Feminism is about choice. It is about the choice to live your life as you want, to have autonomy over your body, to have financial independence and security, and to be free of physical, emotional and psychological harm.

Choice can mean different things to different people. When we talk about ‘suffragists’ or women who advocated for their rights in the 19th century there is a tendency to view them, their lives and activism, as homogenous. Through this lens people and history become one dimensional: all suffragists were teetotalers; all suffragists were middle-class; all suffragists were Pākehā. But we know this isn’t and has never been the case.

So who were the women activists of 19th century Aotearoa? Auckland Museum’s exhibition Are we there yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa brings us face-to-face with women whose stories challenge the idea of who a ‘suffragist’ was and what fighting for women’s rights meant in 19th century Aotearoa.   

Hunter, Ashley. “Votes for women”, illustration, New Zealand Graphic, 30 September 1893.

Polly Plum

Polly Plum

"The right, as thinking, reasoning beings, to decide for themselves what is best for their own happiness. If they were satisfied with man's decision, this agitation for change would not be."

Mary Ann Colclough was one of Auckland’s earliest, most significant and outspoken Pākehā women’s rights advocates. Under the nom de plume ‘Polly Plum’, Mary Ann wrote to newspapers about women’s rights, sharing her opinions on education, financial independence and property rights for women. In her view, a woman should be able to work and care for her children without being tethered to the success or failures of her husband. As Mary Ann’s own husband died when she was 31, her advocacy was personal:

"I merely write down my thoughts on things as you write your leading articles – because it pays me to do so. My mission is to provide for my little fatherless children, and if I confined my attention solely to washing my dishes they would not often want washing, as there would seldom be food to put on them…"[1]

Not stopping at the newspapers, Mary Ann took to the public stage, giving lectures to packed halls in Auckland, Hamilton, Thames and Ngāruawāhia. Upon giving her first lecture in Auckland, Mary Ann stated,

"My purpose is, to change the tone of public opinion, as to the right of women tamely to submit in silence to indignities heaped upon them."[2]

Mary Ann faced a fair share of backlash, particularly in letters to the editor pages of newspapers. One of her most notable detractors who wrote under the name ‘Old Practical’ questioned the propriety of a woman speaking on such matters in public. This was a common argument - the opinion being that women who concerned themselves with political matters were going against what nature had intended. Indeed, one of the loudest opponents of women’s suffrage, Dunedin MP Henry Fish, said,

"When will this outrageous mixing-up of the sexes to stop once you begin it? I say that bringing women into contact with politics will destroy that refinement, that delicacy of character, which has been her greatest charm hitherto."[3]

Mary Ann died before the Electoral Act of 1893 passed but the role she played in New Zealand’s 19th women’s rights movement cannot be underestimated. A woman ahead of her time, for Mary Ann politics was personal. She refused to let society’s restrictive expectations of women dictate her actions, and instead used her own lived experiences as fuel to drive her activism.


[1]Polly Plum, correspondence, Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXVI, Issue 3987, 2 June 1870.

[2] A Woman, ‘To the Editor of The Herald’, New Zealand Herald, Volume VII, Issue 2108, 27 October 1870.

[3]Henry Fish, Parliamentary Debate on Female Suffrage Bill, New Zealand Parliament, July 1891.


Image (right): Photographer unknown. Mary Ann Colclough (Polly Plum). Family collections.

Meri Te Tai Mangakahia

Meri Te Tai Mangakahia

"I move this motion before the principle member and all honourable members so that a law may emerge from this parliament allowing women to vote and women to be accepted as members of the parliament."

On 18 May 1893 Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Te Rarawa spoke these words at Te Kotahitanga Parliament in Waipatu in the Hawkes Bay, becoming the first woman recorded to have spoken in any parliament in Aotearoa. In her address Meri asked for much more than the vote - demanding that Māori women also be able to stand as members of Te Kotahitanga. In order to counter the impact of colonisation, incessant land-loss and to assert their rights as mana whenua, Māori women needed their voices heard as leaders and landowners in their own right. Meri spoke from this context when she presented her motion at Te Kotahitanga - a context quite different to Pākehā suffragists.

In her speech, Meri spoke about the immense knowledge Māori women held about whenua, arguing that they were often the best or only person in their direct whānau able to represent their concerns. Being shut out of governance was not only unfair but formed an integral cog in the colonial machine - Meri’s motion was a step toward reclaiming the right of wahine to maintain and control land. As Te Papa’s Iwi Development Manager Migot Eria has said,

"If we are to discuss the importance of wahine, we are also discussing the importance of whenua."[4]


Meri’s last point underscored her belief in the power and potential of women representatives:



"He nui nga tane Rangatira o te motu nei kua inoi ki te kuini, mo nga mate e pa ara kia tatou, a kaore tonu tatou i pa ki te ora i runga i ta ratou inoitanga. Na reira ka inoi ahau ki tenei whare kia tu he mema wahine.

