Catherine (Kate) Malcolm was born in Liverpool, England on 10 March 1848, the daughter of a lawyer, Andew, and his wife, Jemima. Andrew moved around a lot, working in a variety of positions, and died early, although the date of his death is not known. He left his widow with five children to support, probably with the help of her own family.
The eldest daughter, Marie, married and immigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband, and Jemima Malcolm decided to follow, taking the rest of the family with her.
In 1869 the family arrived in Christchurch, and became active members of the local Presbyterian church. It was here she met Walter Allen Sheppard, a reasonably wealthy man, who had made his money in the goldfields of Australia, before settling in New Zealand, and the couple married in 1871.
Initially, Kate was the pattern Victorian married bourgeoise. She had one son, Douglas, born in 1880, taught Sunday school, joined the local Ladies' association, the YWCA and the Choral society.
However, when Mary Clement Leavitt from Cleveland Ohio, arrived to preach the evils of drink, Kate was converted, and moved out of the modest, self-effacing role of Victorian wife, to start a career (albeit an unpaid one) in politics.
Kate overcame her terror of speaking in public and became a force in the Women's Christian Temperance Movement. This employment led her to read widely, and amongst the subjects she researched was the suffrage movement. More even than temperance, universal suffrage captured her imagination, and soon what had begun as a crusade against the demon drink metamorphosed into a battle to get women the right to vote.
Kate's movement printed pamphlets and organised meetings, suffering the scorn of outrage of men, who derided the suffragists as "shrieking harridans" However, the movement had its supporters in the house of representatives and the suffrage issue was debated there in 1887. It was defeated, with many claiming that women didn't want enfranchisement. Kate was determined to prove this untrue.
She travelled widely, no easy task in 19th century New Zealand, disseminating ideas from the suffrage movements in the US and Britain, pointing out that New Zealand was a young country and that it was only right and fair that everyone who helped to build it should have a voice in its governance. As she travelled, she and her canvassers gathered signatures on a petition to disprove the argument that women didn't want the vote – and as soon as women realised that voting was actually possible for them, they signed in droves.
For the next seven years, the suffrage movement struggled to get their petitions recognised and the bill put before parliament. The debate was finally scheduled in September 1893, and it became obvious to it was likely to succeed. The government of the time, realising his, planned a General Election to follow hard on its heels – hoping to minimise "The womens' effect" on the outcome. Kate, however, was aware of this manoeuvring, and encouraged women to register to vote in readiness.
On 19th September the bill was tabled. Kate presented her petition – it measured 766 feet and had more than 27,000 signatures appended, in a country whose population was less than a million. It was unrolled in a room awed to silence, and there was no doubt any longer of the outcome.
Kate had her victory, and announced it with the words "The news is being flashed far and wide, and before out earth has revolved on her axis every civilized community within the reach of the electric wires will have received the tidings that civic freedom has been granted to the women of New Zealand."
New Zealand had become the first nation in the world to enfranchise its women.
To the surprise of many, the election came an went without offending the sensibility of ladies and without families falling apart as a result of their women exercising their right to vote; and women, it turned out, voted much as men did – very diversely, and on the issues.
Kate didn't rest on her laurels, however. She saw much more to be done towards getting women political equality than simply providing them with a vote. In April 1896 The first National Council of Women was convened and elected Kate as their president
Kate used her magazine, the White Ribbon as a medium to promote her various campaigns
To enhance women's rights, which included the advantages of contraception, equal rights to divorce and equal rights to guardianship of children. Kate was a determined advocate of the abolition of the corset, which she considered an instrument of torture, and unhealthy to boot, and she argued for girls to get as much of a chance to run and play as boys did. She had no time for women who reclined looking delicate – in her opinion the ideal woman was robust, healthy and useful.
Kate's private life was less successful than her public one, and in the later part of her marriage, she and Walter were often separated as he spent more and more time with his family in England.
Kate finally moved in with close friends William and Jennie Lovell Smith in 1905, a situation which led to much gossip – indeed, locally, William was referred to as "the man with two wives". Whatever the relationship was between Kate and William Lovell Smith at that time, after the death of Walter in 1915, and Jennie Lovell Smith in 1924, Kate and William were married – when Kate was 77.
Kate's life wasn't without tragedy: her son Douglas moved back to England, married there, and died in 1910. Worse, perhaps, even than this, was the death of her only grandchild, Margaret, from tuberculosis in 1930.
Kate herself died in 1934 at the age of 85.