In 1852 the New Zealand Constitution Act provided parliamentary franchise to European, Māori and half caste men who met the property criteria. Fifteen years later, the Māori Representation Act 1867 provided for the establishment of four Māori seats; only men could stand for these. In 1876 the Municipal Corporations Act gave both men and women ratepayers the right to vote and stand for local government office. It is not known how many women exercised this right.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Māori women were involved in two suffrage movements at the same time. Māori women supported the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in seeking the right to vote for members of the New Zealand House of Representatives, and they also sought the right to vote and to stand as members of the Māori Parliament – Te Kotahitanga. By the turn of the century both these goals had been achieved. Their involvement in the suffrage movements was a significant development in the story of Māori women and the ways in which they organised at a national level to deal with issues of importance to them and their communities.
The experience gained by women in working for the vote during the early 1890s was put to effective use in the following century. Collective organising at a national level in Ngā Komiti Wāhine and later the WCTU was a new experience for Māori women. The skills they had gained in working for the vote and for control over their lives and resources were never lost. Continuing involvement in women’s organisations enabled them to express their views on the matters of importance. The political voice which they had fought for and won in their Māori forum ceased with the demise of the Māori Parliament in 1902. However, Ngā Komiti Wāhine continued to operate on most marae up until the Second World War when they became more commonly referred to as the Ladies’ Committees.
Māori women brought their organising skills to local societies such as the Country Women’s Institute (CWI), which they joined with Pākehā women. They joined this organisation after the first world war and the first separate Māori Institute was formed at Kohupātiki, Hawkes Bay, in 1929. Lack of resources caused Māori membership in the CWI to fall away during the mid 1930s.
As the 1930s Depression took its toll, health and welfare became critical issues of concern. A new initiative was needed and Nurse Rubina Cameron, together with local Māori women in the Bay of Plenty district founded the Women’s Health League in 1937.
After the Second World War, Māori women faced new problems as more Māori began to move into urban areas. Once again a national response was called for. In 1951 the Māori Women’s Welfare League was formed to give women a forum to discuss and act on political issues of concern to them.
Many of its leading members, as young women, had been influenced by the women who led the movement for the vote in the Māori Parliament. One of these women was Maata Hirini who had been brought up by Niniwa i te Rangi. Maata was the League’s President between 1960 and 1964.
Land has continued to be a major issue for Māori women. A number of outstanding women have spent their lives working to regain their people’s lands. Te Puea Herangi in the 1930s and 1940s set up land development schemes and worked to re-establish the Waikato people economically and culturally. In the protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s, women such as Eva Rickard spoke out in defence of their land rights and used direct action to illuminate the injustices they had suffered. Other prominent Māori women at the time included Donna Awatere, Ripeka Evans, Titewhai Harawira, Hilda Halkyard and Hana Jackson. The strategies which these women employed were not so different from the approaches which Māori women had taken during the 1890s.
Māori Women in the House
In 1919 the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act gave women the right to stand for Parliament but it was not until 1935 that the first Māori woman stood as a candidate. 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.
Sandra Lee, standing as an Alliance candidate, won the Auckland Central seat in 1993. She was the first Māori woman to hold a general seat in the New Zealand Parliament.
The beginnings of national organising by Māori women lie in their involvements in the suffrage movements. Māori women were keen to retain their traditional rights and maintain visibility in New Zealand society by seeking out measures which would ensure a continuity of representation. Franchise rights would be a means of achieving this.
However, winning the vote was never going to be the end of the story for Māori women. Mounting problems in the areas of health and welfare meant that considerable efforts were required to address them. Leadership by women such as Heni Pore, Hera Stirling, Herena Taupopoki, Takarea Te Heuheu and Sophia Te Paea Hinerangi was necessary to consolidate the women’s efforts.
The initiative of encouraging Māori women to communicate with each other through the Māori newspapers of last century was taken by women such as Niniwa i te Rangi, Meri Mangakahia and Pani Te Tau. 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.
Māori women learned the advantages and disadvantages of collaborating with Pākehā women and participated with them in their various organisations for over a hundred years.
Women’s suffrage in this country was more than just women getting the right to vote for members of parliament; it was about women being able to speak on their own terms and having the opportunities to do so. The women mentioned resisted the sexist and cultural oppression of the anti-suffragists and are role models for Māori women today. Their leadership qualities, participation in tribal matters, national networking and entrepreneurial flair are as relevant to Māoridom today as they were one hundred years ago.