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Tim Mcvicar

Camellia Flowers and The Battle of the Buttonholes

Two ideologies, two colours, one flower: how different Camellias represented opposite sides of the suffragette movement.

The evergreen Camellia shrub was cultivated in parts of China and Japan before being transplanted via mercantile ships into the gardens of Europe. Greenfingered settlers brought the plant with them as they attempted to recreate the bright domestic gardens of British upper-middle-class homes in the colonial wilderness of New Zealand. The Camellia flourished in the complementary climate.  In the early 1890s, as women were agitating for the right to vote in New Zealand elections, two varieties of the plant, the white flower (Camellia japonica alba plena)  and the red flower (possibly a similar variety of Camellia Japonica)  became unlikely symbols of the ideological differences between the suffragists (‘suffragettes’) and their detractors. 

The ‘Battle of the Buttonholes’, as it was named by the media at the time, began when Kate Sheppard, leader of the Women’s Temperance Union, used the pure white flower of the ‘alba plena’ as a symbol of support for electoral reform.[1] On the 12th of September 1893, the all-male members of parliament entered parliament to vote on a reform of the Electoral Act which would allow most women the right to vote. Sheppard and other suffragists gave members that supported the Bill the white flower tied with a ribbon to attach to their buttonholes, the shrub would have been in full springtime bloom at this time. The flower was both an acknowledgement of their support as well as a public declaration of the need for change.[2]

’Kate Sheppard’ Camellias planted at Parliament in 1993

The vote passed 20/18, thanks to two members who changed their vote in response to the meddling of then Prime Minister Richard Seddon who was against the Bill.  Weeks of protest followed, sponsored by liquor industries worried that allowing the voting rights to include Christian Temperance women would curtail the sale of alcohol in the colony.[3] During these protests, women who were against the reform gave a basket of red Camellia flowers to a member of parliament.  He distributed these amongst parliamentary supporters of petitions to make the Governor reject the Bill. [4] The red perhaps signifying the passion with which the Bill should be rejected; akin to a visual blood on your hand’s statement. The Act was passed, and the white Camellia carried the symbolic legacy of the first sovereign country to allow all women over the age of 21 the right to vote. The inclusion did not extend to women of Asian descent, who remained like males of Asian descent official personae non-gratae. Ironic given the ancestry of the Camellia itself.

Ministry of Women used the white Camellia to celebrate the 125th anniversary

There were many plantings of white Camellias in 1993 to celebrate the centenary of the passing of the Act on the 19th of September 1893. A Taranaki breeder, named Viv Joyce, developed and released a large double bloom white Camellia to mark the occasion.[5] Christened the ‘Kate Sheppard’ the breed was planted in many public and private gardens throughout the country.

In 2018, the Ministry of Women developed a logo using the White Camellia flower to mark 125 years since the passing of the Act and encouraged the logo’s distribution by people and organisations wanting to mark the occasion.  Further plantings of white Camellia’s occurred at this time.[6],[7]

Tim McVicar

Tim McVicar is a Te Tai Tokerau based content writer and researcher who has lived and worked in the Republic of Georgia, Sudan and Palestine. He holds an MA from Victoria University of Wellington and a Master of Teaching and Educational Leadership from the Mind lab…

Recommended Further Reading:

Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Brief history”,Women and the vote, updated 21-Sep-2021, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/brief-history


Ministry of Women, “A symbol for Suffrage 125”, https://women.govt.nz, Last modified Feb 2018, https://women.govt.nz/about/new-zealand-women/history/suffrage-125/symbol-suffrage-125

Bibliography:

SunLive, “Are We There Yet? An Evening with Jan Tinetti”, SunLive, September 2018, https://www.sunlive.co.nz/news/189089-are-we-there-yet-an-evening-jan-tinetti.html?post=189089-are-we-there-yet-an-evening-jan-tinetti.html


Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “Brief history”,Women and the vote, updated 21-Sep-2021, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/brief-history


New Zealand Parliament, “Suffrage Day celebrates women’s right to vote”, http://www.parliament.nz, September 2012, https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features-pre-2016/document/00NZPHomeNews201209181/suffrage-day-celebrates-women-s-right-to-vote


Northen Advocate, “Zonta donates white camellias for Whangārei park for Women’s Suffrage Day”, Northen Advocate, September 2018, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/zonta-donates-white-camellias-for-whangarei-park-for-womens-suffrage-day/CXOILCD7LW4NPQXI7AXPOHW4PQ/


University of Otago, “Camellia planted on campus for Suffrage 125”, http://www.otago.ac.nz, September 2018, https://www.otago.ac.nz/otagobulletin/news/otago696103.html


Ministry of Women, “A symbol for Suffrage 125”, https://women.govt.nz, Last modified Feb 2018, https://women.govt.nz/about/new-zealand-women/history/suffrage-125/symbol-suffrage-125

Reference List:

[1] Tinetti, Jan.(2018) Are We There Yet? An Evening with Jan Tinetti Sunlive:The Bay’s News First. Retrieved 17/06/2021

[2] Tinetti, Jan.(2018) Are We There Yet? An Evening with Jan Tinetti Sunlive:The Bay’s News First. Retrieved 17/06/2021

[3] Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2018) Women and the Vote: Brief History. New Zealand History. Retrieved 17/06/2021

[4] New Zealand Parliament (2012) Suffrage Day Celebrates Women’s Right to Vote.Retrieved 17/06/2021

[5] Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2018) Women and the Vote: Brief History. New Zealand History. Retrieved 17/06/2021

[6] Northern Advocate (2018) Zonta Donates White Camellias for Whangārei Park for Women’s Suffrage Day. Retrieved 18/06/2021

[7] Otago University Bulletin (2018)  Camellia Planted on Campus for Suffrage 125. Retrieved 18/06/2021

Image Bibliography:

White Camellia at Kate Sheppard National Memorial. Women’s Suffrage Day is also known as White Camellia Day, as during the campaign for women’s suffrage, those who supported the 1893 Electoral Bill were presented with a white camellia to wear in their buttonhole.

http://canterburystories.nz/collections/community/out-and-about/ccl-cs-24923


Kate Sheppard’ Camellias planted at Parliament in 1993 to celebrate the 100th  anniversary of women getting the vote. Photo source: Parliamentary services. New Zealand Parliament (2012) Suffrage Day Celebrates Women’s Right to Vote. Retrieved 17/06/2021

https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features-pre-2016/document/00NZPHomeNews201209181/suffrage-day-celebrates-women-s-right-to-vote


The design by the Ministry of Women used the white Camellia to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the right for women to vote. Photo source: Ministry of Women Ministry for Women (2018) A symbol for suffrage 125 Retrieved 17/06/2021

https://women.govt.nz/about/new-zealand-women/history/suffrage-125/symbol-suffrage-125

Published: July 17th, 2021

Last modified: November 5th, 2021

Cite as: Tim McVicar, “Camellia Flowers and The Battle of the Buttonholes”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified November 2021, https://atomic-temporary-193744190.wpcomstaging.com/camellia-flowers-symbolism-suffrage-new-zealand/