The Women’s Franchise League (later renamed the Wanganui Women’s Political League) led the campaign in Whanganui for votes for women. Margaret Bullock was the Wanganui League founder, vice president, president and committee member until 1900. Born in Auckland, Bullock moved to Whanganui in 1877.
Widowed with five sons, she worked as a reporter and assistant editor on the Wanganui Chronicle, owned by her brother Gilbert Carson. She also worked as a special parliamentary correspondent for several colonial newspapers. In later life she supported herself by writing a novel, short stories and government tourist guides. As a journalist and parliamentary correspondent, however, she gained a credible place within a predominantly male profession. She also played a pivotal role in the nineteenth century women’s movement at both local and national levels.
Margaret Bullock believed women had the same mental ability as men, but lacked men’s knowledge of methods, public affairs, political questions and the world’s needs. Her particular passions were removing what she termed “women’s disabilities” and promoting economic independence for women.
Through her work as a parliamentary journalist, she acquired knowledge of the parliamentary system. With this knowledge she was able to help the passing of the Electoral Act 1893 when she warned leading New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard of possible obstruction. Bullock sent Sheppard a telegram that read, “Electoral Bill returned House for strangulation ostensibly amendment wire Parliament instantly.”
The Act specified that every person aged 21 years and over (who qualified and was registered) was entitled to vote. The Act declared that the definition of the word “person” included women. After the 1893 election Margaret Bullock visited every household in Whanganui, signing up hundreds of women on the electoral roll.
In December 1899 local printer and publisher A D Willis began his second term as the Member to the House of Representatives for Wanganui; he held the seat until 1905. He had previously been elected for a term in 1893 following the death of his friend, the previous MHR John Ballance, but was defeated in 1896. Bullock was Chairwoman of the Ladies Committee that helped return Willis to Parliament, ironically, as her brother Gilbert Carson lost in his attempt to enter Parliament.
She was prominent in the National Council of Women executive, appointed to the Standing Orders Committee in 1897 and elected vice-president in 1900. She was appointed an official visitor to the female department of Wanganui Prison in 1896. Margaret also worked on behalf of the elderly residents of the Jubilee Home in Whanganui, publicising their poor living conditions.
Margaret Bullock had a strong political and social justice impetus. But she also had many other talents. She wrote short stories for British and New Zealand magazines, often signing herself as “Madge”. She wrote her only novel Utu: a story of love, hate, and revenge under the name Tua-o-rangi. She wrote stories for children, which were printed and published by the firm of A D Willis, her old political friend. She was also an accomplished artist and exhibited her paintings at the Auckland Art Society under the name Maggie Bullock, often using Māori sitters as subjects.
Margaret Bullock was plagued with continual ill-health after she settled in Whanganui. She was diagnosed with cancer and died on 17 June 1903 soon after an operation.
Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum