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This essay written by Tania Rei, Geraldine McDonald and Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku was first published in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Lily Pare Hall Butcher in 2021.

E kore au e ngaro
He kākano i ruia mai i Rangiatea [1]

From pre-European times to the present, Māori women's organising has been centred on the whānau and its well-being. In pre-European Māori society, women's organising was confined to tasks within the whānau or hapū units. The women worked together and looked after the children, collected food and firewood, cooked, gardened, wove mats, baskets and clothing, and contributed their own skilled work to important projects such as the building of whare whakairo. Tasks were shared, with the older women taking responsibility for caring for the children and the younger women performing heavier utilitarian work. Women were expected to contribute to the well-being of the whanau, and in perilous times they also had to help protect their hapū and whānau.

Organising as it is understood in a contemporary sense was evident among Māori women from about the 1880s, in terms of their participation in Māori and non-Māori women's organisations. They took an active role both in Māori politics and in the causes espoused by nineteenth-century Pākehā women, such as women's suffrage, temperance and welfare. In 1893, Ngā Komiti Wāhine were established, and the first Māori unions of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were formed in 1894; by the turn of the century, Māori women were participating in church groups, sports teams and work-based organisations.

An early example of Māori women's entrepreneurial ability and organisational skills is that of the guides of Whakarewarewa. From the 1880s on, they formed a unique group, linked by descent and kinship, tradition, residence, and knowledge, as well as by the work they undertook. These women from Tūhourangi and Ngāti Wāhiao established their own work practices and code of ethics. With assistance from the men in their tribe, they developed a guiding tradition which became world-famous.

Ngā Komiti Wāhine and the Women's Christian Temperance Union

Perhaps the most significant event in the early history of Māori women's organising occurred in the early 1890s. In 1892, the political movement Te Kotahitanga established a Māori Parliament, which held its inaugural meeting in June at Waipatu, Hawke's Bay. One of its main tasks was to bring a halt to Māori land sales, and a central committee was elected to co-ordinate the contributions of the affiliated tribes.

Many Māori women at that time were landowners, and were becoming increasingly frustrated at not being able to have a direct say on matters of concern to them. In May 1893, Meri Mangakāhia of Te Rarawa (wife of the Māori Premier, Hāmiora Mangakāhia) presented a motion seeking the right for Māori women both to vote and to stand as candidates for the Māori Parliament. In 1897, in addition to having the right, along with Pākehā women, to vote for members of the House of Representatives, Māori women won the right to vote for members of the Māori Parliament. [2]

The voting returns for the 1893 general election indicate Māori women's political awareness and ability to organise quickly. In 1890, when the total Māori population was just under 42,000, 7086 Māori men voted; in 1893, from a similar population, the total Māori vote rose to 11,269, indicating that about 4000 women had registered and voted. [3]

Meri Mangakāhia's motion was also the catalyst for the formation of Ngā Komiti Wāhine – tribally based Māori women's committees – throughout the country. These held meetings on marae to discuss issues such as land, the general state of their people, and political concerns of the day. Usually the wives of the tribal leaders, such as Takarea Te Heuheu (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and Herena Taupopoki (Tūhourangi), presided over these committees, which were formally structured. In some communities, leadership was asserted by women on the basis of their own genealogical status, for example Rihi Kārena (Ngāti Whakaue) in Ōhinemutu.

South Island Māori Branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, formed at Tuahiwi, 1908. Among the women present are Mrs Te Aika, Mrs Uru (secretary) and Hera Stirling. 

The committees' work was reported in two Māori newspapers: Huia Tangata Kotahi and Te Puke ki Hikurangi. The latter was financed solely by Niniwa i te Rangi, a Māori woman from Wairarapa who, together with Meri Mangakāhia, agitated for equality of rights for Māori women. The reports were almost always prefaced by a message to all the women of other tribes: 'Kia ora anō hoki ngā Komiti Wāhine Hōnore o ngā motu e rua' ('Greetings to the Honourable Women's Committees of both islands').

Many Māori women were committed prohibitionists – some had been involved in the Temperance Alliance during the 1880s. There was considerable overlap in membership between Ngā Komiti Wāhine and the WCTU. The Māori Department of the WCTU, with Ellen Hewett as first superintendent, held its inaugural meeting in Wellington in July 1894. The WCTU encouraged Māori women to form new branches and to take the pledge not to consume either alcoholic liquor or tobacco. Within three years, Māori women's branches were distributed around the country. One of the first Māori women to join was Hera Stirling of Ngāi Tahu; as a Māori organiser, she started branches in the South Island, Hawke's Bay and lower North Island. By 1898 new branches had been formed in Tauranga, Whanganui and Greytown; more than 600 pledges were taken that year.

However, the impact of Māori women's participation in non-Māori women's organisations was not always culturally advantageous. The Māori pledge of the WCTU, which Māori women signed in their hundreds, included a promise to cease the practice of tā moko – tattooing:

He Whakae tēnei nāku kia kaua ahau e kai tupeka, e inu rānei i tētahi mea e haurangi ai te tangata, kia kaua hoki ahau e whakae ki te tā moko. Ma te Atua ahau e awhina.

(I agree by this pledge, not to smoke tobacco, not to drink any beverages that are intoxicating, and also not to accept being tattooed. May God help me.)

Both organisations required Māori women to work among their people, overseeing and attending to general health and well-being. In many cases the women simply retained the same committee leaders and members. A merging of activities was therefore inevitable, as is shown in a report from Ngā Komiti Wāhine o Rotorua, explaining the rights of committee members to fine the local Māori men (no less than 10 shillings) or women (5 shillings) for disorderly behaviour caused through drink. [4] The funds collected in this way were forwarded to the central committee of the Māori Parliament for the conveyance of a petition concerning land grievances to Queen Victoria. The imposition of such restrictions on alcohol consumption also met with the approval of the prohibitionists. Thus the women were able to meet their obligations both to Te Kotahitanga and to the WCTU. The authoritative role adopted by their committees was possible only because those who headed them were women of standing within their tribes. Support for the women's work from tribal leaders was also important.

Constraints such as lack of money and transport, coupled with social problems such as poverty, limited formal education and sub-standard housing, contributed to the diminishing participation of Māori women in organisational work generally after 1900. In 1903, Hēni Pore reported a reluctance toward and loss of interest in WCTU work in the Rotorua district; once considered to be a stronghold of the organisation, it had boasted nine branches in 1897. Nevertheless, the WCTU held its first Māori convention at Pakipaki, near Hastings, in April 1911. In spite of waning interest, there were still 44 Māori women's branches operating in 1912. [5]

Twentieth-century organising

By the turn of the century, Te Kotahitanga had more or less phased itself out, holding its final meeting in 1902. The Māori Councils Act 1900 introduced a system of quasi self-government via Komiti Marae (village committees) and Māori Councils (tribal executives). By 1906, however, these councils were falling away; they were handicapped by a lack of government funding, and had only limited autonomy. Ngā Komiti Wāhine, which were already aligned to the marae, had in 1900 become more commonly known as Ladies' Committees (village women's committees). Thanks to their strong marae base, these women's committees continued operating on most marae up until the Second World War.

Raetihi Non-Smoking Club, 1902.

But the national forum which Ngā Komiti Wāhine had enjoyed disappeared under the new arrangements, and the spirit of friendship which Māori women throughout the country had cultivated came to an end. The Māori newspapers which Ngā Komiti Wāhine had used to publish reports, information and correspondence ceased operating. The WCTU's paper, The White Ribbon, had an irregular column entitled 'Work among the Māoris' from its first issue in May 1895; but the reports were filed by the Māori organisers, not by the Māori members.

In the absence of a central organisation, it was virtually impossible for the women to maintain their own political contact among tribal areas. An even greater setback, perhaps, was the loss of the political rights and recognition they had achieved in association with Te Kotahitanga, including their Māori suffrage. Though they had for a time gained organisational experience on a broad scale, it was not until the First World War that their national links were once again revived.

Mīria Pōmare was particularly influential in bringing this about. She encouraged Māori women to work together in local war effort groups, under the umbrella of the Lady Liverpool's and Mrs Pomare's Māori Soldiers' Fund, to produce essential items for Māori soldiers. Hēni Materoa Carroll was also extremely active in a large-scale East Coast campaign to raise funds to help returning Māori soldiers. Like their Pākehā counterparts, Māori women gained valuable organising skills through their war effort. Māori concert parties, in particular, raised large sums.

