Women throughout history have used their ideas, beliefs, and voices to speak out and advocate for change. Time and again, what they said was not written down or published, and their words were forgotten.
Recently I discovered a wonderful project that brings to life the long-lost voice of a transformative activist and powerful public speaker: Kate Wilson Sheppard.
Give Kate a Voice is an interactive video project that recreates Sheppard as she advocates for gender equality.
Sheppard was New Zealand’s most celebrated suffragist and a tireless champion for women’s rights. In the 1880s she travelled the country, speaking and campaigning powerfully on behalf of “the woman’s vote.” By all accounts her speaking style was formidable. She also traveled to Britain to support the suffrage movement there, where she was in great demand as a speaker.
Sheppard also advocated dress reform, abolishing corsets and other restrictive women’s clothing. She promoted bicycling and physical activity for women. She joined the temperance movement. But her fight for the vote was the most transformative social movement, supported by hundreds of other outspoken women. Their strategies included meetings, lobbying campaigns, protests, petitions, pamphlets, and public talks.
Her words mattered.
On September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. This landmark event captured worldwide attention and fueled suffrage movements in other countries, even as they faced fierce opposition.
Sheppard’s contributions are acknowledged on New Zealand’s $10 bill. But to the rest of the world she’s largely unknown.
In Give Kate a Voice, eight Kiwi women embody the spirit of Sheppard as they read excerpts from her writing. Contributors include author and activist Theresa Gattung, motivational speaker Fatumata Bah, entrepreneur and activist Alexia Hilbertidou, New Zealand Member of Parliament Louisa Wall, actress and director Miriama McDowell, disability rights activist Minnie Baragwanath, singer Ladi6, and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
In the six-minute video, the women wear period clothes and enact scenes of domesticity and resistance: drinking tea, holding up the scales of justice, waving a flag, offering a tray of cookies and then letting it drop on the floor – all while reciting Sheppard’s words.
“We are tired of having a sphere doled out to us, and being told anything outside that sphere is unwomanly. We want to be natural, just for a change. We want to be treated like ordinary human beings, with feelings, thoughts, desires, and aspirations – all requiring opportunities for self development. We must be ourselves at all risks. So let women learn, forever learn. Forward, forever forward. Woman, take the matter up.”
It all sounds perfectly logical to our ears today – but thanks to this ingenious recreation we’re taken back to 1880s and ’90s, when suffragists were fighting a monumental uphill battle.
But did Sheppard actually speak those words?
According to the project’s Creative Director Charles Anderson, they come from the 1992 book, The Woman Question: Writings By Women Who Won The Vote, which is no longer in print and not available. Anderson says the book references a leaflet called “Address on The Subject of Woman Suffrage – Leaflet following 1889 WCTU Convention.”
Anderson says the minutes of the W.C.T.U’s annual meeting make it clear that Kate Sheppard was the leaflet’s author.
But in the 1880s, “address” could refer to a printed argument or a public speech, possibly both. So we don’t know for sure what language Sheppard used to sway public opinion when she spoke at town halls, women’s groups, public rallies and protests.
I’ve included Sheppard’s words in Speaking While Female, the first-ever online repository of women’s speech through the ages. The language from that leaflet is here. What a shame that all we have from Sheppard’s extensive public speeches is a fragment that she may not have actually spoken.
But reading Sheppard’s words in the context of so many other women speakers throughout history gives us a new frame in which to understand women’s activism, agency, and impact.
Her story is all too common. Throughout time women have spoken out for causes they believed in. Their words helped create the world we live in. We honor them by remembering.
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