Suffrage Day Post: Māori women and democracy - a short history
On this day 119 years ago New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections after two decades of campaigning by women such as Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller and organisations such as the New Zealand branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led by Anne Ward.
While we take the opportunity to recognise the efforts of these women annually, we rarely talk about the huge contribution of Māori women to ‘post’-colonial democracy in this country.
We would like to acknowledge that this post is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the work of Māori women, and there is much more to be said - including information that was never deemed important enough to be recorded.
Māori women in decision making prior to 1893
Thirteen Māori women have so far been identified as having signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Women such as Takurua, Te Marama, Ana Hamu, Marama, Ereonora, Rangi Topeora, Kahe Te Rau o to Rangi, Pari, Te Kehu, Ngaraurekau, Te Rere o Maki, Hoana Riutoto, and Te Wairakau signed on behalf of themselves and their iwi.
Only twenty years later the Pākehā population outnumbered Māori and in the 1860s war broke out over land. During these Land Wars, British troops assisted European settlers to take control of Māori lands. Māori women leaders are known to have used the authority vested in them by their people to defend tribal lands. One of these women was Heni Pore of Te Arawa who fought against the British troops in support of the Māori King and his followers. She also fought in the Battle of Gate Pa in 1864.
From 1865 with the passing of the Native Land Act, Māori women attempted to use legal remedies to retain or confirm their interest in tribal lands. As the century progressed, growing numbers of women took cases to the Native Land Court as individuals and on behalf of their iwi. Maata Te Taiawatea, a Ngāti Awa rangatira from the Bay of Plenty devoted herself to the task of seeking the return of confiscated tribal land. She, like many other women of her time, spent long hours in the Native Land Court and her letters to government span more than forty years.
These women made approaches to government over land legislation and by the 1880s were organising with Māori men to make direct petitions to the Crown urging fulfillment of its obligations as a Treaty partner. Māori frustrations with Pākehā systems of land tenure and government increased during this decade, and the idea of an alternative Māori institution of government was under discussion in Māori communities throughout the country. Māori women supported the idea of a separate Māori system of government - a Māori parliament. In comparison with the existing system, it promised more opportunities for representation.
Te Kotahitanga - Māori Parliament
From its inception in 1892, women played an active role in the work of Te Kotahitanga. Those given authority by their iwi could speak in the Māori Parliament but could not vote and stand as members. This was in stark contrast to the New Zealand Parliament where no women could speak.
In May 1893 a motion was put before the Māori Parliament by Meri Mangakahia of Te Rarawa, on behalf of the women, seeking the right to vote and to stand as members of Te Kotahitanga. The motion failed, but women continued to organise themselves to tackle problems such as land, health, and education through the formation of Ngā Komiti Wāhine, a national network of tribally based Māori women’s committees. Their efforts were reported and discussed at the national meetings of Te Kotahitanga until it’s closure in 1902.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union
The WCTU formed out of wanting to control the use of alcohol which it believed was the cause of many social and economic problems for women and children.
Branches of WCTU were set up from 1884, and from 1886 the organisation lobbied for the parliamentary franchise. By 1890 many members of the WCTU had widened their goals and saw achieving a vote for women as an issue of justice. It is not known exactly when Māori women first became involved with the WCTU, but those concerned about alcohol abuse had been joining the temperance movement from the 1870s.
Māori women’s signatures have been found on the national franchise petitions of 1892 and 1893 which were initiated by the WCTU to demonstrate to the Government that significant numbers of women wanted the vote.
In 1896 Heni Pore was elected secretary of the Ohinemutu branch of the WCTU which had a membership of 52 women and an associated committee of 13 men. Heni held her position for nearly two years and in 1898 she assisted the Māori organiser, Mrs Hewett, in overseeing the work of branches in the Rotorua district. As a prominent organiser of the WCTU she helped set up nine Māori branches in the Bay of Plenty.
Māori Women in the House
Although women were granted the vote in 1893, it wasn’t until the 1919 Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act that women had the right to stand for Parliament. The first Māori woman stood as a candidate in 1935.
In this year Rehutai Maihi contested the Northern Māori seat. Although she announced during her campaign that she was a Labour supporter, she was listed as an Independent when the results were posted. Older Māori, who did not believe women should enter politics, criticised her and she polled only 162 votes.
In 1949 Iriaka Ratana became the first Māori woman to win a seat in the New Zealand Parliament when she successfully contested Western Māori. Her husband, the previous member for this seat, had died in office earlier in the year. She retained the seat until her retirement in 1969. As a Ratana she was allied with the Labour Party which initially showed some hesitation in endorsing a woman candidate in a Māori electorate. Iriaka Ratana defeated her nearest rival by 5871 votes. In spite of her Ratana support, she faced opposition from some Māori who claimed that as a woman she could not adequately represent them. They also criticised her for taking on a political role when she was the mother of a large family. Her years of committed work for Māori won over her critics.
Iriaka Ratana was not the only Māori woman contestant in the 1949 election. Katarina Nutana also stood for the Western Māori seat as an Independent and faced criticism from some sections of the electorate.
Other women known to have contested Māori seats include Hinerapa Ropiha who stood for Southern Māori in 1957, and Whina Cooper who stood for Northern Māori in 1963.
In 1967 Whetu Tirikatene was elected Member of Parliament for Southern Māori and retained the seat for twenty-six years. Like Iriaka Ratana, she followed a family member into the House, after the death of her father. She was appointed Minister of Tourism in 1972, becoming the first Māori woman to hold a Cabinet portfolio.
Last century, women such as Niniwa i te Rangi, Meri Mangakahia and Pani Te Tau took on the initiative of encouraging Māori women to communicate with each other through Māori newspapers. It was an educative process which inspired many women to discuss political issues of the day and also to question their relative status with others in their communities. The medium enhanced Māori women’s abilities to collectively organise and to speak with a unified voice.
Sources: Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Māori Women and The Vote by Tania Rei (now Tania Rangiheuea)