Elizabeth Yates - First Woman Mayor in the British Empire

From New Zealand Society, 2:20 pm on 5 June 2015

“I wish you would call her to order.”

An image of Elizabeth Yates, the first female mayor in the British Empire.

Elizabeth Yates Photo: Portrait of Elizabeth Yates. Ref: 1/2-C-016118-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22655075

The year is 1893, the month November and the people of Onehunga have just done an extraordinary thing. Only three months after New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote, this small Auckland borough elected the empire's first female mayor. Her name was Elizabeth Yates.

She was born Elizabeth Oman in Scotland in 1845 and immigrated to New Zealand at the age of just eight. It is believed that the family lived in the Onehunga area from about 1855 onwards and this was where she would later marry Captain Michael Yates, a shipmaster, a politician and a fellow Scot. They were wed on 15 December 1875 at St Peters Church in Onehunga.

Michael Yates was a borough councillor for eight years and served as Mayor from 1888 to 1892. Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand says that during his term Elizabeth “assisted him with his duties”. Michael wasn’t well, however and his poor health forced him to stand down from the mayoralty in 1892.

In September of 1893 a Women’s Suffrage Bill was signed into law, giving women full voting rights. Elizabeth was the first woman to record her vote.

She also saw her chance to record another first. There were only ten weeks until the national and local elections but Elizabeth believed that she was ready to run for the mayoralty. She had already made a name and reputation for herself as a supporter of the suffragette cause and as a formidable debater in the Auckland Union Parliament. And the name Yates was by now well known in Onehunga political circles.

An image of the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition.

1893 Women's Suffrage Petition. Photo: Archives Reference: LE1 1893/7a www.archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=17687659

She accepted the nomination for mayor and began her campaign. Her only opposition was a local draper called F.W. Court. Elizabeth had a platform, she had experience and ability and she had name recognition, which was just as handy then as it is now. She was the one to beat.

On the 28th of November national elections were held and the next day local government had its turn. Elizabeth won the mayoralty with a majority of just 13 votes; a number that becomes slightly more impressive when you learn that only 227 ballots were cast. But she – and the voters of Onehunga – had done it. Elizabeth Yates was the first Lady Mayor in the British Empire.

Her win brought with it congratulations from Premier Richard Seddon and Queen Victoria as well as Elizabeth’s automatic appointment as Justice of the Peace – another first. It also brought the immediate resignation of the Town Clerk and four councillors in protest.

Elizabeth had the support of most of the council but some opposed her every action not on merit but simply because they objected to a woman as mayor. Meetings became, in the words of her obituary, “decidedly lively”. Large crowds filled the chambers wanting to see a “lady mayor” in action and some came from as far afield as Australia. On one occasion their rowdy behaviour forced Elisabeth to send for the constable to have the room cleared and the doors locked.

Declaring that she “would not have the council burlesqued’ Elizabeth Yates got down to business. In just a year she wiped the council debt and established a sinking fund, fixed the roads, paths and sewerage, re-established the local fire brigade and convinced central government to reopen the Waikaraka Cemetery. The town, she said, was now “in a better sanitary condition than any in the North Island”. Elizabeth always claimed that she stood for the ratepayers of Onehunga and their interests and took up the job of mayor only because her husband could not. It is clear, though, that the amount she had been able to accomplish in such short time indicated a very able administrator. But there still seemed to be a problem.

The New Zealand Herald described her as “forthright in expressing her opinions”. Others called her “tactless and dictatorial”.  She may have been the first woman in New Zealand politics to be so described, but she certainly would not be the last. When election time rolled around again in 1894, opposition to her triumphed and she was beaten by a healthy 90 votes. After only a year, the first Lady Mayor in the British Empire was out of the chair. It would be another sixty years until New Zealand elected a second woman to the mayoralty.

Elizabeth Yates wasn’t finished with politics. She was elected to the Onehunga Borough Council in 1899 and stayed there for two years. A newspaper report of council proceedings at this time suggest that she did indeed have a sharp tongue as well as a keen grasp of council procedure and regulations. She attacked the mayor over ignoring the correct procedure when installing new councillors and his unauthorised expenditure of council funds and ordered him to repay the money. When a councillor interjected and was called to order by the mayor, he said “I wish you would call her to order.”

Michael Yates died in 1902. Seven years later, Elizabeth was admitted to the Auckland Mental Hospital and never came out again. Elizabeth Yates died on the 6th September 1918 and was buried alongside her husband.

Headstone with inscription "From Darkness into Light".

Left: The grave of Elizabeth Yates and husband Michael Yates. Right: The inscription reads "From Darkness into Light". Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Her obituary recalls Elizabeth’s term as mayor as “the most interesting period in Onehunga’s municipal history” and praises her accomplishments. “She had not the slightest idea of seeking any notoriety” when contesting the mayoralty but stood “simply in the interests of the ratepayers’. Nor, it continues, did she stand “from any idea of asserting woman’s position or in connection with woman’s suffrage”. The obituary concludes by praising her as a "first class butter maker who also made her own and her husband’s clothes".

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Produced by Justin Gregory.

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