Concert parties had been a useful source of income in some parts of the country since the turn of the century. Mākereti (Maggie Papakura) organised the notable group which travelled to Australia and England in 1910-11, and other Rotorua guides continued this type of female entrepreneurship. All their concert parties catered for tourists and employed local people; some also raised funds for community purposes. Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato ran a concert party, Te Paki o Matariki, from 1920 until 1950; its work helped to finance the rebuilding of the Kīngitanga movement, and the construction of Tūrangawaewae Marae at Ngāruawāhia.

Members of the Aotea Ladies Dish-can Band, who performed for a patriotic concert and dance at Rānana, on the Whanganui River, February 1919. Organised by the Aotea Ladies’ Patriotic Committee, the concert raised £40 for the Aotea Convalescent Home in Egypt.

Organised sport was another area in which Māori women actively participated. Teams of Māori women were recorded as taking part in whaleboat racing in the Waikato regattas on Kāwhia Harbour during the 1890s. In the period between the turn of the century and the First World War, Māori boarding schools introduced many girls to organised sport, especially hockey and tennis. Hukarere (Napier) maintained a strong presence in hockey, particularly during the 1910s, producing several prominent players, including Rangitiaria Dennan (Guide Rangi). St Joseph's (Napier) and Queen Victoria (Auckland) also fielded both hockey and tennis teams.

During the 1930s, intertribal women's sports competitions (particularly in hockey) became more popular; for example, the Raukawa Shield in the Wellington district was competed for by teams from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa. In the north, during the 1940s, inter-district Māori women's rugby competitions were held, and throughout the country, Māori women's teams competed in outdoor basketball (netball) and golf tournaments. Following the Second World War, Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club in Wellington formed a marching team. Tennis became particularly popular during the 1950s and 1960s, when inter-district and intertribal competitions were held. Many marae raised funds to build tennis courts and Māori tennis clubs fielded women's teams boasting well-known players such as Ruia Morrison of Te Arawa, the Peni sisters of Taumarunui and Rangi Delamere from Kawerau. The annual Māori Tennis Tournament continues today.

Health organising

Health has always been a critical issue for Māori women. The years 1840 to 1901 have been termed the 'decades of despair'; it is estimated that by 1891, the Māori population was down to 40–50 per cent of what it had been in 1840. [6] The massive dislocations which had resulted from the influx of Pākehā settlers and land alienation were accompanied by a combination of malnutrition, infection from introduced diseases, impaired fertility and high infant mortality. The highest toll had been among women: the older the age group, the lower the proportion of women to men. As late as the 1880s–1890s, '40 percent of Māori girls would not have reached their first birthday'. [7] In 1891, Māori life expectancy at birth was only 28 years for males and 25 years for females. By 1901, a recovery had begun. Life expectancy at birth had reached 35 years for males, but was still only 30 for females. Though adults had by then built up some immunity to diseases, infant mortality remained extremely high, standing at 225 per 1000 in the period 1906–10. [8]

As early as 1897, Te Aute College Students' Association discussed the need to train Māori nurses to work in the Māori community. An early scheme to train educated young Māori women for a year at a hospital was hampered by most hospitals' reluctance to co-operate; in 1905, Gisborne refused to accept Māori probationers, and Napier and Wellington would take only one each. The first Māori woman to pass the state nursing examination was Ākenehi Hei, of Te Whānau-a-Apanui, in 1908. By 1911, the Department of Public Health had initiated a Māori health nursing service. A number of Māori women had trained, including Ema Mitchell of Pakipaki, Sarah Burch of Waimā, Eva Wīrepa of Te Kaha, Hēni Whangapirita, 'Pirenga' (probably Pīnenga) Hall, and Hannah Hippolite of Nelson. By 1914, there were 12 Māori health nurses, both Māori and Pākehā. Their work was 'dangerous and difficult' and they often dealt with epidemics. Their hospital-based training gave them 'no special instruction to prepare them for their work … they had to rely heavily on their own initiative'. [9]

Hospitals remained reluctant to train Māori nurses; in 1928, the matron at Napier hospital wrote, 'Personally I prefer not to have [Māori nursing trainees] at all … but we have to help train these girls to help their own people.' [10] Not until the 1930s, under Mary Lambie, were tutors and ward sisters urged to give Māori probationers any special consideration. In spite of racist attitudes, and with few resources, the Māori nurses provided excellent service to their people. They left a legacy of hope and inspiration for their successors, who in 1984 set up their own association, Te Kaunihera o Ngā Neehi Māori o Aotearoa, the National Council of Māori Nurses.

Rural Māori women

Up until the 1930s, Māori people 'dwelt mainly in the country and lived from tending their own land or fishing, supplemented by … labouring on roads or farms by men and domestic service by women'. [11] In 1929, Mihomiho Te Au, commonly known as Kare, and Lady Alice Fergusson, wife of the governor-general, combined forces on the shores of Lake Waikaremoana to start Te Pikinga (Upward and Onward). Te Pikinga was an incorporated society which Kare intended 'to motivate her Tūhoe Pōtiki kinsfolk to uplift their own heritage and traditions, at a time when they felt downtrodden and depressed'. [12] Though it was not solely a women's organisation, women were:

the strength and backbone of the society. They encouraged and supported their men to plant and harvest large crops while [the women] took over the education, health and general welfare of the people. Te Pikinga organised cultural festivals that included sports, weaving and carving … built houses and other community centres … [and] raised patriotic funds to help the war effort … [13]

Kare became the society's lifelong president, and chose her grand-daughter, Te Rangimarie Turuki (Rose) Pere (born Anderson), to succeed her.

The Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (WDFU, later the Women's Division Federated Farmers – WDFF), which began in 1925, does not appear to have had a large Māori membership. At that time, Māori women did not generally live on farms owned by individual title, with access to finance. Nevertheless, some Māori women did become involved in WDFF and contributed to its administration, gaining much by the experience. Mona Wikaira was one: in spite of having three sons of her own and two foster boys, and working alongside her husband to develop ancestral land at Pōkuru, near Te Awamutu, she found time to join WDFU in the 1940s, eventually becoming secretary and president of the Waipā branch. She was made a Member of Honour of the WDFF in the early 1970s.

The other major rural women's organisation was the Women's Institutes  (WI), formed in New Zealand in 1921; the first Māori Women's Institute began in 1929. The WI had a decentralised operating structure, so that each institute was relatively autonomous; it provided an opportunity for Māori women to learn skills such as knitting, crochet and embroidery, while working together in a way which was identifiably Māori. Reports in Home and Country (the WI magazine) indicate an enthusiasm among Māori women for learning these new skills from Pākehā women. Membership also gave women in isolated areas an opportunity to communicate with others in similar situations. Māori institutes were particularly active in the Taranaki, Whanganui, Masterton and Gisborne areas, and in the north, where they were known as the 'Tiutiu'. Many Māori families in the north were itinerant farmers, sharemilking, building roads and bridges, and working in forestry. In many cases, the Māori women there were introduced to the WI through contact with Pākehā women on neighbouring farms. This was still the case in 1950, when the secretary of the Christchurch branch of the Māori Women's Welfare League (MWWL) noted that those Māori women who joined the WI, WDFF, Townswomen's Guilds and various other church and local organisations were constantly in touch with European life and society, and felt comfortable among Europeans. [14]

Pākehā schoolteachers at the Māori schools were encouraged to start institutes, as part of official attempts 'to forge closer ties between school and community through a focus on health activities'. [15] A 1936 survey of Māori health and hygiene concluded that these institutes exerted 'the strongest influence for good' among the women. [16] But in some areas they did not prosper. The institute at Ōmanaia, in the Hokianga, for example, was never 'strong or … successful', and the teacher who ran it concluded that this was because 'Ōmanaia is not ready for it yet. The homes are very poor and the death rate is too high.' [17]

In 1937, a new organisation arose among Māori women, with the specific aim of tackling pressing health problems: the Women's Health League (WHL), founded in Rotorua on the combined initiative of Nurse Cameron, local Māori women and Māori district nurses. The league was particularly active in the Rotorua, Gisborne, Whanganui and Northland areas. Information about it was spread by the district nurses, who strongly encouraged the women to form active local branches.

