Thursday, July 21, 2011

Elizabeth Yates

Today's Awesome Woman of the Day is Elizabeth Yates (1845 - 1918) She was the mayor of Onehunga borough in New Zealand for most of 1894. Gaining the position after her husband stepped down from the post and she accepted nominations for the office. A few months later she defeated her opponent at the polls in a close race decided by only 13 votes, becoming the first female politican elected in the Brittish Empire, the day after New Zealand women had led the world by voting in a general election for the first time. The election made international news and brought her congratulations from Premier Richard Seddon and Queen Victoria.

Decades ahead of her time (the country did not get its second woman mayor for another 63 years), Elizabeth disavowed feminist banners and claimed she simply wanted to be a good manager. She met strong opposition from a hard core of local councillors, town clerks and members of the public (four councillors and the town clerk resigned in response to her election) and they often disrupted meetings and orchestrated opposition to her every proposal. Only a year later, she was defeated roundly at the polls. Even her opponents had to concede however, that she had been very effective during her short tenure, having liquidated the borough debt, established a sinking fund, reorganised the fire brigade, upgraded roads, footpaths and sanitation, and having personally lobbied the government to authorise the reopening of the Waikaraka cemetery.

She later returned as a councillor to the Borough Council for two years between 1899 and 1901. She died in 1918, 16 years after her husband, after a long time in a mental hospital. She had remained childless during her marriage to Captain Michael Yates, a master mariner well known in the coastal trade.
Elizabeth Yates' election as mayor of Onehunga on 29 November 1893 – the day after New Zealand women had led the world by voting in a general election for the first time – cemented her place as a pioneer of women's political rights.

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