Ngā Rōpū Wāhine Māori – Māori Women's Organisations

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. 

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.

WCTU meeting

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. Canterbury Museum, Bishop Collection. Reference: Canterbury Times, 2 December 1908, p. 46 (1923.53.680)

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 smoking club

Raetihi Non-Smoking Club, 1902. Auckland Weekly News, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19020403-12-3.

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.

Dish can fundraising band

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.  Weekly Press / Canterbury Public Library

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]

Maori Women Welfare League members

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. Maori Women’s Welfare League PA1-q-532-04. Alexander Turnbull Library.

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 with Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans

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.

Kohanga reo class

Te Kōhanga Reo class at Ōrākei Marae, 1988.  Gill Hanly photo.

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


[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.

Unpublished sources

Goodfellow, Katherine, 'Health for the Māori? Health and the Māori Village Schools, 1890–1940', MA research essay, University of Auckland, 1991

Lange, Raeburn, 'The Revival of a Dying Race: A Study of Māori Health Reform, 1900–1918, and its Nineteenth Century Background', MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1972

McKegg, Alexandra, 'Ministering Angels: The Government Backblocks Nursing Scheme and the Māori Health Nurses, 1909-1939', MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1991

Māori Affairs files, series 1, 19/1/159, 1942–5, Parts 1 and 2; 36/26/1–19, 1950–1972; Māori Women's Welfare League branch reports, 100/14/2, 1947–54, duties and responsibilities of welfare staff; 16/10/1–7, 1965–72, Māori welfare statistics; Archives New Zealand, Wellington

Māori Women's Welfare League records, 1951–1982, ATL

Māori Women's Welfare League records, 1983–1992, MWWL national office, Wellington

Published sources

Heretaunga Taiwhenua Maccess Research Team, Te Pāremata Māori o Niu Tireni: 1882–1992 Waipatu, Maccess, Hastings, 1992

Huia Tangata Kotahi, 1893–1895

Hunn, J.K., Report on the Department of Māori Affairs, Government Printer, Wellington, 1961

King, Michael, Te Puea, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland

King, Michael, Whina,  Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1983

Mākereti, The old-time Māori, New Women's Press, Auckland, 1986

Manatū Māori, Te aka kumara: ropu Māori – national and regional, Manatu Māori, Wellington, 1992

Pool, Ian, Te iwi Māori: a New Zealand population, past, present and projected, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1991

Royal Commission on Social Policy, 'Women and Social Policy Part I: Māori Women', The April Report Volume 11: future directions, RCSP, Wellington, 1988, pp. 153–86

Te Awekōtuku, Ngāhuia, Mana wāhine Māori: selected writings on Māori women's art, culture and politics, New Women's Press, Auckland, 1991

Te Puke ki Hikurangi, 1897–1913

White Ribbon, 1895–1912