In 1893 all across the motu – north, south, east, west and in-between – women readied themselves for agitation. Hot on the heels of the failed 1892 women’s suffrage petition, campaigners upped their game and canvassing power. Suffrage activists organised themselves to collect signatures at events, through networks and by going door to door. When the petition was presented to Parliament in June more than 24,000 people had supported the cause, demanding that electoral franchise be extended to women. 12 smaller petitions, now lost, were also circulating at the time. If these are taken into account the numbers could be as high as 30,000.

Of the thousands who added their tohu or signature to the petition, only 8 have been identified as Māori women.

Much is known about Kate Sheppard, New Zealand’s most prominent suffragist; where she was born, her views on the world and what she looked like. Kate is even on the $10 note. However, 125 years on, what do we know of the Māori signatories? They, along with thousands of others who left their mark have very little public profile, if any at all. That’s not to say they weren’t exceptional or weren’t viewed as having mana in their whānau or communities, just that their stories haven’t reached the researchers and archivists in heritage organisations.

Are there more wāhine who signed using an anglicised name or that of their husbands? Was there an avoidance or scepticism towards central government? Considering the trauma of the New Zealand Wars that wouldn’t be surprising. Perhaps the petitions sheets weren’t circulated in their communities? Or maybe more Māori women signed one of the lost 12 petitions? Whatever the reason for these gaps in the public record, we archivists call them archival silences.

Our goal is to disrupt the silence and collect as many stories of the signatories as possible. Unlike the other women I was able to find traces of Jane Driver in the Wellington repository. Jane’s tohu next appears in the archives in 1898 within an Army Department file R24337567.

Stefanie Lash, the lead curator of He Tohu, identified two Māori women signatories: Rora F. Orbell and her daughter Frances Ada Orbell who signed the Petition together. As part of the Women’s Suffrage Petition biographies project Stefanie created an entry for Rora F. Orbell. You can read more about both Jane and Rora below.

But, we’d love to know more about every woman and man who signed the 1893 petition, in particular, the stories of the five other wāhine. If you have knowledge to share and want you to help us your research will feature on the suffrage interactive in the He Tohu exhibition, and also on the Women’s Suffrage Petition database.

To find out how research and write a biography read our article on Suffrage 125 

Signature on a Waitangi sheet
Mary Bevan, Ōtaki – Sheet 304
Signature on a Waitangi sheet
Mary Cross, Bluff Harbour – Sheet 341
Signature on a Waitangi sheet
Matilda Ngapua, Napier – Sheet 432
Signature on a Waitangi sheet
Mrs M. Rangiora, Rangiora – Sheet 239
Signature on a waitangi sheet
Sarah West, Lincoln – Sheet 183
Signature on a Waitangi sheet
Jane Driver, Purakanui – Sheet 105

In 1889, Jane’s son Richard Driver who was living in Dunedin enrolled with the Permanent Militia. The 21-year-old ‘half-caste’ was subsequently declared as ‘in good health’ and instructed to make his way from Dunedin to Wellington. Following his father’s death and concerned about his mother’s health, Richard transferred back to Otago only 2 years later. However, Richard’s own health soon began to decline. Suffering from hip disease he was found medically unfit and discharged from the Militia in March 1897. Less than a month later on 6 April Richard died in Dunedin hospital.

On 5 April 1898, Jane Driver again petitioned government. Although, instead of demanding her right to vote this time Jane requested a compassionate allowance; her son’s death had taken a financial and emotional toll.

Later Stefanie Lash the lead curator of He Tohu, has identified another Māori woman and written this biography:

signature on Waitangi sheet
R F Orbell, Oamaru – Sheet 302

Rora Orbell nee Wilkie was born in 1838 at Otago Heads to Peter Wilkie and Mata or Martha Whio of Ngāi Tahu. Mata was the child of Te Hori and Te Ruahaunui. Mata married Wiremu Nera Potiki, in 1843. They had two children: Henare Kingi and Ihaia Potiki.

Rora, who went by the names Rhoda Flora, married an English migrant named Arthur Orbell in 1857. She was 19. On their marriage certificate Arthur put his occupation as ‘gentleman’. They were married at the house of Mrs Haberfield. This refers to Hakiri, also known as Kararaina, Kiti, Akari, Catherine and Kate – Mata’s sister and Rora’s aunt. They settled at Moeraki and had twelve children.

Rora Orbell signed the Petition with her daughter Frances Ada Amelia. She spent her life agitating and petitioning for the retention of Māori land both in and out of the land courts.

Rora Orbell was widowed in 1916 and died the following year on 30 April 1917, aged 80.