The formation of the WHL coincided with the start of an innovative government health policy and a major shift in employment patterns among Māori women, accelerated from 1939 by wartime demands. In 1936, only 8.3 per cent of Māori women were categorised as actively engaged in the workforce; half were in 'agricultural and pastoral' occupations, and a quarter in 'personal and domestic'. By 1945, only 9.5 per cent were in the workforce, but the pattern had changed completely: only 23.5 per cent 'agricultural and pastoral', nearly 40 per cent 'personal and domestic', and 13.5 per cent 'clerical and professional'. [18] However, three-quarters of the Māori population was still rural, with another 8 per cent in small towns. [19]

Post-Second World War Māori organising

The outbreak of the Second World War again prompted Māori women throughout the country to form war-effort organisations. In Rotorua, the guides of Whakarewarewa formed their own group, making several trips to Maketū beach to collect seafood to be dried for parcels to soldiers. Māori women also joined the Red Cross, and were particularly active in branches in the Whakatāne and East Coast districts.

From 1945 to the mid-1960s, the Māori people undertook perhaps the most rapid rural-to-urban migration of any national indigenous population, and 'the workforce [both male and female] went through an almost total industrial transformation'. [19] The Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 gave statutory recognition to 'self-help' processes. To implement the Act, the government set up the Māori Welfare Organisation, consisting of tribal committees and executives. Māori welfare officers exercised control in the field; they were overseen by the Minister of Māori Affairs and the Controller of Māori Social and Economic Advancement, Te Rangiātaahua (Rangi) Royal. [20]

First national conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Wellington, 1951. Back row, from left: Lucy Jacobs, Māora Tāmihana, Miraka Petricevich, Rangi Royal, Rangitaamo Takarangi, Iriaka Rātana, Naki Swainson. Front row, from left: Kuini Te Tau, Frances Paki, Whina Cooper (president), Mairatea Tahiwi, Rūmātiki Wright.

Except in rare instances, the members of the tribal committees were men. The women needed their own decision-making powers, particularly on family, health and housing issues. From 1949, the welfare officers helped to form Māori Women's Welfare Committees, and by 1950 there were 180. An attempt to amalgamate the Women's Welfare Committees and the WHL in a new national organisation was unsuccessful, and so in 1950, preparations began to form the committees into the Māori Women's Welfare League (MWWL).

Annoyed at the government's intrusion into an area they considered to be theirs, executive members of the WHL central committee sought a meeting with the Minister of Māori Affairs. This resulted in an agreement isolating Te Arawa (Bay of Plenty) district from the recruitment drives of the welfare officers for the MWWL. The WI was also concerned about the impact that the new organisation would have on its Māori membership, particularly in smaller areas where there was no room for two organisations; but no similar agreement was reached.

Māori women flocked to join the MWWL. Its objects included the social goals of the WI, but it also had a new political aspect which was not fully understood even by the male welfare staff of Māori Affairs. Māori women seeking empowerment found in the league something uniquely their own – an area where they were totally in control and were able to share their concerns and aspirations. In 1951, in a letter to the head of Māori Affairs, members of the league's New Plymouth district council stated that the league had made a great difference to their homes and remarked on the improvement in their relationships with other women's organisations. [21]

Their enthusiasm was not shared, however, by some of their menfolk. A letter to the Minister of Māori Affairs in 1953 claimed that the MWWL had usurped the authority of the men and taken over control of the pa. [22] Some departmental officers also had reservations; in March 1952, one officer stated:

the Welfare League's activities are centred on the house and all its aspects. Our problems start at the house and in this respect the women can do a great deal of good. But they will not get very far without the backing of tribal committees. They were created to assist tribal committees on aspects of welfare which are the prerogative of women. As long as they confine themselves to their particular field they will do good – have a look at them in five years' time. [23]

However, the members of the MWWL did not 'confine themselves to their particular field'. During the first five years, their achievements were extraordinary, considering the massive changes which the Māori population was undergoing and the large-scale social disruption brought about by the shift to the towns and cities.

The concern that Māori women were excluding their men from duties that the men considered to be theirs came to a head during the late 1950s. In 1960 the Department of Māori Affairs withdrew its administrative support for the MWWL, and in 1962, the Māori Welfare Act abolished the tribal committees and established the Māori Council, 'the top tier of a cumbersome four-tiered structure modelled on Pākehā bureaucratic systems'. [24] However, the league continued to receive government funding.

From its inception, the MWWL encouraged its members to co-operate with other women's organisations, and during the 1960s, such relationships expanded and deepened. Early childhood care and education was a common concern, and in 1964, Moerewa Isolated Branch combined with the local branch of the Country Women's Institute (CWI) to increase the participation of Māori children in playcentre. That same year, observers at the MWWL Waikato Regional Council meeting included members of CWI, WCTU, and Anglican Young Wives' Groups. In 1966 the Taumutu branch held their meetings in the rooms of the Christchurch branch of CWI, and in 1966–1967 the Whakatōhea branch invited CWI members to judge their inter-branch competitions. In its 1980 annual report, the MWWL national executive noted attendance at meetings of the CWI, Townswomen's Guild, Salvation Army, YWCA, Society for Research on Women, Community Health Nurses, Red Cross, Association of Social Workers, WDFF and Women's Studies Association.

At its first meeting, the MWWL expressed concern for the survival of the Māori language, and urged that it be taught to children, recommending 'Kia tukua ngā tamariki kia korero i te reo Māori i te kāinga' – that Māori parents assist by encouraging their children to speak Māori in the home. [25] All resolutions for 1952 related to te reo began with a strong case for Māori in Māori schools, and sought to have a Māori kindergarten. In 1954, the league recommended that the government introduce the Māori language in teacher training, if only to the extent of teaching the correct pronunciation of places and names; and in 1958 it called for the Department of Education to consider conducting an experiment in selected schools in the teaching of te reo, commencing with five-year-olds.

By 1964 the MWWL was taking an active role in assisting in and establishing playcentres, and a number of Māori women were doing the playcentre training. Preschool provision for Māori children thus began through extension of the existing movements, particularly playcentre. In its second annual report in 1963, the Māori Education Foundation (MEF) recorded that in the North Island, 153 Māori mothers were in training as playcentre helpers, assistants or supervisors. The next year it noted that the playcentre movement had been put under severe pressure by the number of centres established in Māori communities: most were in rural areas, and the local associations did not have the resources to follow up with training and support. Hine Pōtaka summed up the situation: 'Rumbles of discontent began to be heard … there was less and less communication between parents and the preschool organisations.' [26]

In 1966 a Family Preschool Service for very isolated groups was developed, and these independent preschools continued to flourish, especially in Waikato. The mothers and grandmothers who joined together to give their children experience of play were pursuing self-determination. After Lex Grey, the first MEF preschool officer, left to take up a position in Australia, he invited some of the women and men who had emerged as the leaders in the Māori groups on short visits to help establish Aboriginal Family Education Centres, on the model of the independent Māori ones. One of these women, Mana Rangi, has since been made an MBE in recognition of her services to family and early childhood education. Those who had been to Australia established an independent group, Te Rōpū Awhina Tamariki, which worked for self-determination and supported conducting centres in a Māori way. This group had an influence on early childhood education well beyond its small size.

In 1968, a Māori Preschool Planning Conference, sponsored by the MWWL, the WHL and the New Zealand Māori Council, took place at the University of Waikato and, in the Waikato-Maniapoto area, Family Preschool Education Centres formed their own Māori Family Education Association. By 1971 there were about 80 family preschools, mainly in Waikato. They were looked after by Rūmātiki Wright and Raiha Serjeant; in their capacity as Māori welfare officers, they also attended to the welfare of the families involved. After they retired, it was difficult for the groups to continue and numbers began to decline. Georgina Rīpia then became President of the Māori Family Education Association and worked to maintain them.

Meanwhile, at national level, the 1970 National Advisory Committee on Māori Education (NACME) set up a working party to look at different aspects of education. The report on preschools was written by a group led by John (later Sir John) Bennett, and including Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi and Mīria Pēwhairangi. It broke away from the longstanding stress on improving Māori preschool children's facility with the English language. In 1980, NACME recommended the development of bilingual programmes in preschools in Māori-speaking areas. By the early 1980s, Te Kōhanga Reo, a 'complete immersion' Māori language preschool programme, was under way. Māori women gave it massive and enthusiastic voluntary support from the outset; by 1983, one-third of MWWL members were working with it.

