Our Kates reflect on Kate Sheppard

Our Kates reflect on Kate Sheppard

What do Te Papa’s five Kates (well, four Kates and a Katie) have to say about their famous namesake, Kate Sheppard, who successfully led the quest for New Zealand women to gain the right to vote 125 years ago this year?

The five Kates pose for a photo in Tiffany Singh's Total internal reflection
The Kates in Tiffany Singh’s Total internal reflection. Standing (L-R): Kate Button and Kate Wanless. Sitting (L-R): Kate Whitley, Katie Cooper, and Kate Camp. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

Katie Cooper, Curator History

I have to admit that sharing my name with a famous suffragist didn’t stir any particular feminist feeling in me when I was young. I was only four in 1993 so I missed the excitement of the suffrage centennial, and it wasn’t until I got to university that I came to realise just how hard- and recently-won the rights I enjoyed as a woman in the 21st century actually were.

I remember it quite vividly: it was a lecture about 1970s second-wave feminism and how the movement had impacted on the practice of history.

Hearing how hard women only a generation or two before mine had fought for the right to control their own bodies, have equal opportunities in education and employment, and tell their own stories, I began to feel a sense of responsibility. I felt I had done a disservice to those women because I hadn’t vocally and proudly called myself a feminist, and I hadn’t understood the blood, sweat, and tears they put into creating opportunities for women like me.

Now I do, and I consider it one of the great privileges of my job that I am able to share stories of those who fought for, and continue to fight for, positive change in their communities.

Commemorations like Suffrage 125 give us an opportunity to highlight women’s stories, so hopefully in future those who share the name of Kate, Ākenehi, Frances, or Mere will know of their inspiring namesakes.

Full Time Feminist / Women’s Rights Are Human Rights placard, January 2017, New Zealand, by Adrianne Reid. Gift of Adrianne Reid, 2017. Te Papa (GH025105)

Kate Whitley, Digital Content Producer

Growing up in a provincial NZ town in the 1980s, life and prospects seemed limited. Despite my Mum (who did a magnificent job raising my sister and I on her own) repeating the mantra ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘aim for the stars’, the reality of life attending a girls’ school imbued me with the message that ‘girls can do anything so long as it’s a generic, stereotyped role for women’ (likely involving excellent typing skills).

My early dreams of being an architect were thwarted after being told that tech drawing was only offered at the local boys’ school and that I must recruit at least two other girls to attend with me. Clearly a lone girl in a class of boys equipped with rulers and pencils foretold certain mayhem. Other wayward ideas about being a pilot were met with similar reactions.

Despite an apparent lack of ambition for women leaving my school, there were one or two teachers who defied tradition. My chemistry teacher in particular urged my parents to support a pursuit of science over art and was instrumental in the study choices I made at university.

I think about her bravery in challenging the outdated preconceptions at the school at the time. I’m sure she wasn’t alone in the teaching faculty in supporting a path for women in non-traditional subject areas.

A single teacher can make such a difference to our choices in life. Ms McKinley in particular, represents for me, the opening of a book, the resetting of values, and the difference one woman can make in inspiring and defining possibility.

Badge, ‘Women can do anything’, 1970s-1980s, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of Anne Else, 2004. Te Papa (GH014496)

Kate Camp, Manager Communications

I’m not sure I even knew who Kate Sheppard was when I was growing up. The main thing I knew was that my mother always told me to say suffragist not suffragette.

I came up in the ‘girls can do anything era, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really know much about the suffrage movement until Te Papa bought Frances Parker’s suffrage medal – I then read Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoir (and discussed it on the radio), which was a revelation. The way that the English suffragettes strategically attacked the postal service and tourist sites, shutting down chunks of the economy, was just bloody amazing.

There’s a moment from my childhood that I remember as a bit of a feminist parable. My mother had a poster “New Zealand Poets” with black and white photos on a mid-brown background. Of the 20 or so, only two or three were women.

There was no way I was going to grow up to be Ursula Bethell, but Cilla McQueen was on there. She had short hair and glasses, like me, and she was wearing a leather jacket, which was something I hoped to do one day.

I remember looking at that picture of Cilla and feeling that yes, maybe it was possible that I could be a poet when I grew up.

A poem of Cilla McQueen’s in Philippa Blair, A lightning tree, 1986, lithographic ink on paper. Te Papa (CA000933/017/0021)

Kate Button, Manager Public Programmes

My daughter April was born in 2007, 114 years after Kate Sheppard’s petition was presented at parliament. Looking around her bedroom you can see evidence of strong women; a Frida Kahlo poster, Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls (a fave read), and a tiny flag of Kate Sheppard beside her cactus. April knows about Kate Sheppard – she was taught about her at school and is proud of her.

