Sheppard, Kate (1847–1934)

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Sheppard, Kate (1847–1934)

British-born suffragist who was a key figure in gaining enfranchisement for women in New Zealand. Name variations: Mrs. K.W. Sheppard. Born Catherine Wilson Malcolm in 1847 in Liverpool, England; died in 1934 in Christchurch, New Zealand; daughter of Andrew Wilson Malcolm (a lawyer) and Jemima Crawford (Souter) Malcolm; married Walter Sheppard, in 1870 (died 1915); married William Lovell-Smith, in 1925; chil dren: (first marriage) Douglas (1880–1910).

Born in 1847 in England, Kate Sheppard was 21 when she moved with her widowed mother and siblings from Liverpool to Christchurch, New Zealand, where one of her older sisters already lived. In 1870, she married Walter Sheppard, with whom she would have one son, and soon became involved in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

In 1885, American feminist Mary Leavitt visited New Zealand, and Sheppard began to dedicate herself to the cause of equality and suffrage for women. As president of the New Zealand WCTU, in 1886 she founded the Franchise Department, devoted to the enfranchisement of women, which she believed would not only help women achieve equality but also help society at large by adding women's voices to debates on social and economic policy. She wrote articles and pamphlets, organized countless meetings with women in small towns throughout New Zealand, and lobbied widely with politicians and other public figures. From 1891 to 1894, she edited the women's page of the Prohibitionist, the twice-monthly magazine of the temperance movement, advocating for temperance and women's suffrage. When the Canterbury Women's Institute, which would largely coordinate the various groups working towards suffrage, was founded in 1892, Sheppard became head of its Economics Department and de facto head of the institute's push for suffrage. First one, then a second, and then a third petition for enfranchisement for women—the last reportedly signed by one out of every four grown women in the country—were submitted to the New Zealand Parliament. The bill passed in the Lower House in September 1893. Prime Minister Richard John Seddon was adamantly set against suffrage, but his attempts to ensure that the bill would be defeated in the Upper House backfired, causing two councilors to change their votes at the last minute; it passed with a margin of two votes. The enfranchisement of Maori women was then added to the bill, and on September 19, 1893, Sheppard received a telegraph from Prime Minister Seddon that the bill had been signed into law. New Zealand had become the world's first nation to grant all its majority-age female citizens the right to vote. When general elections were held two months later, some 90,000 women voted.

Sheppard continued advocating for improvement of women's condition. Upon its founding in 1896, she became president of the National Council of Women, which quickly became New Zealand's most respected and widely known women's group, and maintained a busy schedule as a public speaker, writer, and lobbyist. She traveled overseas several times to meet with suffragists in other countries. Among her greatest concerns were health and social reforms, divorce and separation rights, equal pay, and economic independence. In 1896, she wrote and proposed to Parliament a "common fund" bill to mandate that a married woman with children who did not work outside the home would receive, by law, a set portion of her husband's earnings, to be used for home and family expenses, as just compensation for the work she did inside the home. The bill did not pass. From 1898 through 1903, Sheppard edited White Ribbon, a monthly women's newspaper, but she began experiencing poor health and (perhaps longstanding) marital difficulties. After suffering a nervous breakdown, in 1903 Sheppard moved to England with her husband.

The move did not, apparently, heal the rift in their relations, and in 1905 she returned to New Zealand, where she lived with William and Jennie Lovell-Smith . Walter Sheppard would die in 1915, and in 1925, after Jennie Lovell-Smith died, Sheppard and William Lovell-Smith would be married. Kate Sheppard lived fairly quietly in these years, although she became involved again with the National Council of Women after World War I, advocating both equality and world peace. She was all but forgotten in the decades after her death in 1934. Only with the rise of feminist scholarship towards the end of the 20th century did her achievements and ideas begin to be recognized and written about. A street in New Zealand is now named in her honor.


Hyman, Prue. Biographical Dictionary of Women Economists. Draft, 1998.

Waring, Marilyn J. "How the Vote Was Won: The Centenary of World Women's Suffrage, in New Zealand," in Ms. January–February 1993, pp. 16–17.

suggested reading:

Devaliant, Judith. Kate Sheppard—A Biography. Penguin, 1992.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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