Stuart Mill, the author whose 1869 book The Subjection of Women was a major influence on New Zealanders, particularly politicians. Mill replied to Müller, congratulating her on making a start in New Zealand and encouraging her to form a movement.

Müller remained anonymous, but Grey and others started pushing publicly for women’s suffrage. Grey included it in his campaign of 1877 and became Premier that year. In 1878, Attorney General Robert Stout introduced a bill that would have enfranchised women who owned property; they had been able to vote in local elections since 1875.

Our national story of suffrage tends to focus on the role of Kate Sheppard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The first WCTU union was formed in Auckland in 1885. The women’s vote was already on the ‘to do’ list for all WCTU unions world-wide, but prohibition was the major cause. To join in New Zealand women had to agree to work actively for prohibition.

Kate Sheppard became franchise superintendent of the national WCTU in 1887. Each year she wrote a Franchise Report and read it at the annual convention. In 1892, the convention was held in Auckland. Sheppard read her report not only at the convention but at a public meeting that anyone could attend. The meeting was chaired by WCTU president Annie Schnackenberg, and Sheppard read her report. But the speakers were men: Sir William Fox, the ex-Premier who was the head of the Alliance (of prohibitionist groups) and the Reverend Joseph Berry.

While in Auckland, Kate Sheppard went to see Sir George Grey. She reported in a letter to MP Sir John Hall (another ex-premier pushing women’s suffrage) that ‘He said that the majority of the Liberal members were in favour of Women’s Franchise.’

The following month – April 1892 – a new movement for suffrage began in Dunedin. The Women’s Franchise League, which would aim at the vote and stay away from prohibition as it was a divisive issue. They did speak from the platform and in the next few months became more vocal and visible than the WCTU. They asked for the vote, ‘as a right, not a privilege’.

After encouraging letters from Dunedin, Aucklanders held a meeting to form a league on 1 June. At it, Sir George Grey said most parliamentarians wanted to give women the vote. The sub for women would be one shilling and for male ‘honorary’ members, five shillings, but Grey promised £5 5s (21 times the required sum).

The league held a big meeting in the City Hall on 4 July with a dozen women speakers and five men. The meeting was interrupted by a lot of interjections from men in the audience and was probably the most ‘violent’ in the New Zealand campaign.

Premier Richard Seddon introduced the Electoral Bill. Sir George Grey voted for it in the lower house, the House of Representatives. It passed in the upper house, the Legislative Council, on 8 September, and the Governor signed it into law on 19 September.

Auckland Franchise League president Amey Daldy wrote to Grey, thanking him for his contribution and inviting him to a ‘thanksgiving meeting’ on the afternoon of 22 September. As he entered, the women stood up and waved their handkerchiefs. He gave a well-applauded speech, saying New Zealand women would receive more attention than previously and must set an example to the rest of the world. Women were enrolled to vote at that meeting.

Image: Amey Daldy. Letter to Sir George Grey, 20 September 1893. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GLNZ D1.1

Image: Amey Daldy. Letter to Sir George Grey, 20 September 1893. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GLNZ D1.1.

Mary Müller had addressed her ‘An appeal to the men of New Zealand’ in 1869. She had sent one to Grey, and he had taken up the challenge. He was proud that New Zealand became the first country in the world in which women voted in national elections, and gave speeches on women’s suffrage when he went to Britain in 1894.

He sent the Franchise League a portrait of himself before leaving. Amey Daldy thanked him, saying they would value it as a memento of the City Hall meeting and ‘your faithfulness to our cause’. This letter is in his collection at Auckland Libraries: Letter to Sir George Grey, 5 February 1894.

Grey died in London in 1898 – on 19 September, Suffrage Day.

Guest author: Jane Tolerton

Jane Tolerton is the author of But I Changed All That: 'first' New Zealand women, 1893-- 2018.


  1. Most interesting to learn about Sir George Grey's little-known contribution to women's suffrage. Thank you.


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