Elizabeth Yates (1845–1918) was the mayor of Onehunga in New Zealand in 1894, just two months after women gained the right to vote in New Zealand. This made her the first woman to be a mayor anywhere in the British Empire.
Born Elizabeth Onan in Scotland, she was the older of two daughters. She moved with her parents and sister to Auckland, New Zealand in 1853, where her father worked as a laborer. Onehunga, which is now a suburb of Auckland, was an important harbor at the time. Most shipping in the 19th century came to Onehunga via South Africa and Australia from Great Britain.
Elizabeth was married to master mariner Captain Michael Yates in 1875. He became mayor of Onehunga from 1888 to 1892 until he had to retire due to ill health.
By the time of her husband’s retirement, Elizabeth had already been involved in politics. She strongly supported women’s suffrage, and participated in debates at the Auckland Union Parliament. Also, Elizabeth was the first woman to record her vote in 1893 when women were first legally allowed to vote in New Zealand in parliamentary elections.
When her husband stepped down as mayor, she accepted the nomination for the office. Only a few months after New Zealand women led the world by voting in a general election, Elizabeth Yates defeated her opponent Frederick Court at the poll. The race was very close, decided by only 13 votes. She was sworn in on January 16, 1894.
Her appointment as the first female mayor in the British Empire was news around the world. Queen Victoria even congratulated her on her election.
“Women’s enfranchisement proceeds apace. Early this morning I read of the election of the new mayor of Onehunga, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates! She defeated a male candidate. If we Britishers have a queen, why not a lady mayor?” Letter To the Editor. Wellington, December 30, 1893. The Inland Printer, Volume 12. Maclean-Hunter Publishing Corporation, 1894
Along with her appointment as mayor she also automatically became a Justice of the Peace. She occasionally officiated as magistrate in cases involving women.
Elizabeth Yates was an able and effective administrator. During her tenure as mayor, she liquidated the borough debt, established a sinking fund, reorganized the fire brigade, and upgraded roads, footpaths, and sanitation.
Despite all her accomplishments, she met stubborn opposition in her role as mayor. When she was elected, four councilors and the town clerk resigned immediately in protest. A group of three councilors organized against her, opposing every her every proposal. Even members of the town joined in, cramming the council chamber to hoot and jeer at her at every meeting. Critics blamed her for bringing it on herself by being “tactless” and “dictatorial” and disregarding established rules of procedure.
All of her achievements were accomplished with only one year as mayor: Elizabeth was defeated in the polls in November of the same year, 1894. Afterwards, she served on the Bourough Council for two years from 1899 to 1901.
In 1909, Elizabeth was admitted to Auckland Mental Hospital for reasons unknown. She died while still in the hospital on September 6, 1918, and now rests beside her husband in St. Peter’s churchyard in Onehunga.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.