With the rise in political consciousness of the 1960s, a number of protest-related Māori groups emerged. One of the most articulate was the New Zealand Federation of Māori Students; its founders included Whetū Tirikatene (the first secretary) and Ngāpare Hopa. Māori language was the group's main concern until the Māori language movement, in which Māori women were an important leadership faction, took shape in the late 1960s. Other causes included opposition to playing rugby with South African teams, and to New Zealand participation in the war in Vietnam. Working in these areas honed the lobbying and activist skills of politically aware young Māori.

By 1971, two activist groups had evolved: Te Reo Māori, based at Victoria University in Wellington, and the more radical and confrontational Ngā Tamatoa. Within Ngā Tamatoa there were a number of motivated Māori women, a few of whom were also involved with women's liberation. Their attempts to focus on more feminist issues with other female group members were generally discouraged by the men involved. These women then began to meet separately; those for whom sexism became a major issue shifted their energies to women's and later gay liberation.

A group of Māori women writers and artists were involved in setting up Ngā Puna Waihanga, the Māori Artists' and Writers' Society, at Te Kaha in 1973. Many of them continued their work with the Māori women artists' and writers' collectives, Haeata (Wellington, 1983), Waiatakoa (Auckland, 1984), and Te Pūāwaitanga (Auckland, 1988). Aotearoa Moana Nui A Kiwa Weavers also began in 1983, reasserting the importance and value of Māori and Pasifika weaving.

The 1975 Māori Land March was launched and led by Whina Cooper of Te Tai Tokerau and the land rights organisation she formed, Te Rōpū Matakite o Aotearoa. Again, a charismatic and highly vocal group of Māori women were influential in the success of this undertaking; some – notably Eva Rickard of Raglan – confronted and resolved land rights issues within their own tribal regions.

A pivotal event occurred in September 1977: the convening of a Young Māori Leaders Conference in Auckland. (The first such conferences had been held in the 1950s.) Twice as many women as men attended, and Mira (later Dame Mira) Szaszy gave the opening address on Māori women and leadership. One of the many issues on the agenda was the report of the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion. A group of Māori women present emphasised that this was a women's issue and should be discussed in a separate women's forum. From this discussion came the first Huihuinga Wāhine Māori Anake (Māori feminist women's hui). Held at Freeman's Bay Daycare Centre in November 1977, it drew women of all ages and tribal groups. The issues discussed included contraception, abortion, traditional prohibitions, alcohol abuse and racism. The older women present were generous in sharing their knowledge of traditional prohibitions and tribal practices.

Cover of Broadsheet magazine featuring two Māori women standing next to park bench looking serious
Rīpeka Evans and Donna Awatere feature on the October 1982 cover of Broadsheet, a feminist periodical founded in the 1970s. Both women were heavily involved in protests against the 1981 Springbok tour and were part of the Patu Squad, a Māori group focused on undermining the tour.

Māori women continued to meet, although they became involved in other activities such as Te Kōhanga Reo. By 1980, a number of experienced activists had travelled overseas to study and assimilate other political ideas. Structural analysis and black activism were the most popular, and these theoretical approaches shaped the emergence of what initially called itself the black women's movement. Its catch-cry, 'Kōrerotia Wāhine Ma', demonstrated an impassioned and volatile presentation of Māori women's grievances against racism, capitalism, and sexism. Pākehā feminists, eager to assist Māori women, disseminated the ideas and arguments of the movement through their media, notably Broadsheet magazine, giving it considerable authority. It had a primarily urban focus.

Two significant national hui were held, at Ōtara in September 1980 and at Tauranga in April 1984. At the second, attended by over 400 women, more emphasis was given to such activities as flax gathering and weaving, and to the traditional role of Māori women. This role was discussed most eloquently by Mira Szaszy. Her landmark address to the MWWL Conference in 1983, 'Me Aro Koe ki te Hā o Hine-Ahu-One' (Pay Heed to the Dignity of Women), integrated traditional Māori beliefs and practices concerning women with the urgent concerns of modern times. She stated unequivocally that 'Sexism and racism are blood-brothers, born of the same attitude of mind.'

Other developments included workshops for Māori women on Mana Wāhine Māori, held in the Rotorua and Waikato areas between 1981 and 1983. These involved rural women and women from the tribal community, and reflected an indigenous, land-based analysis, rather than an urban, Afro-American one.

Three Maōri women holding and sitting next to a group of babies and young children
Te Kōhanga Reo class at Ōrākei Marae, 1988.

Health, employment, housing, education and violence against women became critical issues as a recession deepened, and by the mid-1980s Māori women's groups focusing on each of these areas had emerged. They included the first Māori rape crisis and refuge groups, [27] and the first tribally based Māori lesbian gatherings. These new groups involved women from both urban and rural communities, with a broad range of generations, tribal backgrounds and organisational affiliations. The largest and most highly visible example was Te Kōhanga Reo. Together with environmental and land issues and campaigns, this absorbed much of Māori women's political energy, both as Māori and as women, in the 1980s and early 1990s.

By 1990, and the commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 150 years earlier, Māori women were working both individually and collectively on a number of levels concerning land rights and tribunal claims, and for other government agencies on employment, health and environment issues. They continued to play an important part in the setting up, administration and successful operation of marae-based health ventures, for example at Waahi Marae, Tūrangawaewae and Ōhinemutu. Large gatherings of Māori women were organised by Te Ohu Whakatupu, the Māori secretariat of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, set up in 1985. Its Pūtea Pounamu programme (1987–1991) encouraged Māori women to take part in decision-making at community and local government levels, through training programmes in leadership, management and business development. Meanwhile, from 1987, the MWWL began to administer the Māori Women's Development Fund, designed to help Māori women set up their own businesses.

In tertiary education, Māori women were making notable inroads. On-campus support groups for Māori women staff and students flourished throughout the country. In October 1992 the Auckland University group, Te Pūāwaitanga, published the first issue of Te Pūā, a scholarly journal of work by Māori women, containing articles on contentious issues such as the intersection of feminism and indigenous rights, and Māori men's attitudes to women achievers. A study group of Māori feminists, Ruahine, also met regularly in Auckland. Group and individual networking also took place at an international level, with Māori women attending indigenous women's meetings in Africa, Scandinavia, North America, Australia and the Pacific over the last decade. In February 1993, the Māori Women's Welfare League hosted an indigenous women's conference.

However, the overall statistics on the situation of Māori women in 1993 were appalling. Between 1987 and 1992 the rate of unemployment among Māori women in the workforce doubled, from 11.1 per cent to a staggering 21.8 per cent – more than one in five. By 1992 one in two Māori families had a 'solo parent' – almost always the mother. Over 80 per cent of all one-parent families, compared with less than 18 per cent of two-parent families, reported an annual income of less than $15,000. [28]

Many Māori women saw collective action as the only way to combat such realities. As Te Kōhanga Reo demonstrated, working in groups for a particular cause or project came naturally to Māori women; it was one part of traditional Māori society and environment which survived the stresses of urban life. The ability to organise, improvise and inspire was shared by women throughout the Māori community. Particular issues were met by focused groups at particular times; often this energy then shifted to another more vital issue and another commitment. Certain elements nevertheless endured: the importance of whānau or kinship networks, even in the city; and the primacy of language, culture and land. As the twenty-first century approached, Māori women had to determine for themselves their relationship not only to the tribal and urban Māori community, and to Pākehā society, but to a much wider global community.

Tania Rei, Geraldine McDonald and Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku


Between 1994 and 2020, significant changes within society altered how Māori women organised, and the causes to which they devoted their attention. Yet there were also striking continuities with earlier movements, many of which carried their work on into the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Health and welfare

Health and welfare, long-standing targets of Māori women’s organisations, continued to be key focus points. Increasing the number of Māori women involved in providing healthcare services was one priority. Both Te Kaunihera o Ngā Neehi Māori o Aotearoa National Council of Māori Nurses and Nga Maia Maori Midwives Aotearoa strove towards this goal. 