April’s bedroom, 2018. Photos by Kate Button. Te Papa

April was born into a family where gender stereotypes have always been challenged intentionally – or not. I knew about the British suffragettes. As a young child I was captivated by the tragic story of Emily Davidson who, during the 1913 Derby, died after she walked onto the race track and was hit by the King’s horse.

But I don’t recall knowing about Kate Sheppard until I was much older. I knew New Zealand women were the first in the world to get the vote but I’d also been told Premier Richard Seddon wasn’t terribly supportive…

I grew up in the ’70s with a ‘feminist’ mum who studied for her degree while I was a toddler. It was through her women’s studies papers that I landed my first paper round delivering The Women’s Press up and down the hills of Hataitai.

Mum has always valued diversity and questioned discrimination. I remember her ordering a group of people off our section when they brought round a petition opposed to the Homosexual Law Reform Bill 1986.

The men in my family have always been relaxed about gender roles: they cook and share domestic chores. Following the death of my grandmother, my family would visit granddad most Sundays. We’d have a morning tea of home-baked goodies followed by midday roast – all cooked by Granddad.

And, if my brother and I had behaved well, when we came home my dad would bake us pikelets for tea!

Maybe they felt the influence of our relative Isabella (Bella) Button (1863 – 1921) – my great, great, great aunt? At the same time as the New Zealand suffragists were mobilising, Bella was challenging gender roles in her own way. Bella’s life centred on horses – she owned, bred, and raced them until “lady riders” were banned in 1896.

Miss Bella Button pictured in a racing sulky with one of her trotters. She rode the winner of the first race on the programme at the Ashburton Trotting Club’s meeting on 16 Oct. 1890. She won several totalisator races before being banned from official competition in 1896. Photo courtesy of Christchurch City Libraries. File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img00296

I’ll never know how Bella felt about Kate Sheppard. Maybe they met? I’d like to think Kate Sheppard was a source of strength and inspiration for Bella as parts of the racing community tried to push her from her sport. Regardless, Bella did seem to find ways around the ban and remained involved with horses until she was thrown from one and killed in 1921.

Kate Wanless, User Experience Researcher

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the year I was born – 1993 – was the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in New Zealand. I feel quite fortunate to have grown up when I did, relatively free to make my own decisions about my life. I’ve been able to follow my interests and while I know this isn’t everyone’s experience (I read the news), I’ve never felt held back by my gender. I’ve been treated like an intelligent, competent woman.

What’s sad is that this wasn’t always the case. Kate Sheppard and other strong women fought and are still fighting incredibly hard to be treated as equal. For that, I’m grateful.

One hundred and twenty-five years on, I’m able to have a career in tech as a designer and researcher. I’m heartened to see many companies now realising the importance of having a diverse workforce. Leading companies are realising that unless you want to build products and services infused with unconscious bias, you need a diverse team with different brains.

I’m hopeful that we’re heading in the right direction. That doesn’t mean we’re done, or that we can forget the revolutionary work of our feminist sisters in history. We’re so fortunate to live in a functioning democracy, I’ve always felt that it’s important for everyone, and especially women, to participate in democracy to ensure its survival.

Strong Women placard, January 2017, New Zealand, by Kari Highstead. Gift of Kari Highstead, 2017. Te Papa (GH025102)


  1. Wow I really enjoyed reading about your experiences, and thank you all for sharing. Kate Button highlighted the influence of strong female role models from an early age; it impressed me as I thought how I lacked them when I was growing up! As an older woman, I agree that the struggles of the past have opened up a lot more opportunities for women, but there is still a long way to go. Thanks again, Carol Henderson .

    1. Author

      Hi Carol
      Thanks for reading and commenting on this collaborative blog. Diverse role models are so crucial.

  2. I can’t find a share tab ? Love to share with my FB family

    1. UPDATE: The sharing buttons are back. Hopefully that makes it easier for you Heather.

      Kia ora Heather,

      Sorry to hear you’re having trouble sharing this blog post. We redesigned the site recently, and the sharing buttons were removed – but we’re looking at bringing them back so you can share more easily. In the meantime, you can copy the URL of the blog and paste it directly into your Facebook status update.

      Ngā mihi,
      Daniel Crichton-Rouse
      Senior Digital Editor, Te Papa

  3. Thanks Barbara.
    We’ve timed this blog to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the presentation of the suffrage petition to Parliament, which was 28 July 1893.

  4. Great stories. How fascinating about Bella Button – and wonderful that there’s such a great photo of her.

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