Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko i te Ora Māori Women's Welfare League

1951 –

Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko i te Ora Māori Women's Welfare League

1951 –

Theme: Māori

This essay written by Tania Rei was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Update coming soon!

The Māori Women's Welfare League (MWWL) was established to draw together Māori women on a national basis, to address their own and their families' needs. The Oxford Dictionary defines welfare work as 'efforts to make life worth living for others'. This was the guiding principle of the MWWL. Its motto was 'Tātau Tātau' – 'let us be united'.

Between June 1950 and September 1951, intense efforts went into preparing for the establishment of the league, particularly on the part of the women who were Māori welfare officers. [1] By March 1951, 160 branches and fourteen district councils had been formed; by September 1951, 187 branches were operating.

Many were attracted to the league because it was a national Māori women's organisation which dealt with a broad range of issues, as well as providing a welcome opportunity for social interaction. The idea that the league would provide a means of contact with other Māori women throughout the country appealed to many, particularly those in rural areas. MWWL was also perceived as a way of obtaining access to government officials, given that it received considerable support from government.

MWWL meeting 1951

A group at the 1951 Māori Women's Welfare League conference listen to an address by Mira Szászy (then Mira Petricevich). Szászy was the first secretary and went on to become president in the 1970s. Alexander Turnbull Library, National Publicity Studios Collection. Reference: 1/2-040536-F; A 24 594 

The inaugural conference was held at the Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club in Wellington in September 1951; a total of 87 delegates, representing 187 branches, with a membership of 2503 women, were welcomed by Mairatea Tahiwi (president of the Wellington district council), Rūmātiki Wright (chairwoman), Te Rangiātaahua Royal (Controller of Māori Social and Economic Advancement), and Rotohiko Jones (Department of Māori Affairs). The prepared constitution was adopted and the first executive formed, with Whina Cooper as national president. [2] From 1952, the executive invited representatives of the Departments of Māori Affairs and Health to become ex officio members. Te Puea Herangi was the first patron; her great-niece, Te Arikinui, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, was the patron in 1993.

The league's aims and objects included promoting the health, education and general well-being of women and children, and Māori culture; providing aid to members and others in sickness and distress; fostering closer liaison with other Māori organisations; and promoting understanding between Māori and Pākehā women through links with other women's organisations. At its inaugural conference, the Dominion president of the National Council of Women and the International President of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association were guest speakers.

 Ordinary members were registered with a branch; other classes of membership include life (those who had provided valued service for at least fifteen years), associate or junior (under sixteen), honorary, and ex officio (usually representatives of government departments). In 1992, there were 2948 members, 174 branches, two district councils, and eight regional councils. Each council had a representative on the national executive, as did junior members. Branches remote from the councils were called isolated branches, and reported directly to the national executive. The MWWL was a non-sectarian and non-political organisation, in that it did not seek to influence the views of members regarding any candidate for public office, or any political or municipal party.

Migration to the cities was the most prominent feature of Māori society in the 1950s and 1960s. Before World War II it had been mainly young single Māori who moved to the cities to find work; but in the 1950s, families were encouraged to move to urban centres by the government's urban relocation programme, as well as by the search for work. In its first decade, the league's work centred on housing, health, education, employment and coping with urban life. Members became involved in a variety of social work, and sought to maintain and develop Māori arts and crafts such as weaving, holding their own competitions. Māori language retention was a critical issue, and from its first year, the league pressured government to improve opportunities for learning and fostering te reo, particularly in schools.

To carry out its work, the league set up various committees, including housing, child welfare, health, employment, education, and its constitution. By 1953, most branches had organised activities in association with district nurses concerning the care of babies and children, and preventing infection and illness.

By 1954 there were 303 branches and 3842 members. But over the next three years, the league lost over 1000 members. Assessing the reasons for this, Whina Cooper suggested it was mainly due to problems of communication between executive and branches, policy decisions not fully understood or implemented at branch level, and too few skilled branch and regional administrators. In addition, Māori women who had migrated to the cities often had little or no whānau support and carried most of the responsibility for raising families, leaving them little time to develop outside interests.