The importance of Māori women’s involvement in healthcare for improving health outcomes for Māori can be clearly seen in the development of innovations such as cultural safety processes and family accommodation units at hospitals from the late 1980s. Led by Māori women health workers, including Irihapeti Ramsden and Amohaere Tangitu, these measures helped to foster greater understanding among Pākehā medical professionals of Māori needs and cultural understandings of healthcare. This helped Māori patients feel less alienated from the health system and provided practical assistance to whānau wishing to visit loved ones. The changes were influential in the design and implementation of He Kamaka Oranga Māori Health Strategic Plan 1993/1994, the first major mainstream ‘enhancement strategy’ of its kind to focus on improving Māori health outcomes.[29] Formal courses in kaupapa Māori nursing were developed in the following decade. The launch of Te Ōhanga Mataora Paetahi, Bachelor of Health Sciences Māori (Nursing), at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in February 2015 signified a major achievement for Te Kaunihera in ensuring the future of Māori nursing. In 2014, Te Kaunihera was growing, with a membership of almost 300. By contrast, Nga Maia struggled with declining membership, as well as financial instability due to variable government funding. Despite these challenges, in 2019 Nga Maia had 275 financial members. 

Māori women’s health organisations took on new roles as the health system and wider public sector changed. In the ten years before 1993, the New Zealand health system was restructured twice, reducing the amount of public funding for health services and facilities, and allowing a larger number of non-government organisations to participate in the health system. At the same time, the Department of Māori Affairs, responsible for administering social services to Māori communities, was abolished, and Māori organisations took over this role. More Māori social service organisations were established, with the prospect of ‘by Māori, for Māori’ health services was seemingly within reach. They were much needed, as the negative consequences of restructuring hit Māori communities the hardest. Many rural hospitals and other facilities closed, while the introduction of a user pays system made healthcare unaffordable for many. 

Māori health providers worked hard to fill the gap left by the government, although they were often inadequately funded to provide the services they were expected to deliver.[30] Regardless, iwi, urban Māori groups and others seized the opportunity to give their people greater autonomy in healthcare. By 2003, there were over 233 Māori health and disability service providers.[31] While many of these providers had women in leadership positions, most were not women’s organisations, with some exceptions, such as the Lower Hutt-based collective of Māori doctors, Mana Wāhine Incorporated. This is an example of Māori health providers making a difference to Māori women’s health as well as the health of the wider community. From 2007, the collective assisted Māori, Pasifika and Asian women seeking screening for cervical and breast cancer.[32]

Established Māori women’s organisations continued to do valuable work in the area of health, with the Maori Women’s Welfare League and Women’s Health League successfully piloting a number of health initiatives. A major achievement of the Women’s Health League was the provision of dental care to Māori communities through Hei Oranga Niho mo te Iwi Māori. This collaboration between the University of Otago and Tipu Ora Dental Clinic had students in their fifth year of study providing free dental care under supervision. While competition between organisations for funding and government contracts was a challenge, the large number of organisations operating at all levels, from local to national, testified that Māori women were committed to improving the health of their communities. 

In 2020, Māori women organised at a grass-roots level in response to the COVID-19 virus. In early March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the spread of COVID-19 around the world constituted a pandemic. Two weeks later, rising case numbers in New Zealand led to the government declaring a nationwide lockdown, restricting all non-essential travel to New Zealand and within the country. Māori organisations around Aotearoa implemented a range of measures to help whānau protect themselves against the virus and cope with lockdown. These included distributing food and essential items to isolated people; setting up iwi checkpoints on main roads to prevent non-essential travel between regions; helping children access learning resources to continue with schooling; and assisting the elderly with accessing the internet to prevent loneliness.[33] Māori women were also involved in Protect Our Whakapapa, which provided simple, evidence-based information and resources on social media for whānau during the lockdown. In addition to up-to-date medical information, their website included other education, social service and cultural knowledge resources. As of April 2021, Protect Our Whakapapa had a following of 26,729 supporters on its Facebook page.[34] The efforts of grass-roots Māori organisations such as this played an important part in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and were a key factor behind Māori having a lower COVID-19 infection rate than non-Māori as of June 2020.[35] Whether providing routine care to their communities or responding to crises, Māori women’s own health organisations and their work in Māori health organisations generally have been vital for safeguarding the health of their communities. 

The welfare of women and children continued to be a central concern for Māori women. Many of the inequities that motivated Māori women’s welfare organisations in 1993 were amplified by the reforms of the 1990s. Māori women continued to be impacted by poverty: by 2001, over one third of beneficiaries were Māori women.[36] In 2015, they were twice as likely to experience violence as other New Zealand women.[37] Between 1982 and 2012, the child poverty rate doubled; in 2021, Māori and Pacific children  were more likely than other children to live in a household below the poverty line.[38] Māori women have combatted these issues through a range of responses, often grounded in tikanga Māori. 

In 1991, Hamilton social worker Aroha Terry from the organisation Kokona Ngakau developed an innovative marae-based method for breaking the cycle of sexual abuse within Māori communities. Kokona Ngakau facilitated restorative justice sessions at marae around the country during the 1990s.[39] The Māori Women’s Refuge movement was also underpinned by kaupapa Māori principles, but grew out of and developed in parallel with the Women’s Refuge movement. In 2013, three of the Māori Women’s Refuges resigned from the National Collective of Women’s Refuges in order to ‘focus on a Māori-centred agenda’.[40]

Tikanga Māori also guided the protests by Hands Off Our Tamariki Network, a mixed-gender group with Māori women prominent within its leadership and making up a large number of its supporters. In 2016, the Network objected to legislative changes that would remove the requirement for Māori children’s whakapapa to be considered when placing them foster families. This legislative change would risk alienating Māori children from their whakapapa, and was seen as a ‘return to the assimilative policies of the past’.[41] The Māori Women’s Welfare League supported Hands Off Our Tamariki’s stance, lodging a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal over the proposed legislation change.[42].

The group found wider support in 2019 after a news story about Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children exposed the extent of child removal by the state. Hands Off Our Tamariki Network spokespeople Dr Leonie Pihama and Laura O’Connell Rapira argued that, based on recent reviews of Oranga Tamariki, the agency was not only removing children from their whānau at an alarming rate, but was also failing to protect those under its care and provide them with safer homes than they had initially. Hands Off Our Tamariki Network proposed an alternative system of care based in kaupapa Māori and administered by iwi. The Network published an open letter, signed by 18,000 people, ‘calling for systemic changes to be made and for Kaupapa Māori Whānau Ora approaches controlled by iwi and Whānau Ora organisations to be implemented’. The group also organised a rally to Parliament in 2019. Their protest actions against ‘the removal of another generation of Māori tamariki’ and ‘the denial of whanau rights to care for those tamariki’ were ongoing as of 2021.[43]


Māori women have been at the forefront of political change. Between 1993 and 2020, Māori women played important roles outside the parliamentary system as activists, and within it as Members of Parliament.

In the early 1990s, the results of the Waitangi Tribunal settlements process began to be seen. While these settlements have had benefits for iwi, the negotiation process and settlements outcomes have often been discriminatory with regard to Māori women, leaving women out of the negotiation process. In 1993, a group of Māori women lodged the Mana Wāhine claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, which claimed that the Crown had systematically excluded and otherwise discriminated against Māori women from the beginning of the Crown–iwi Māori relationship, in violation of the guarantees of tino rangatiratanga under the Treaty of Waitangi. The claim originated when the Crown removed a senior kuia from the board negotiating Māori fishing rights, and replaced her with a younger, more inexperienced male relative. This action was seen as only the most recent in a long history of discriminatory practices, policies and attitudes. The Crown finally began processing the Mana Wāhine claim in 2018, twenty-five years after it was first lodged. 

Protest continued into the new millennium, as the government sought to unilaterally extinguish Māori customary rights to the taku taimoana (seabed) with the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. An estimated 20,000 people mobilised for a protest hīkoi, with MP Tariana Turia becoming a prominent face of opposition to the Act. Turia split with the governing Labour Party over the issue, formed the Māori Party, and served as co-leader (with educationalist Dr Pita Sharples) from 2004 to 2014. As of 2021, a Māori woman had been co-leader of the Māori Party ever since it was founded. 

