Camellia: Suffragist Symbol of Womanly Excellence

Katherine (Kate) Wilson Sheppard

On 19 September 1893 with the passage of an Electoral Act, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.  Ten weeks later at a following election, New Zealand became the first country in which all women (over the age of 21 years) could exercise the right to vote, and sixty-five percent of women enrolled for the first time.  The success of this social reform was in no short measure due to the campaign by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and its indeflagitable national supertintendent of franchise and legislation, Katherine (Kate) Wilson Sheppard. 

C.japonica ‘Alba Plena’

 Kate’s passion for justice and humanitarian principles was accompanied by a love for white camellias – for they became a symbol of womanly excellence in her campaign for the women’s vote.  She personally presented all those members of parliament who supported the electoral reform with a white camellia bloom of Camellia japonica‘Alba Plena’, a famous white formal double camellia brought from China to Britain in 1792, and by then one of the most popular camellias in Victorian gardens.  Kate would spend much of her life promoting suffragist and related social reform causes, being editor of the WCTU newspaper White Ribbonand was elected inaugural chair of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in April 1896.  She outlived two husbands and her immediate family, dying at her home in Riccarton, Christchurch in July 1934.  

C.japonica ‘Kate Sheppard’

In September 1993, in marking the centenary of the passage of the famed New Zealand legislation,a number of memorials to Kate Sheppard featured the plantings of white camellas in Christchurch.  Importantly in 1992, a new camellia cultivar, a medium white anemone form Camellia japonica‘Kate Sheppard’ was named in her honour (by A. P Gamlin of Manaia, New Zealand). Plantings of this camellia and other white camellias in her honour took place at both a scultured memorial and a memorial walk dedicated to her at Christchurch Botanic Gardens.  Kate and ‘Alba Plena’ also featured on a New Zealand $10 banknote. 

Sheppard and five other prominent New Zealand suffragettes are commemorated on the Kate Sheppard National Memorial, a bronze sculpture in Christchurch.

Prepared by Stephen Utick

Sources:Clere, R., 1993, ‘Kate Sheppard A White Camellia for Celebration’, International Camellia Journal, pp. 37-38; Tessa, K. Malcolm. ‘Sheppard, Katherine Wilson’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated May, 2013. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand; (accessed 1 March 2018),   Notes and photography Stephen Utick, September 2017.  

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