Ma tenei pea e tika ai, a tera ka tika ki te tuku inoi nga mema wahine ki te kuini, mo nga mate kua pa nei kia tatou me o tatou whenua, a tera pea e whakaae mai a te kuini ki te inoi a ona hoa Wahine Maori i te mea he wahine ano hoki a te kuini.


There have been many male leaders who have petitioned the Queen concerning the many issues that affect us all, however, we have not yet been adequately compensated according to those petitions. Therefore I pray to this gathering that women members be appointed. Perhaps by this course of action we may be satisfied concerning the many issues affecting us and our land.

Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well."[5]


Despite being supported by Henare Tomoana (premier of the Te Kotahitanga) and his wife Akenehi Tomoana, Meri’s motion was not successful that day, however women were eventually able to vote in Te Kotahitanga in 1897. According to her whānau, Meri was destined to be a leader and indeed following her parliamentary address she helped establish Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine,

"[A] hui where wāhine Māori were able to discuss issues including cessation of land sales, prohibition, and women’s right to vote."[6]

The concerns Meri highlighted echo through the generations. What she spoke of - representation and tino rangatiratanga - remain relevant today and show that for many women, particularly Indigenous women, concerns around gender equality cannot be separated from wider concerns around the destructive legacy of colonisation, and the struggle for self-determination.


[4] Migoto Eria, “Te ao Māori: The synergy between women and the land”, Te Papa Blog, 23 April, 2018 https://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2018/04/23/te-ao-maori-the-synergy-between-women-and-the-land/

[5] New Zealand History: Nga korero a ipurangi o Aotearoa. “Meri Mangakāhia.” https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/so-that-women-can-get-the-vote  (accessed 6 September, 2018).

[6] Eria, “Te ao Māori: The synergy between women and the land.”


Image (right): Mason, Frederick W., photographer. [Copy of Portrait of Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia.] Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-C5101.

Elizabeth Yates

Elizabeth Yates

"I think women are quite as well able to legislate as men…"

On 28 November 1893 Elizabeth Yates cast her vote in the electorate of Onehunga.  A day later she would make history by becoming the first ‘lady mayor’ of the British Empire. Elizabeth did not rest on her laurels - a few days later, she gave an interview in the New Zealand Graphic outlining her ideas:

"I am most anxious to make a change in the way business is carried on. There is in both borough councils and in Parliament too, a great deal too much talk...Men often get up and talk at these meetings just to waste time…"

Elizabeth also had ideas around implementing women jurors and wardens, citing that

"No woman, however degraded, but should have women to look after them."[7]


This historic moment was noted by many - Elizabeth received words of congratulations from everyone from Richard Seddon to Queen Victoria. But not everyone was happy with her appointment. Indeed

"Four councillors and the town clerk resigned immediately in protest."[8]

Elizabeth was described by some as difficult, acerbic and dictatorial. We can only speculate but it’s worth asking - would these words be used to describe a man of the same disposition?

While she was a suffragist, when it came to alcohol and prohibition Elizabeth departed from the goals of many others of the time going as far as stating that,

"Most emphatically I am not a prohibitionist.'"

Elizabeth believed that such a law would have lopsided impact on the working class and that the rich would be able to import liquor if they chose to.[9]

Despite her many achievements, such as liquidating the borough debt, establishing a sinking fund, upgrading roads, footpaths and sanitation, and reorganising the fire brigade, Elizabeth was soundly defeated at the polls on 28 November 1894. She returned to the Onehunga Borough Council in September 1899, serving until April 1901.



[7] “Interview with Mrs Yates.” New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal. 16 December, 1893.

[8] New Zealand Graphic, 1893.

[9] “Interview with Mrs Yates.” New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal.


Image (right): Kinsey, William., photographer. Elizabeth Yates, Mayor of Onehunga. 1890s. Family collections.

Anniversaries like this year’s suffrage commemorations give us an opportunity to take a closer look at historical narratives, to refocus and turn our attention to underrepresented histories, and redefine the parameters around well-known narratives. Through the lives of these three women we are able to tell a rich narrative around 19th century women’s rights and activism. Each one tells a different story - about their particular context and what led them to stand up or speak out. They teach us not to simply reduce women’s history to easily consumable, homogeneous sound bites but to view it in all of its complexities.

Cite this article 

Finigan, Nina. ''Choice - Women in 19th Century Aotearoa, Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 19 09 2018.

URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/stories/choice-women-in-19th-century-aotearoa



Polly Plum,”Correspondence,” Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXVI, Issue 3987, 2 June 1870 - https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/DSC18700602.2.17?end_date=31-12-1870&page=2&phrase=2&query=Polly+plum&start_date=01-01-1870

A Woman, “To the Editor of The Herald,” New Zealand Herald, Volume VII, Issue 2108, 27 October 1870. - https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH18701027.2.31