Changes to the New Zealand political system in 1996 led to more Māori women entering Parliament. The system of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) was introduced, with governments taking office on the basis of which party (or group of parties) won the most votes, rather than solely on the number of electoral seats their representatives won. Representation of Māori men and women  in Parliament improved under the new system, as seen in the results of 2002 election, when 20 new Māori MPs entered Parliament, a record at the time.[44] As of the 2020 election, there were twelve Māori women serving as MPs, representing parties across the political spectrum.[45] 

Outside Parliament, Māori women continued to establish or be involved with grassroots activist organisations, increasingly organising via the internet, a technology that had been in its infancy in 1993. From 2015, SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) harnessed the internet’s power to organise direct action to protect land at Ihumātao in South Auckland. Originally a group founded by six cousins – Qiane Matata-Sipu, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Waimarie McFarland, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, and Pania Newton – to protect their papakāinga, the group sparked a national movement to protect the land at Ihumātao as a site of special historical and cultural significance. The land concerned is adjacent to the Ōtuataua Stonefields, recognised by Māori as a site of early human habitation in New Zealand, wāhi tapu (sacred sites), a marae and village. When building company Fletchers planned to bulldoze the land to construct housing in 2015, SOUL organised a petition signed by 20,000 people and occupied the site. Solidarity protests took place in other New Zealand cities, with a wide variety of groups supporting SOUL, including the Kīngitanga – whose first leader, Pootatau Te Wherowhero, was crowned at Ihumātao – and the Muslim community. Using the internet to communicate enabled supporters to mobilise quickly. One solidarity protest in Wellington attracted around 400 supporters within fifteen hours. After substantial public pressure and parliamentary criticism, the government – which had originally confiscated the land in 1863 – agreed to intervene, buying the land from Fletchers in 2020.[46]

Activism by Māori women has long been connected to international movements and struggles, particularly other indigenous movements. From 1993 to 2020, it was strengthened by technological improvements providing instantaneous communication with people around the world. This influence was seen at Ihumātao, where SOUL received support from and gave support to Kānaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawai’ian) people, protectors of the sacred mountain Mauna Kea in Hawai’I, which was  under threat of damage by the construction of a gigantic telescope at its summit. Kānaka Maoli activist Pua Case said, in support of Ihumātao, ‘All of our relatives in Aotearoa, you know how much you mean to us and I also know you have situations there too, you're standing for your own mountain and your own waterways, your own lifeways, we stand with you as well.’[47] Māori and Kānaka Maoli activists travelled in support of each other, with Māori activist Dr Leonie Pihama saying, while visiting Mauna Kea in 2019, ‘We are here to stand in solidarity with our Hawaiian relations who are taking a position of self-determination in protection of this sacred Mauna Kea. We carry the movements of Ihumātao and Hands Off Our Tamariki to support the Kingdom of Hawai'i.’[48] A sign of international indigenous movements’ influence is SOUL and their supporters describing themselves as ‘protectors’ of the land rather than protestors, terminology used earlier by Native American Standing Rock Sioux people opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

An example of an organisation where Māori women have supported the rights of indigenous people overseas is Oceania Interrupted. From 2013, the collective of Pacific and Māori women organised public demonstrations against the Indonesian colonisation of West Papua (Irian Jaya), which has been under Indonesian rule since 1962. The group planned to hold fifteen protest actions, symbolic of the fifteen-year prison sentence historically given to those raising the Morning Star, the flag of independent West Papua. As of 2021, the group has carried out six protest actions to raise awareness of the situation in West Papua, including raising the Morning Star and conducting silent marches through Auckland.[49]

Another issue of international concern for Māori women is the climate crisis. Since 2017 the group Te Ara Whatu, a rangatahi organisation with a mixed gender membership, has organised for action against climate change. In particular, the group seeks recognition of the impact climate change is having on Māori and other indigenous people as their lands and waterways become eroded, disrupted and, in some cases, in danger of being completely destroyed by the consequences of climate change. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Te Ara Whatu sent delegates to climate conferences held by the United Nations, where their advocacy: 

‘highlighted the disproportionate burden of climate change on indigenous peoples, and contributed to the historic inclusion of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus (IPC) in direct negotiations, as well as the inclusion of all IPC principles in the UNCOP [] decision  on an Indigenous Peoples’ Platform.’[50]

Their success enabled them to secure coveted accreditation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP24, held later in 2019. 

Closer to home, Te Ara Whatu supported SOUL, with SOUL co-founder Pania Newton being a member of both groups. In the decades before the activism described above, the community of Ihumātao had been negatively impacted by environmental pollution from a sewage treatment plant that polluted nearby waterways, and a chemical dye spill that killed wildlife the community had recently regenerated. In February 2020, Te Ara Whatu organised a demonstration outside the Canadian Consulate in Auckland to show solidarity with the people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation; their territory was being invaded by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on behalf of the Canadian government and Coastal GasLink (CGL) Pipeline, which planned to extract natural gas in their territory without their consent.[51] As the activism of SOUL, Oceania Interrupted and Te Ara Whatu shows, local activism is frequently intertwined with international movements.


The most notable organisation of Māori women in the field of education is Te Kōhanga Reo. First established in 1982 as a grass-roots language revival movement led by Māori women, it continued to champion Māori language education. In 2010, it was recognised by UNESCO for its contribution to Māori education and the importance of its impact in the wider community. In a report on education, UNESCO noted that, ‘New Zealand's Kōhanga Reo movement has demonstrated what a powerful force indigenous language revitalization can be, not only for education but also for social cohesion.’[52] In the same year, Māori students in bilingual and immersion schools were twice as likely as those in mainstream schools to attain university entrance.[53] By 2018, Te Kōhanga Reo employed about 2250 women and trained a further 750 each year. As Arapera Royal-Tangaere puts it in her account, ’the intergenerational commitment to the survival of te reo Māori passed from grandmother to mother to daughter’. There was increasing demand for Māori medium education across all levels, with students in full immersion Māori medium education growing from 17,842 in 2015 to 22,391 in 2020. The growth of Māori medium education is evidence of the long-term impact of Te Kōhanga Reo.[54] 

An increasing number of Māori women were participating in tertiary education. In 2021, Māori women had higher participation rates in tertiary education than the total population.[55] The increase in Māori women in tertiary education is demonstrated by their involvement with Te Kāhui Amokura. Founded in 2004, Te Kāhui Amokura aims ‘to advance and promote the collective interests of New Zealand’s universities to improve outcomes for Māori university students (tauira), Māori university staff and Māori scholarship’.[56] The members of Te Kāhui Amokura are the most senior Māori staff at each of New Zealand’s universities;  as of 2021, four of its eight members were Māori women. In 2020, Te Kāhui Amokura criticised the government’s education budget, arguing that the emphasis on trades training was at the expense of every other educational pathway. In particular, the group voiced ‘grave concerns that the career aspirations for Māori’ were ‘being funnelled into a trades economy through vocational training rather than considering a full range of possible educational and work options for the future’.[57] 

Māori women and Māori women’s organisations continued to work to shape education in New Zealand to envision a better future. 

Arts and culture

In the three decades to 2021, Māori women’s organisations continued to promote the practice of customary arts, as well as encouraging innovation in new media. The establishment of modern wananga – kaupapa Māori universities – in the 1990s with customary arts courses boosted the revival of Māori weaving. The early 1990s were ‘a period of tremendous growth for Māori arts in Aotearoa’ and in this context, Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa (TRRWOA) emerged in 1994 as the national voice of Māori weavers. The group grew out of the older organisation, Aotearoa Moana Nui A Kiwa Weavers, which had a mixed membership of Māori and Pasifika weavers. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, TRRWOA held national hui biennially at marae around the country, which offered ‘opportunities to the hosts to showcase their region and weaving practices’. It also promoted weaving nationally through exhibitions, workshops, artist residences and fashion shows. This all helped to raise up weaving, which had not received the same recognition as other customary Māori arts.[58] As Tracey Morgan’s account of TRRWOA put it, ‘the increase in weavers nationwide would confirm that Māori weaving is alive and well’.

TRRWOA promoted Māori customary weaving internationally, supporting the development of the first major international touring exhibition,‘Toi Māori: the eternal thread, te aho mutunga kore.’, which opened in Porirua and went on to the USA. The tour was a significant occasion for the local Native American communities: when the Māori delegation asked permission to enter the territory of the peoples of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, it was ‘the first time in modern history that a “foreign” nation had asked permission to enter their territory’. Inspired by ‘the open sharing of ceremonial regalia, they felt emboldened to share their own treasures’ in an exhibition, ‘The art of ceremony’.[59] Some of the Māori weavers wove the cloak ‘Aramoana’ as a koha or ‘gift for America’ to mark the occasion; this was presented by Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu to the President of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, the city where it is now housed. Three revered weavers from the Siletz tribe of Oregon made a reciprocal visit to the national hui held in Taranaki in 2005. As of 2021, TRRWOA was committed to nurturing interest in Māori weaving, locally and internationally, ensuring that the art continued to grow, carrying the knowledge of tīpuna wāhine into the future.[60]

Merging customary materials with new methods or customary methods with new materials has been a strong theme in art by Māori women. Creatively combining aspects of customary and contemporary culture has been a distinctive characteristic of the art of Pacific Sisters, a collective of Māori and Pasifika artists whose textile creations, performances and installations have transformed possibilities for Māori and Pasifika women artists. 

