One hundred and twenty-five years later, three generations of Mary J Carpenter, the first person to sign the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition, attended the NCW Suffrage 125 Celebration Dinner at the Ascot Park Hotel last week.
Great grand-daughter Judith Watt (nee Carpenter), great-great grand-daughter Nicola McAra (nee Watt) and great-great-great grand-daughter Lily McAra (12) accompanied Ray Watt, Judith’s husband, Nicola’s father and Lily’s grandfather, who said “the 125 dinner was a credit to the National Council of Women, Southland branch, and was also a credit to all involved”.
Although Mrs Carpenter (nee Griffiths) was born in England in 1850, she and her parents and other family members emigrated to New Zealand aboard the Zealandia, arriving in Lyttelton in 1870. At that time she was listed as a domestic servant.
A year later she married a widower, and they had nine children. As well as raising her family, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Methodist Church.
At the time Mrs Carpenter signed the petition, the Carpenters were farming at Yaldhurst, Christchurch. Mary’s mother, Mary Griffiths, of Upper Riccarton, also signed the petition.
The 125 celebration guest speaker was actor, author, social commentator and celebrant Pinky Agnew, of Wellington, who entertained the crowd with anecdotes from her life as a feminist. “Are we there yet?” and equal pay were constant themes throughout her reflections.
Winning the right for women to vote had taken about 20 years of campaigning by women in the late 1800s, such as renowned suffrage Kate Sheppard, Ann Muller, who published her pro-suffrage pamphlet in 1869, and Anne Ward, who headed the Women’s Temperance Union (New Zealand branch). It had been a battle, with a number of petitions presented to both Houses of Parliament from the early 1880s to 1893.
petition, women had to be at least 21 years old and a resident in New Zealand. The 1893 petition was made up of more than 500 sheets of paper containing almost 24,000 signatures from throughout New Zealand which were glued together to form a single roll, which stretched more than 270m. Another 12 petitions were also collected, raising the combined number of signatures to 31,872. Of interest, the highest number of signatures on the main petition was from Otago with 7471. Southland contributed 1430 and Auckland 2142.
Even at Sandymount, on a remote part of the Otago Peninsula, Ms Agnew’s ancestors, Jeannie and Helien Dick, signed the petition.
It wasn’t just signed by well-to-do, upper class women, the petition was signed by women of all classes, some to their own detriment, she said.