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A Tireless Campaigner

22 SepCommunity

19 September marks the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act that granted New Zealand women the right to vote. To commemorate this historic occasion, Te Manawa is publishing interviews and profiles of prominent local women at each end of those 125 years.
Here we look at the life of Learmonth Dalrymple, considered to be the woman who spearheaded the local Manawatū suffrage movement.

Learmonth Whyte Dalrymple was born on 21 July, 1827 in Scotland, first child of William Dalrymple and Janet Taylor. With a thirst for learning, she studied at Madras College in St Andrews, travelled Europe and learned to speak French fluently. This period of freedom ended in 1840 with the death of her mother; she returned to Scotland to take over the job of looking after her seven younger siblings.

When she was 26, Learmonth joined her father and some of her siblings on the voyage to New Zealand. A two month sojourn in Dunedin while their ship was repaired was enough to sow a love of Otago in the family’s hearts. Though they moved on to Wellington as they had planned, by 1857 they were back, with William Dalrymple buying land at Kaihiku in South Otago. While living here Learmonth founded the district’s first Sunday school.

1863 saw the opening of Otago Boys’ High School in Dunedin. Local opinion supported a similar school for girls, but it was not until 6 February 1871 that it became a reality. This was in large part due to Learmonth’s tireless campaigning: organising meetings, lobbying officials and researching education best practise. Learmonth strongly believed in the importance of providing greater opportunities and independence for girls. Otago Girls’ High School was the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

That same year she campaigned for Otago University to admit women, and on 8 August 1871 it did, the first Australasian university to do so.

In 1881 Learmonth and her father moved to Feilding to be closer to her brother, John Dalrymple. Once more she turned her efforts toward change, this time in the matter of women’s suffrage. Learmonth was among the first women to join the Wellington branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), one of the major advocating organisations for women’s suffrage in New Zealand. She worked hard to co-ordinate the WCTU and petition the government. Learmonth had become superintendent of the Feilding branch when suffrage was finally realised in September 1893, and she remained vocal in her disdain for local representatives whom she felt had not done their part to support the cause.

She returned to Dunedin at the end of her life and died there on 26 August 1906, but she is buried in Palmerston North.