Coming from a variety of creative fields, including film production, fashion and visual arts, Pacific Sisters broke new ground when they first began making art together. Largely performance-based and influenced by contemporary fashion as well as a pan-Polynesian heritage, they responded to an absence of positive portrayals of Pasifika people in mainstream New Zealand culture with fierce creativity. By blending Pasifika, Māori and Western cultural elements, they expressed a diasporic sense of identity, making them controversial with mainstream critics and fashion editors. They also faced criticism from their own communities, yet their work became popular because it was responding to cultural needs of young people and seen as fashionable. From the early 1990s, the collective’s art work was widely seen at festivals and galleries, and through popular culture, in New Zealand and internationally. In 2018, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa held a major retrospective of Pacific Sisters’ work. Reflecting on the exponential growth of Pacific art in New Zealand since the 1990s, critic Ioana Gordon-Smith acknowledged the group’s influence, saying ‘If we can now branch out into a range of different Pacific positions, it’s only because certain barriers were busted before us.’[61]

Twenty years after the formation of Pacific Sisters, four Māori women artists – Erana Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri Te Tau – formed the Mata Aho Collective. They came together with a shared interest in art’s capacity for activist purposes, and the desire to make art within a kaupapa Māori environment. The collective’s practice is inspired by customary weaving practice and concepts from te ao Māori, but frequently uses non-customary materials, such as faux mink blankets and plastic tarpaulins. As their reputation grew, they were invited to exhibit not only in a range of New Zealand venues, but also in Germany and the UK. 

The collective’s relationships with their mentors, such as senior Māori artist Maureen Lander, and their wider communities are very important to them. Their most recent work, Atapō (2020), a collaboration with Maureen Lander, was specially commissioned for Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art. This was the largest exhibition in the 132-​year history of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, with work by more than 100 artists, spanning 70 years.

In the early 1990s, a national organisation of Māori women carvers – Te Roopu o Ngā Wāhine Kai Whakairo – was founded. Te Kanawa whānau of Te Kūiti facilitated the creation of the group and organised a carving workshop for women at their marae, Te Waipatoto. Under the mentorship of master carver and tohunga tā moko Te Rangi Kaihoro Laurie Nicholas, fifteen women were taught to carve. The group held hui in Tauranga and Blenheim following the workshop. Between 1998 and 1999, Te Roopu o Ngā Wāhine Kai Whakairo carved a chapel for the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) in Hamilton. Thirty-five women worked on the chapel, named Te Whare Wāhine. The chapel was to be a space where Māori women who had experienced violence in their lives can ‘rebuild a sense of mana wāhine’ as part of a programme using ‘Māori arts to aid personal development’. As a statement of this vision, the design of the chapel included six female atua. Te Whare Wāhine opened in 2000 and still stands as of 2019.[62]

Customary Māori performing arts have also been used to build community for takatāpui Māori.[63] Since 2001, the Wellington-based takatāpui group Tīwhanawhana Trust has aimed to ‘uplift the mana of takatāpui both through Māori language and culture, and by advocating for takatāpui rights, health and well-being’. Kapa haka has been an important part of Tīwhanawhana since the mid-2000s, as performing helps to increase the confidence of group members and raise the group’s public profile. March 2021 was a busy month for Tīwhanawhana, with performances at the Wellington Pride Festival, twentieth anniversary celebrations on 15 March 2021, and supporting Kerekere in her maiden speech as a Member of Parliament with a waiata. 

In 2014, Jade Kanara Mills and Gemmah Huriwai co-founded the Auckland-based kapa haka group Ahakoa Te Aha, to commemorate the death of their friend and mentor Natasha Allen Hohepa from cancer. They wanted to create a space in Auckland where takatāpui people could learn waiata and other customary art forms. According to Huriwai, they also wanted to have an Auckland takatāpui group represented at the annual Big Gay Out festival rather than bringing a group in from somewhere else. Since 2014, Ahakoa Te Aha has performed at World Aids Day ceremonies, Auckland’s Pasifika Festival and the 2015 Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony. As of 2016, the group had about thirty members, meeting regularly on Tuesday nights at marae and other venues to practice.[64] 

Since 2008, the Māori Literature Trust Te Waka Taki Kōrero has nurtured Māori authors. While not exclusively an organisation of or for Māori women, much of the organisation’s success is owed to the Māori women who have contributed to it. The organisation has done much to promote writing by Māori women authors throughout the 2010s, through a short story competition, awards and mentorship programme. Among the Māori women who have been important figures in the organisation are Māori publisher Robyn Bargh, co-founder of Huia Publishers, and Patricia Grace, the first Māori woman author to publish a novel in English.[65]


Māori women continued to participate in sport at community and national levels, contributing to their communities’ health and happiness. In 2005, a survey found that Māori women and girls were particularly well represented in touch rugby and netball, with 16 percent playing touch rugby (compared with 6 percent of the total population) and 23 percent  playing netball (compared with 10 percent of women overall). At the grass-roots level, Māori were also well represented in support roles as coaches, parent helpers and administrators. Iwi-based sports groups and competitions became more prominent on the national stage from 2000 to 2020, building on a long history of iwi-based sports participation.[66] 

Ngāti Toa Rangatira Women’s Hockey Club is a remarkable example of a long-running iwi-based Māori women’s sports organisation. Originally founded in 1930, by the mid-2000s it was fielding at least two senior and two junior teams. The club has been strongly supported by whānau, with Lisa Bishop describing how they were ‘never short of coaches and volunteers, with aunties, cousins, and mothers always willing to take on various roles’. 

Business and employment

In 1993, Māori women and their communities were still reeling from the impact of a serious economic recession and recent economic reforms. Between March 1986 and March 1990 Māori unemployment rates rose from 8.5 percent to 20.6 percent, whereas the non-Māori rate rose from 3 percent to 6.5 percent. The Ministry for Women noted that Māori women bore ‘the brunt of this physically, emotionally, spiritually as well as financially’.[67] Māori women responded to a precarious employment environment by joining unions in greater numbers during the 1990s, to the extent that ‘by 2005 women and Māori were more likely than men and non-Māori to be union members’.[68] In January 2019, wāhine Māori Public Service Association (PSA) union delegates Georgina Kerr, Llani Harding and Paula Davis lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal over pay discrimination suffered by Māori women workers. The claim ‘raises treaty breaches that have relegated generations of wāhine Māori to low paid jobs with vulnerable work conditions. These include the Crown’s failure to provide education that adequately prepares wāhine Māori for employment, and to eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace.’[69] The claim became one of the many compiled into the larger Mana Wāhine claim. Māori women’s involvement in unions helped give issues affecting their lives more recognition and a greater chance of resolution.

Another response to recession, restructuring and changing responsibility for government services was encouraging Māori women to start their own businesses. In 1987, the Māori Women’s Welfare League established the Māori Women’s Development Fund, which in 1997 became the Māori Women’s Development Incorporation (MWDI). The organisation is a unique Indigenous financial institution, as it is governed, managed and operated by Māori women for the economic development of Wāhine Māori and their whānau.[70] Its Board of Trustees consists of former National Presidents of the Maori Women’s Welfare League. MWDI assists Māori women through loans to start a business, training programmes to develop business skills, professional networks and support to develop business ideas. MWDI also continued the Māori Business Women Awards, which began in 1995 under its predecessor. Between 1987 and 2001, MWDI helped to establish 3,500 businesses nationwide, with a success rate of 92 percent.[71] By the late 2010s, businesses owned by Māori women were expanding outside of traditional industries such as agriculture into newer industries such as video game development. In 2019, 6,500 businesses in New Zealand were owned by Māori women.[72] Through the MWDI, the Māori Women’s Welfare League found new ways to continue its mission to support the welfare of Māori women and their whānau in the changed economic circumstances of the early twenty-first century.  As union members and as entrepreneurs, collective organising helped Māori women weather the vagaries of employment and business. 

From 1993 to 2021, Māori women’s organisations were influential across many areas of life in New Zealand, making significant and influential contributions to society. 

