By the time she died, aged 80, in 1901, Mary Ann Muller had the satisfaction of seeing women win the right to vote in 1893, something she had been working for in secret for decades.
Few would know her real name now, but she was - known by her pen name Femina - New Zealand’s first public suffragist.
Born in London on 22 September 1820, Mary was the daughter of James Norris (who used the surname Wilson) and Mary Croft. They had married in secret in 1814, but the marriage did not last - in fact James took off and married again bigamously - and Mary knew him as a godfather until he died when she was 18. It can’t have made her think fondly of men.
Mary herself married chemist James Whitney Griffiths in 1841 and had two sons and a daughter. But, possibly because of Griffiths’ cruelty, the marriage failed and in 1850 she embarked on the Pekin to come to New Zealand. She was listed as a widow but since Griffiths is not recorded as dying until 1855, this may have been a fiction necessary for her to escape.
She met Stephen Lunn Muller, a surgeon, on the ship who would go on to be her second husband and in 1857 they settled in Blenheim.
Mary - probably because of her own experiences - had strong opinions about women losing all rights to own and control property and that they were not able to vote.
Behind her husband’s back she began to write - under the pen name Femina - articles on women’s rights which were published in the Nelson Examiner.
Her husband did not agree with her views and even when those who did know urged her to come forward, she did not.
In 1869 her most famous work was published An appeal to the men of New Zealand.
It argued that women needed the vote to be allowed to contribute fully in the development of the nation. She wanted the repeal of discriminatory legislation and asked men - those in Parliament - to take up the cause.
The work of our other great suffragists like Kate Shepherd is built on the back of Mary's.
In 1893 New Zealand women won the right to vote - the first in the world. And Mary for the first time registered as an elector.
There is no information on whether she voted, but we like to think Mary took advantage of it at that very first election in November 1893.
It was seven years after her husband’s death in 1898 that she was revealed as the voice behind Femina.
Mary died in Blenheim on July 18, 1901 and is buried in Omaka Cemetery.
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