Nevertheless, the league continued to operate. From its inception until 1960, when it became an incorporated society, it received administrative support from the Department of Māori Affairs. In 1953 it started a 'day of giving' in order to save toward making it a fully independent organisation, levying a minimum of £5 from each branch. The day chosen was 6 February; the MWWL was instrumental in having this date made a statutory holiday, and in getting the name changed to Waitangi Day in 1976. Maata Hirini, president 1960–64, played a key role in raising funds from members and from other individuals and organisations to obtain the league's headquarters, a house in Thorndon, Wellington, purchased in March 1967.

Health matters dominated the 1960s. In 1964, concern was raised about iron deficiencies in Māori babies. The following year, league members helped public health nurses to promote and administer iron tonic to Māori babies throughout the country. The league also promoted immunisation progammes. In 1965 the Tairāwhiti branch raised money for and helped to build a hospital cottage at Te Puia Springs, and the Ōmaio branch set up a health clinic on their marae. Family planning, obesity among Māori, and tuberculosis were all frequently discussed at branch and national level.

The league was also concerned with international issues. Representatives attended the annual conference of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA) from 1952. In 1965 the Arahina branch exchanged visits with Fijian women, and the league made contact with the Samoan Women's Committee of Western Samoa. In 1966, a representative of Cook Islands women attended the league's annual conference. The league expressed its strong anti-racism stance in 1960, when it supported a petition opposing the All Black tour of South Africa; in 1965 it took the opposite view to that of the New Zealand Māori Council, and opposed the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand.

By 1965 there were approximately 3120 financial members. A survey of members and a membership drive were embarked on, and a policy of targeting young women under sixteen as potential members began. However, the league continued to lose about 300 members a year during the 1960s. To stimulate interest, the executive instituted a celebration of Māori women who had made major contributions to the league, for example Te Puea, Lady Carroll (wife of Sir Turi Carroll), Wikitōria Bennett, Māora Tāmihana, Mīria Logan, Maata Hirini, Magda Wallscott (who organised the South Island branches), and Whina Cooper. Rangimarie Hetet and her daughter, Diggeress Te Kanawa, were asked to share their knowledge of traditional arts and crafts, and continued to inspire league members.

By the end of the decade, the league was devoting more time to labour market issues, as unemployment increased and job opportunities shrank for younger Māori. Branches were encouraged to maintain contact with school leavers and welfare officers.

MWWL meeting

Members of the Tumanako branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League presided over by Pare Irwin, November 1970.  Members visited hospitals and prisons, helped feed children with intellectual handicaps, ran culture classes at nearby schools, and provides financial assistance for the education of needy children. New Zealand Herald.

By the 1970s, Māori women and men were starting to move overseas in larger numbers. The first overseas branch, Whirinaki, was formed in September 1979, in Perth, though it was not officially launched until November, with ten foundation members. During the 1980s more overseas branches were formed, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hawaii, and London, reflecting the fact that 6 percent of Māori were living overseas by 1986. Activities focused on maintaining links among expatriate Māori, getting and sharing news from home, and hosting travelling league members.

The 1980s brought major changes, particularly after 1984, with the corporatisation of government enterprises which had employed large numbers of Māori, and the decentralisation of control to iwi organisations. The league played an important role in programmes designed to foster Māori self-determination, such as Tū Tangata, Te Kōhanga Reo, Maccess, the Māori Tourism Development Board, the Māori Language Commission, and Mana Enterprises. It also provided substantial policy advice and assistance in the setting up of Te Ohu Whakatupu within the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and 'Māori perspectives units' within other government agencies.

One important project for Māori women initiated by the MWWL was He Pūtea Porotaitaka, the Māori Women's Development Fund. Government provided a seeding grant of $250,000 to support and assist Māori women going into business and make them visible in the economy. Georgina Kirby was appointed director of the Fund in 1986.

