Ngahuia te Awekotuku

Ngahuia te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe) was at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement in New Zealand. Her feminist principles were firmly rooted in a longstanding Māori women’s movement. She grew up surrounded by ‘a community of the most ferociously feminist women’. (Ngahuia te Awekotuku, 1985)

In 1971, while at Auckland University, Ngahuia and other students banded together to protest against the lack of progress since women won the vote in 1893. The group staged a mock funeral procession in Albert Park. This attracted widespread media attention but the Auckland Star trivialised their efforts, labelling them ‘attractive young things from women’s lib’; other media focused on the ‘bra-burning’ myth.

The Albert Park protest was a turning point for women’s liberation in New Zealand. A small number of women were active in the 1960s facilitating lectures, community talks and small protests, but there was no widespread, unified movement. By the end of 1972 at least 20 women’s liberation groups had formed, and New Zealand had at last joined the global women’s liberation movement.

At the outset women’s liberation groups adopted an all-inclusive ‘sisterhood is powerful’ approach. Alongside trailblazing students like Ngahuia were housewives and career women. But it wasn’t long before differing perspectives on a range of issues led to disagreements. Many Māori women saw women’s liberation as a Pākehā concept with little relevance for them. They argued that Māori women’s rights were intertwined with the revival of Māori culture and the assertion of land rights.

As a Māori lesbian, Ngahuia was at the forefront of a call to focus on reaching Māori and Pacific women, as well as lesbian rights. In a 1971 interview she discussed the involvement of lesbians in the women’s liberation movement, shocking those unaccustomed to such openness. Connie Purdue, a conservative feminist, accused Ngahuia of putting the movement back 50 years.

When internationally acclaimed feminist writer Germaine Greer arrived in New Zealand in 1972, Ngahuia led a group dressed as witches to greet her, claiming that ‘Māori women, lesbians, ruffians and all the undesirables’ had been excluded from her welcome. By 1973 separate Māori and lesbian groups had started to form and as the decade progressed ideological differences divided the movement further.

Today Ngahuia is an Emeritus Professor of  the University of Waikato. She is the first Maori female Emeritus in Aotearoa. She  remains a leading feminist writer, lesbian rights activist and advocate for Māori issues. She has published award winning books, seven of which are sole authorships, including fiction and nonfiction.  She continues to work in the culture and heritage sector as a curator and consultant. 

In 2010 Ngāhuia was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori culture; in 2016 she was made the inaugural Mareikura or Matriarch of the the Pae Akoranga Wahine: Women's Studies Association of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and in 2017 she received  the Pou Aronui Supreme Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand for outstanding service to the arts and humanities.

Further reading:

Amy Brown (ed.), Mana Wahine:Women who show the way, Reed. Auckland, 1994

Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote, Penguin Books (NZ), Auckland, 1993

Ngahuia te Awekotuku, Mana wahine Maori: selected writings on Māori women’s art, culture, and politics, New Women’s Press, Auckland, 1991

Ngahuia te Awekotuku, Tahuri: a Limited Edition, PangoCatPress, Hamilton, 2017

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