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A country of Firsts for women to be proud of

As many of you know, I delve into the past quite a lot. I’m always looking for a story – an anchor for my next character to get involved with – and found myself fascinating by the late 19th century, a period of time with many ‘firsts’ in this country, especially for women. Achievements we should be proud of today. Those pioneering women set the scene for our future.

Let’s start with Otago Girls High School which opened on 6 February 1871, after years of campaigning, with 78 pupils, amidst continued arguments that educating women was a waste of public money. Thankfully, those in favour won out and New Zealand continues to produce exceptionally smart, well-educated and well-qualified women.

In 1877, Kate Edgar became the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor or Arts from University in the British Empire, followed by Helen Connon, BA in 1880 and the first woman in the Empire to gain an honours degree in 1881. New Zealand’s first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, graduated from the University of Otago’s law school in 1898. Stella Henderson completed her BA, gained a Masters of Arts (MA) with first-class honours and met the requirements for a Bachelor of Laws during the 1890s. All of whom went on to achieve greater things.

But beyond the halls of education, women were pushing for recognition. The most political moment, one that could possibly be considered the turning point for women, was the formation of the Dunedin Tailoresses Union (DTU) on 12 July 1889 – one hundred and thirty ones years ago this month.

Originally, managed by men, control was quickly taken over by women. Harriet Morison, a dominant figure in the franchise movement, became the secretary in 1891 and later assisted in the formation of tailoresses’ unions in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and oversaw a rise in interest in women’s suffrage.

Many of the members of the DTU were also leading figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The women’s suffrage petition of 1891 received 4000 signatures from Dunedin, two-thirds of them from working women. These numbers attested to the efforts of the DTU in raising the political awareness and determination of Dunedin’s clothing workers.

In 1891, nine thousand women signed the first petition seeking the right to vote. In 1892, seventeen thousand women signed the next petition, and in 1893 over thirty-two thousand women signed the petition – they refused to give up. New Zealand women became the first in the world to be granted universal suffrage and vote in the 1893 election.

An amazing feat. Somehow, I think Lucy is going to be one of them. She’s already telling me she is.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Emma, the researcher from The Art of Secrets series is going to discover Lucy’s involvement in Book 3.

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