Health was a continuing concern, and from the late 1970s included issues such as domestic violence. In 1984 the league published Rapuora: Health and Māori Women, the report of a major study for which Elizabeth Murchie took overall responsibility. In 1985, Georgina Kirby launched 'Stop Smoking' and weight reduction campaigns, as part of the MWWL Decade for Health programme. A partnership was formed with the Department of Health in 1987, based on the league's 'Healthy Lifestyles' programme, and in 1988 June Māriu set about organising netball teams as one model of health promotion. Five national Healthy Lifestyles netball tournaments were held before 1993, with sponsorship from the Departments of Māori Affairs and Health, Hillary Commission, National Heart Foundation and Netball New Zealand. By 1992, approximately 450 Māori women under 25 were taking part. A series of netball tours overseas also took place, first to South Pacific countries and later to Hawaii. In May 1990 a Sporting Arm of the league was set up, with June Māriu as national co-ordinator, and in June 1990 action began to support the regional co-ordinators of the Healthy Lifestyles programme, promoting good health through sport. In February 1993, in partnership with the National Māori Congress and New Zealand Māori Council, the MWWL established Te Waka Hauora, a national Māori Health Authority.

In the early 1990s a substantial part of the league's funding continued to come from government, in particular Te Puni Kōkiri, formerly the Ministry of Māori Affairs. The league was in turn represented on various government committees and on all nationally based Māori organisations, including Te Kōhanga Reo and the Māori Education Foundation; it was usually consulted on matters concerning Māori women. It took a proactive stance in promoting awareness of Māori women and their concerns, and in February 1993 it hosted an International Conference for Indigenous Women in Christchurch.

Although the number of financial members in 1992 might appear low, they often represented their whānau and extended whānau. One strength of the MWWL lay in its ability to call on the collective support of whānau groups, as it did at each annual conference. Over the 40 years since it began, it provided a training ground for Māori women in both private and public spheres, for example in family care, networking, business, organising, administration, policy making, and iwi development. The contribution it could make in these areas was no less required in 1993 than it had been in 1951.

Tania Rei


[1] They included Kuini Te Tau (senior officer), Māora Tāmihana (Gisborne), Takumanawa Waerea (later Trotman) (Auckland), Miraka (Mira) Petricevich (later Szaszy) (Auckland), Ema Ōtene (Hastings), Rangitaamo Takarangi (Whanganui), Rūmātiki Wright (Hawera), Maraea Bailey (Head Office), Meremere Paitai (Kaitaia), Lena Rūrū (Gisborne), Grace McNaught (Te Kuiti), Kāterina Maihi (Whangarei) and Nini Naera (Rotorua).

[2] National presidents 1951–1993 were Whina Cooper (1951–57), Mīria Logan (1957–60), Maata Hirini (1960–64), Ruiha Sage (1964–68), Mīria Karauria (1968–71), Hine Pōtaka (1971–73), Mira Szaszy (1973–77), Elizabeth Murchie (1977–80), Violet Pou (1980–83), Maraea Te Kawa (1983), Georgina Kirby ( 1983–87), June Māriu (1987-–90), Aroha Reriti-Crofts (1990–93).

[3] Te Ropu Wahine Māori Strategic Overview, 2013–2014, http://mwwl.org.nz/.  National presidents between 1994 and 2018 were Areta Koopu (1993–1996), Druia Barrett (1996–1999), Jacquie Te Kani (1999–2002), Kitty Bennett (2002–2005), Linda Grennell (2005–2008). Meagan Joe (2008–2011), Kataraina O’Brien (2011–2014), Prue Kapua (2014–)

Unpublished sources

Greene, Kaye, 'History of the Māori Women's Welfare League', MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1974

James, Beverly, 'Māori Women's Welfare League: From Social Movement to Voluntary Association', MSocSci thesis, University of Waikato, 1977

Miria Simpson Collection, 03 Māori Women's Welfare League, Series-3397, ATL-Group-00194, ATL

MWWL records, 1951–1993, ATL 

Published sources

Te Ao Hou, 1951–1967

Further information

Listen to Dame Whina Cooper on Te Ara, talking about her work with the Māori Women’s Welfare League 

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