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Kate Sheppard – Suffragist, Changemaker… and Vegetarian

08 March 2024
Kate Sheppard – Suffragist, Changemaker… and Vegetarian

Suffragist, social reformer and internationally renowned feminist changemaker are just some of the words to describe Kate Sheppard, whose leadership was largely responsible for New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

And to these illustrious descriptors you can also add vegetarian. Kate Sheppard enjoyed a fully plant-based diet; and she was by no means alone.

“There was a clear link between vegetarianism and the women’s suffrage movement around the world – in fact many leading New Zealand suffragists were also vegetarians,” says Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House Property Lead Helen Osborne.

Today Kate Sheppard’s house – a charming nine-roomed villa in the leafy Christchurch suburb of Ilam – is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and is open to the public. Part of Helen’s role is to undertake research on the life of New Zealand’s foremost suffrage leader whose home became the headquarters of a movement that brought about profound social and politcal change in New Zealand.

“Kate’s dietary choices were unusual for her time, with vegetarians often regarded as eccentric and against the mainstream,” she says.

“We can learn more about Kate’s vegetarian lifestyle by piecing together some clues from her contemporaries who recorded their thoughts about their beliefs.”

A good person to start with is Cantabrian poet, journalist, activist and colleague of Kate Sheppard, Jessie Mackay, who was never backward in recording her thoughts on the evils of eating flesh: “The miseries…[in the world] do not come to us by chance, but by a system of utterly false relations of people to one another and towards the animal creation,” she once wrote.

“Jessie Mackay was one of many people who were challenging established beliefs of society – including diet,” says Helen.

“Increasingly the morality of killing animals for food was being questioned.”

Although the White Ribbon newspaper – the official publication of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in New Zealand – never pushed a vegetarian line in its editorial content, it didn’t shy away from raising questions either.

One correspondent – JM (possibly Jesse Mackay writing anonymously, but not confirmed) – wrote in a 1908 edition of the newspaper: “So long as animals were killed for food, there must be cruelty and there must be callousness. It is a question for all women whether we can defend our individual complicity in a traffic which inflicts untold pain on the lower creation.”

The reformer’s zeal for change is likely to have been encouraged by the positon of Ohio-based leader of the international Women’s Christian Temperance Union movement, Frances Willard, who expounded a ‘do everything’ approach to advocating change. As a result, vegetarianism, feminism and temperance – the prohibition of alcohol – were all incorporated into the reform agenda.

“Besides this drive for reform, there were other factors at play that influenced the dietary choices of women like Kate Sheppard – including spiritual beliefs,” says Helen.

“Kate was a devout Christian and member of the Congregationalist church, though followers of the growing Theosophy movement – whose beliefs incorporated free thinkers, spiritualists who drew ideas and values from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and even the occult – embraced vegetarianism along with an agenda for social change.”

Jesse Mackay’s idealism was similarly fuelled by an almost religious zeal, which she expressed in semi-theological terms in the feminist magazine Woman Today: “…Eden will never be seen on earth till women arise and instruct the merciful generation,” she wrote.

With these philosophical influences in play at what was one of the most exciting times for women in New Zealand, the possibility for endless change must have seemed real, evidenced by the passing of the Women’s Suffrage legislation itself in 1893.

This drive for change was also assisted by a little science – or something resembling it.

“Kate believed that ‘strong meat’ encouraged alcoholism and should be avoided – and it is important to remember that her father was an alcoholic, who actually died of alcohol poisoning in the United States,” says Helen.

“A friend of Kate’s, Lucy Smith, may also shed some light on Kate’s vegetarianism. Lucy quoted the English doctor and Theosophist Anna Kingsford in an article she wrote for The Prohibitionist magazine outlining some of these beliefs linking meat-eating with alcoholism.”

For Dr Kingsford – as quoted by Lucy – it was an open and shut case:

“The use of flesh food, by the excitation which it exercises on the nervous system, prepares the way for habits of intemperance in drink, and that, others being equal, the more flesh is consumed, the greater is the temptation to make use of strong pungent drinks, and the more serious is the danger of confirmed alcoholism.”

In the predominantly meat-eating society of New Zealand one popular joke was that there were two causes of death – drink, and drowning as a result of drunkenness. For most people, though, linking meat-eating with alcohol abuse probably would have gone down like a cup of cold Bovril. For Kate, being discreet about promoting her vegetarianism beliefs was probably good politics.

In addition to changing philosophies, spiritual awakenings and medical ‘evidence’ there was one other factor that may well have been a significant influence in encouraging a vegetarian diet and lifestyle for women in particular. Sheer practicality.

“One commentator compared the idea of ‘labouring in the kitchen over unnecessary pies and stews’ with the ‘dusting of unnecessary vases’. A more simple plant-based diet and a less materialistic lifestlye allowed a woman more time for intellectual pursuits – so in a very real sense, a simple vegetarian diet bought women spare time; and the option of using it to work for change,” says Helen.

This was the generation of women for whom change seemed to be hard-wired into their DNA as they collectively worked towards political, intellectual and social transformation. And also diet – with apparently positive results. A comment in the White Ribbon of 1920 would make vegetarians smile – even today:

“Most of the principal restaurants now cater quite creditably for those who prefer a diet in which animal flesh is not included. [A diner] may now call for a dinner without meat and receive prompt, respectful and intelligent response, instead of the once pitying smile and doubtful shake of the head.”

Ultimately, though, it came down to personal conviction summed up nicely in the three core tenets of the Christchurch Vegetarian Society – the first such organisation in the country: ‘First, that animal food is injurious to the human system; second, that man can live on vegetable food alone; and third, that to kill unnecessarily is cruel’.

Clearly Kate Sheppard was one of the many women who came to the conclusion that a vegetarian diet and lifestyle was the right choice.

“It’s fascinating – and also quite cool in light of evolving dietary trends today – to think that the work of New Zealand’s foremost suffragist and feminist reformer was fuelled entirely by plant power,” says Helen.

“When visitors learn that Kate was a vegetarian they are often surprised at how ahead of her time she was.”

By John O’Hare, Heritage New Zealand