History

Margaret Home Sievwright and the Fight for "United Womanhood"

Channelling a desire to usher in a new era of gender relations following the right to vote, Gisborne suffragist Margaret Home Sievwright articulated a new vision of womanhood and society at large when she addressed the National Women’s Council in 1896:  

“The New Woman is she who has discovered herself, not relatively as mother, wife, sister, but absolutely…she recognises her restrictions, and she further recognises that these restrictions must be struggled against, not in the direction of denying her nature, but rather of shaking off every artificial restraint and repression which will in any way hinder her own full and free development...

I would rather have this new woman — even in her occasional perversity, exaggeration, and revolt — than the female oyster who discovers no interest in life outside the limits of her own shell.” 
 

Image caption: Photographer unknown. [Margaret Home Sievwright]. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-B9750

Wrigglesworth and Binns., photographer. National Council of Women of New Zealand. The New Zealand Graphic, May 16, 1896. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira. DU436.12.

Many people may not realise that Kate Sheppard wasn’t alone when she presented the suffrage petition to MP Sir John Hall in 1893. Her fellow-suffragist Margaret stood right alongside her. Together they campaigned fervently and fearlessly for women's rights and social justice, as heads of the suffrage movement which came out of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They believed women needed to unite as a political force so they could stand and speak on the issues that affected women (and still do today).

“United womanhood would stand for the extinction of poverty, ignorance, vice, crime, cruelty to man and beast, idleness, war, slavery, intemperance, and selfishness.” 

After having won the fight for political franchise, Margaret wanted to further empower women to make their voices and votes count. Through leading roles in groups such as the Gisborne Women's Political Association (founded 1894) and the National Council of Women of New Zealand (founded 1901), she strongly advocated supporting political parties who would further the interests of women and issues that affected them—such as economic independence, equal pay, and sexual education. But how far have we come? 125 years later, we still haven't closed the gender pay gap, which remains at 9.2% in 2018.   

 

Image caption: Daldy, Amey. Letters, 1902-1905. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MS-94-29.

Margaret was acutely aware of the diminishing flame of the women’s movement. The strength of the National Council of Women was wavering; rifts opened, exposing the Council to criticism. In her role as the last President of the Council (before its revival in 1918), Margaret began a last-ditch effort to redistribute fundamental knowledge among all societies affiliated with the Council. 

In an October 1904 letter to fellow-suffragist Amey Daldy, amidst remarks on the downturn of the women’s cause, Margaret committed herself to reconnecting New Zealand women with the work of the International Council of Women through an initiative of subscription-based reading circles: “I am trying to get each of our affiliated societies to form reading circles of special books for the spread of information re   the so-called woman movement [sic]. The International Council is now committed to work for 3 objects: Peace and Arbitration, the Political equality of the sexes, and the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic - enough surely to read of, to talk of, to work for, to fight for!”    

When Margaret died in March 1905, the thrust of the Council’s first four years was lost. When three other leaders died and more became unwell, the decision was made to go into recess. More than a decade later, however, Kate Sheppard, Christina Henderson, and Jessie Mackay would revive the Council, which has since made proud shifts for women and gender diverse people. In 2018, they continue to campaign for a Gender Equal New Zealand.

Margaret Home Sievwright was a bright young woman who became a force for change. Her colleagues and friends celebrated her life of self-sacrifice and devotion to the women’s suffrage movement by erecting a monument to her in Peel Street, Gisborne. An inscription on the monument reads, “Ever a friend to the friendless, an uncompromising upholder of all that is merciful, temperate, and just.”

Letters from Margaret Home Sievwright comprise the majority of the Amey Daldy collection of correspondence held in our library.
 

References

 

Sievwright, Margaret, “The New Woman.” Lyttleton Times, Volume XCV, Issue 10945, April 30 1896.

Joseph Angus Mackay. ‘Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast N.Z., Women’s Organisations’ The New Zealand Provincial Histories Collection, New Zealand Text Collection, first published in 1949. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MacHist-t1-body-d40-d2.html

Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa. “Gender pay gap is second-smallest.” Accessed November 2018.  https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/gender-pay-gap-is-second-smallest

Roberta Nicholls. ‘The collapse of the early National Council of Women of New Zealand, 1896-1906’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, http://www.nzjh.auckland.ac.nz/docs/1993/NZJH_27_2_04.pdf

National Council of Women of New Zealand, “Where we came from.” Accessed November 2018. https://www.ncwnz.org.nz/what-we-do/where-we-came-from/

Cite this article 

Taylor, Alicia. 'Margaret Home Sievwright and the Fight for "United Womanhood"', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 06 12 2018.

URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/stories/history/margaret-home-sievwright