When New Zealanders speak proudly of being the first country in the world in which women were able to vote (in 1893), we tend to think in terms of national politics — electing the Members of Parliament who (supposedly) represent us.
But in reality, women had been able to vote in local council elections since 1876 — as long as they owned property and were thus ratepayers. This requirement definitely excluded most women, just not solely on the basis of gender.
And while — until a law change in 1919 — MPs could only be men; there was no such barrier to women candidates at the local level.
And so, one day after the historic general election of 28 November 1893, voters in the Auckland borough of Onehunga elected Elizabeth Yates as their mayor– making her not only the first woman mayor in New Zealand, but in the whole British Empire.
Elizabeth Yates was the wife of Onehunga’s incumbent mayor, Captain Michael Yates, and widely regarded as the power behind that throne. Michael retired from the mayoralty due to ill-health, and apparently wasn’t keen on Elizabeth standing for election to replace him. But she was an articulate, forthright woman, with a high profile in the suffrage movement and strong debating experience. In the absence of a viable (male) alternative, she was put forward as a candidate and beat her only opponent by 13 votes.
Elizabeth’s mayoralty only lasted one year (elections were held annually at that time), despite her success implementing some important policies. She was responsible for liquidating the borough debt, upgrading roads, footpaths and sanitation, and reorganising the fire brigade. Not bad for a twelve month period in office.
But she was an unpopular leader; considered “tactless, (with a) dictatorial manner and lack of regard for established rules of procedure.”
I can’t help wondering though, if a man displaying the same attributes might have been lauded as “direct, decisive and great at cutting through red tape.”
Elizabeth Yates née Oman was born in Caithness, Scotland c. 1845. She arrived in New Zealand as a child, and spent most of her life in Onehunga. She married Michael Yates in 1875. The couple had no children.
She was a passionate and vocal advocate for women’s suffrage, but unlike many suffragettes, was not involved in the temperance movement and did not support prohibition. She is reported as saying “it would be a burning shame to rob the working man of his beer.“
Although her mayoralty was brief, Elizabeth was elected back onto the Onehunga Borough Council between 1899 and 1901. Her husband died in 1902 and her life seems to have disintegrated somewhat after that. She suffered from alcoholism and dementia and spent the last nine years of her life in the Auckland Mental Hospital, dying on 6 September 1918.
I first learned about Elizabeth Yates when I began researching memorials to notable New Zealand women, inspired by Anabel at The Glasgow Gallivanter who regularly writes about women in Scotland’s history.
At the time, I could find nothing — no statue, street name or banknote portrait commemorating Elizabeth. So you’ll understand that I was quite delighted to find this mural in Onehunga. It is tucked away down a narrow side street, and I had to make several visits to get a shot of it without cars parked in the way, but at least it is some acknowledgement of a woman who was, I suspect, well ahead of her time.
If you would like to see Elizabeth Yates in action, here is a link to the NZ Film Archive Nga Taonga Sound & Vision which has a clip of her addressing a meeting. It’s the oldest complete piece of footage in NZ and the earliest that records a political event. Unfortunately, I can’t embed the footage but it’s a short clip and worth the click.
Once again, I’m grateful to Anabel for inspiring me to find out more about the women who have shaped history in my country as she does in hers. You might want to check out her post Women Make History if you haven’t already.