Thursday with Kate Edger

Suffrage Week Series

Publish Date : 20 Sep 2018
Kate Edger

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand, every day this week we're discovering the stories behind great Auckland women and the legacy they’ve left behind. You can also explore the buildings around the city honouring them.

For Thursday, Kate Edger (1857-1935), the first woman in New Zealand to get a degree and the first woman in the British Empire to get a Bachelor of Arts.

As the only girl in the class, she was required to enter with downcast eyes.

The only girl at school

And you thought your high school years were intense.

Kate Milligan Edger (pronounced 'Edgar') started her education at home, with private instruction from her father, a Baptist minister.

Edger wished to continue her education, but as there was no girls’ secondary school in Auckland in the 1870s she persuaded the headmaster of the male Auckland College and Grammar school to let her study in the top boys’ classes.

As the only girl in the class, she had to enter classrooms with downcast eyes and rarely speak to her male peers – although later she did say that they had treated her courteously.

Although Auckland University College wouldn’t open until 1883, the school was affiliated with the University of New Zealand, giving Kate the chance to work towards a degree. When applying for a scholarship, she submitted her age, grades and classes but not her gender.

The combination of her shrewd approach and the chancellor’s wish to avoid controversy succeeded and, on 11 July 1877, Kate Edger was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Latin and Mathematics.

Later life

Kate Edger went on to obtain an MA from Canterbury College, become principal of Nelson College for Girls, run a private school from her home and work as an examiner for the Department of Education.

She was active in women’s causes, including speaking publicly for women’s suffrage, editing the White Ribbon (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s magazine) and serving as president of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women.

Thursday with Kate Edger (1)
The Old Choral Hall, which is scheduled in the Auckland Unitary Plan. Photograph from the University of Auckland.

Legacy – flowers and halls

Kate Edger was awarded her degree in Old Choral Hall, one of the largest buildings in nineteenth-century Auckland able to seat more than 1000 people and often used for public events. Despite its size, the hall was bursting during Kate’s graduation ceremony, with barely enough seats for all the ladies attending.

When Kate crossed the stage, the Bishop of Auckland William Garden Cowie presented her with a white camellia to represent her 'unpretending excellence’. The flower went on to become a symbol associated with suffrage in New Zealand.

Today, opposite Old Choral Hall, stands a central and vibrant hub of the university – the Kate Edger building.

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