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Te Mana o te Wāhine: How Māori women shaped New Zealand

Te Puea Herangi. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library
A striking aspect of the history of Aotearoa since 1939 is the profound impact of Māori women. Obviously, many Māori men have helped shape New Zealand today. One thinks of Matiu Rata, father of the Waitangi Tribunal, or Winston Peters, father of the SuperGold Card. But in areas such as land rights, language, health and culture, the influence of Māori women has been immense.

In 1939, one woman was providing extraordinary leadership: Te Puea Herangi. Born into the family of the Māori King, Te Puea had already done much to re-establish the King’s mana. She had resisted the conscription of Tainui men, promoted Māori culture and values and helped create a new centre for the kīngitanga, Tūrangawaewae, on the banks of the Waikato River.

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During the next 20 years, the Māori King’s standing was reflected in visits by dignitaries to Tūrangawaewae – most importantly in 1953, a year after Te Puea’s death, when Queen Elizabeth unexpectedly stopped to pay tribute. Te Puea’s Tainui leadership was picked up subsequently by another impressive Māori woman, the Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu. She oversaw the settlement of Waikato’s confiscation claim in 1995.

Whina Cooper became another towering leader. In 1951, she left the northern Hokianga (where, incidentally, she had been the first female president of a local rugby union!) and moved to Auckland. Quickly she confronted the challenges faced by Māori migrating to the city. As the first president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, she fought for improved health and housing and attacked discrimination. Her greatest moment came in 1975, when she was asked by Te Roopū o te Matakite to lead the Māori land march from Te Hapua in the north to Parliament. She became recognised as Te Whaea o te Motu (Mother of the Nation).

Whina Cooper on the 1975 land march to Parliament. Photo/Newspix

In the battle for Māori land, Eva Rickard was also a significant leader. She campaigned in the late 1970s for the return of land at Raglan that had been taken by the state for a wartime airfield. By this time, there were a group of younger women, influenced by feminism, who led protests for Māori rights – people such as Donna Awatere, Ripeka Evans and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

The revival of the language became a particular area where Māori women showed inspiring leadership. Hana Jackson led a parliamentary petition for the teaching of te reo in schools in 1972, and Kāterina Mataira promoted kura kaupapa Māori (language schools). Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi and Jean Puketapu provided a similar role for kōhanga reo. Ngoi Pēwhairangi was another who worked hard for Māori language and became a distinguished composer of the famous hits E Ipo and Poi E. Nor should we forget the influential role played by Hinewehi Mohi in singing the national anthem in te reo in 1999 and changing the way it has been sung ever since.

Other Māori women who have brought their commitment to Māori rights into the cultural arena are Patricia Grace with her powerful novels and Merata Mita, whose films, especially Patu, documented important parts of our history.

Tariana Turia and Farah Palmer. Photos/Getty Images

The health of Māori was significantly improved by the leadership shown by Irihapeti Ramsden, the inspirer of “cultural safety”, and Tariana Turia, co-founder of the Māori Party and very much the mother of Whānau Ora.

Finally, in a month that we featured in two world cups, the leadership of Māori women in sport must be recognised. One thinks immediately of Farah Palmer, who captained the Black Ferns to no fewer than three world cups, and, of course, Noelene Taurua from Ngāti Whatua, who turned it all around for New Zealand netball in Liverpool.

This article was first published in the August 10, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.