Lily Pare Hall Butcher


[1] '1 shall not be lost; I am from the seed from Rangiatea.' In other words, 'We shall survive, no matter where we find ourselves.'

[2] See Te Puke ki Hikurangi, 21 December 1987, p. 1.

[3] New Zealand Official Year-Book, 1894, p. 256.

[4] Huia Tangata Kotahi, 25 August 1894.

[5] White Ribbon, Vol. 17 No. 201, March 1912.

[6] Pool, 1991, Chapters 4 and 5.

[7] Pool, 1991, p. 78.

[8] Pool, 1991, pp. 114-5.

[9] McKegg, 1991, p. 74, pp. 81-82. Ākenehi Hei died of typhoid after nursing typhoid epidemic victims in Jerusalem and Waihī, and among her own family in Gisborne.

[10] Alexandra McKegg, 'The Māori Health Nursing Scheme: An Experiment in Autonomous Health Care', NZJH, Vol. 26 No. 2, October 1992, pp. 145-60.

[11] Pool, 1991, p. 121.

[12] Rose Pere, personal communication, 18 February 1993. Mihomiho Te Au (Kare) was the daughter of Mihomiho Te Au Tahawaka of Tūhoe Pōtiki, and Fenton Arundel Lambert, an Englishman. Te Pikinga was initiated when Kare guided Sir Charles and Lady Alice Fergusson around Lake Waikaremoana to mark the opening of Ruapani power station at Tūai (Ruapani is an important eponymous ancestor of the people of Waikaremoana).

[13] Rose Pere, personal communication, 18 February 1993.

[14] Arapera Blank confirms this observation in her essay, 'The Role and Status of Māori Women', in Bunkle and Hughes (eds), 1980, pp. 34–51.

[15] Goodfellow, 1991, p. 48.

[16] Goodfellow, 1991, p. 48.

[17] Goodfellow, 1991, p. 49.

[18] New Zealand Official Year-Book, 1950, p. 781.

[19] Pool, 1991, p. 133.

[20] Kuini Te Tau was the first woman to be appointed as a Māori welfare officer, in 1947.

[21] MWWL New Plymouth district council to Minister of Māori Affairs, 12 February 1951, Māori Affairs files MA 36/26, Box 40, National Archives.

[22] 15 January 1953, Māori Affairs files MA 36/26, Box 39, National Archives.

[23] Internal memorandum, 22 March 1952, Māori Affairs files MA 36/26, Box 39, National Archives.

[24] Ranginui Walker, Ka whawhai tonu matou: struggle without end, Penguin, Auckland, 1990, p. 204.

[25] MWWL submission to the Royal Commission on Social Policy, [1987].

[26] Jan Staffan, 'Taking the Initiative', Te Kaunihera Māori, Spring 1968, pp. 43-47.

[27] See Welfare Organisations: National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges, for an account of the Māori women's refuge movement.

[28] 'MWWL and Te Puni Kōkiri working together', Te Puni Kōkiri Newsletter, No. 1, June 1992; 'One parent families now 1 in 4', Dominion, 2 May 1992.

[29] Haami, 2018, pp. 146–149, 1946; Haami, 2019, pp. 106–108.

[30] Carlyon and Morrow, 2013, pp. 311, 328–332; Anderson, Binney and Harris, 2014, p. 454; Haami, 2019, pp. 163–165. 

[31] Walker, 2004, p. 368.

[32] Takiri Mai Te Ata Whanau Ora Collective website:

[33] McMeeking, S. et al., 2020.

[34] Protect Our Whakapapa website:; Protect Our Whakapapa Facebook page: 

[35] McMeeking et al., 2020.

[36] Brookes, 2016, p. 463.

[37] Ministry for Women, 2015, p. 4. 

[38] Brookes, 2016, p. 462.

[39] Aroha Terry, interviewed on Te Ahi Kaa, Radio New Zealand, 30 May 2010,; Roderick, 1994, pp. 72–75. 

[40] Turner, 2007, pp. 12–13; Sherson and Irvine, 2018, p. 19.

[41] McBreen, K., ‘Racial justice meets the child welfare system: why Hands Off Our Tamariki Network is a movement for change’, The Spin-off, 5 Nov. 2016.

[42] New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, ‘Treaty claim lodged on move away from whānau, hapū, iwi placements for children in care’, 5 Dec. 2016.

[43] Reid, M., ‘Taken by the state: Don't take my baby’, Newsroom, 9 May 2019; RNZ, ‘Hands Off Our Tamariki heads to Parliament’, 30 July 2019; Waatea News, ‘Hands Off Our Tamariki Network support the call for a change of leadership at the Ministry for Children’, 16 June 2020; Hands Off Our Tamariki Network Facebook page:

[44] Anderson et al., 2014, p. 478; Carlyon and Morrow, 2013, pp. 335–336, 372.

[45] Manatū Wāhine Ministry for Women website:  

[46] Fernandes, K., ‘Ihumātao land battle: a timeline’, RNZ, 26 July 2019; McKenzie, P., ‘How art and technology mobilised an army of support for Ihumātao’, The Spin-off, 1 August 2019; Misa, T., ‘Who is Pania Newton? SOUL protest leader explains why she opposes Fletcher Building housing project at Ihumātao in Māngere’, NZ Herald, 30 July 2019; RNZ, ‘Ihumātao: SOUL marks the beginning of the end’, 17 Dec. 2020; Smale, 2016.

[47] Paranihi, R., ‘Kanaka Maoli protecting Mauna Kea send support to Ihumātao’, Te Ao Māori  News, 27 July 2019.

[48] Haimona-Riki, M., ‘Māori visit Mauna Kea as Hawaiians visit Ihumātao’, Te Ao Māori News, 8 August 2019. 

[49] Oceania Interrupted website:; Oceania Interrupted, ‘Action 1: The Rise of the Morning Star’, 2013; Oceania Interrupted, ‘Action 3: Free Pasifika – Free West Papua’, 2014. 

[50] Sherwood-O'Regan, K., ‘Rangatahi take the UN… again’, The Spin-ff, 11 July 2018; RNZ, ‘Indigenous activists to take local stories to UN climate conference’, 4 November 2019.

[51] Sherwood-O'Regan; Smale, 2016, pp. 46-47; Te Ara Whatu, ‘Indigenous youth stand in solidarity against invasion of Wet’suwet’en’, Te Ara Whatu, 9 Feb. 2020.

[52] UNESCO, 2010, p. 206. 

[53] Anderson et al., 2014, p. 458.

[54] Education Counts, 2020; Anderson, et al., 2014, p. 454. 

[55] Manatū Wāhine Ministry for Women website: 

[56] Te Kāhui Amokura, ‘Te Kāhui Amokura’, Universities New Zealand website.

[57] Te Kāhui Amokura, ‘Māori hands on the future’, E-tangata, 2 August 2020.

[58] Berry, Ruth, ‘Woven in time: Crafting threads of history’, Evening Post, 10 March 2000, p. 13.

[59] Dobkins, 2009, p. 420.

[60] Ngarimu-Cameron, 2019; Toi Māori Aotearoa, ‘Siletz guests to attend Māori weavers’ gathering’, Scoop, 19 Oct. 2005. 

[61] Fisher, G., ‘Shining a Light on the Pacific Sisters’ Artistic Legacy’, Viva, 7 March 2018; Gordon-Smith, 2018; Stevenson, 2008, pp. 168–172.

[62] ‘Carving out a sanctuary’, NZ Herald, 30 June 2000; Cracknell, 2019, p. 50.

[63] Takatāpui is an inclusive term used by Māori to describe people who might otherwise describe themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or intersexual.

[64]  Steemson, D., ‘Singing for Natasha’, RNZ, 24 April 2016.

[65] Te Waka Taki Kōrero Māori Literature Trust website; Anderson et al., 2014, pp. 481–482.

[66] Ryan and Watson, 2018, pp. 256–257.

[67] Brookes, 2016, pp. 428–429. 

[68] Nolan, M., Women Together ‘Employment organisations’

[[69] Public Service Association website, ‘Mana Wāhine Waitangi Tribunal Claim’.

[70] MWDI, ‘Te Whakapapa ō MWDI’, undated

[71] MWDI press release, ‘Awards Celebrate Māori Women's Success’, Scoop, 8 May 2001.

[72] Ministry for Women, 2019, p. 1.

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