Some Reflections on Māori Women & Women’s Suffrage

Over the past few months we have been inundated with events related to the 125th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. In the context where we have Jacinda Adern as Prime Minister who has been pushing many boundaries in that position both politically and personally as a new parent there has been significant celebration of the place of women within politics. I remember similar celebrations of the 100th Anniversary in 1993, with a raft of events, dinners, awards, documentaries and publications. One such publication was ‘Māori Women and The Vote’ by Tania Rei that provided us with a discussion of the role of wāhine Māori in Te Kotahitanga and the involvement of our tūpuna wāhine alongside the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). As a part of my doctoral work in 2001 I wrote a section that reflected on the involvement of Māori women during the Suffrage movement period. Given the current discussions related to the 125th Suffrage Anniversary I have decided to reproduce a brief section with some additional material and links here.

Tania Rei (1993) explores Māori women’s involvement in gaining voice in Te Kotahitanga and also alongside Pākehā women in the franchise struggle. Te Kotahitanga was a gathering of Māori leaders, both female and male, formed to unite Māori to present grievances to the Crown. Tania notes that it was modelled on the existing colonial settler parliament and electoral districts were defined by tribal boundaries. This was by no means a small gathering, by 1893 21,900 women and men were a part of Te Kotahitanga and by 1895 there were 35,000.

It is clear from documentation that from the inception of Te Kotahitanga Māori women were actively involved. Photographs of Te Kotahitanga hui from the Alexander Turnbull Library show that Māori women’s participation was high, in fact Tania Rei states that reports of the hui identify that equal numbers of women and men were in attendance (Rei, 1993, p.16). It is important to note that the Constitution Act of 1852, that was enacted to embed colonial systems of democracy in Aotearoa, provided voting rights to Pākehā, Māori and ‘half-caste’ men that could show they met the criteria of property ownership. Also the Māori Representation Act 1867 saw the establishment of the original four Māori electoral seats which meant that there were processes in place that saw Māori engaged in the Pākehā political system and which were central to the establishment of Te Kotahitanga as a Māori assembly that could provide collective voice to Māori concerns.

Although Māori women attended Te Kotahitanga in equal numbers to Māori men the impact of colonial gender beliefs, and practices, were already embedded with Māori women at that time being denied the right to vote or stand as members. Just under a year after the official opening of Te Kotahitanga, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Te Reinga, Ngāti Manawa, Te Kaitutae) put a motion that Māori women be given the right to vote and to stand as member of Te Kotahitanga ( After the initial motion was abandoned, the right for Māori women to vote and stand for Te Kotahitanga was not realised until 1897.

In 1893 Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine were formed as a means by which Māori women could deal with issues confronting Māori women at the time. Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine dealt with key issues related to the well-being of Māori women and whānau including; alcohol, smoking, domestic violence, promiscuity, retention of Māori women’s knowledge etc. Tania Rei notes that Māori women spoke freely about these issues whenever possible. In the publication ‘Te Puni Wāhine’ a copy of the rules of the Tāmairangi Women’s Committee, the Wairarapa branch of Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, has been reprinted from the Māori newspaper ‘Te Puke Ki Hikurangi’. It is noted in Te Puni Wāhine (1994) “He Kōmiti Wāhine tēnei nō Pāpāwai, marae o Wairarapa. I tapā hei whakamaumahara ki a Tāmairangi, wahine rongonui o tērā takiwā. This is the Women’s Committee from Papawai a marae in the Wairarapa. The name was given in memory of Tāmairangi a renowned woman of that area.” (p.13).

The rules included notions such believing in God; not working on Sundays; not taking alcohol onto marae, except for medicinal purposes, or into other peoples houses; women caring for children and husbands; observing teachings of elders; showing respect for each other; caring for pregnant women and the sick; not being promiscuous; not smoking in meetings; not holding grudges; attending Sunday meetings but not monopolising them; maintaining skills in weaving and cooking; and sharing work. Fines were imposed on those that transgressed the rules.

There are a number of observations that can be made in relation to the rules outlined by the Tāmairangi committee in regard to positioning of how they viewed their roles and obligations both to themselves and in the wider Māori community. A missionary influence is clearly indicated in the idea that work should take place only on the six days and that the seventh day is a day of rest. The influence of christianity in defining gender roles and the development of rules that aligned with christian ideologies, highlights the impact of such ideological assertions within Māori communities. There is also clear indication of some alignment with tikanga Māori within the rules, in particular those related to notions of manaakitanga: caring and providing for each other, whanaungatanga: relationships, hauora: health and wellbeing, mahi tahi; working collectively and collaboratively, mana tangata: fundamental respect for the mana of all people, whare tangata: women as the givers of life and the home of future generations, mātauranga Māori: Māori knowledge, taonga tuku iho: those treasured things tangible and intangible handed to us from our ancestors. Most evident are the strong statements regarding an expected respect for each other, the need to care and provide for each other and an assertion for the wellbeing of Māori.

The consistent references to the use of alcohol can be viewed in the context of increasing alcohol use in Māori communities, one of the many tools of colonisation. Therefore, it is not surprising that Māori women involved themselves in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) movement. Tania Rei (1993) identifies the objectives of the WCTU as follows;
“This organisation wanted 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 the vote as an issue of justice, an ordinary right that women were entitled to as citizens of the state, as well as a means of achieving far reaching social reforms including equal opportunities in employment and education.” (p.25)

Whilst the exact time of Māori women’s involvement in the WCTU is unknown there were Māori women who had concerns about alcohol abuse joining in the 1870s (Rei 1993). As we know, the WCTU were successful in gaining women the vote for the colonial parliament in 1893.

The debates surrounding suffrage highlight the key ideologies of the time in regard to the position of women in the colonial settler society. They also give us insights into the ways in which some Māori men had also internalised colonial gender ideologies. Māori men were also involved in this process, both for and against women’s suffrage. In 1892 when women’s franchise was before the house it was reported that Eparaima Te Mutu Kapa would fully support the measure and that he believed that it was an injustice to deny women the vote. Hoani Taipua stated that he would not support the move as he did not believe Māori women were sufficiently qualified to exercise the vote. Rāpata Wahawaha spoke on the franchise issue (Rei, 199),
“In his opinion Māori women were nurturers, wavers and cultivators and they had always been excluded from sacred ceremonial duties. He claimed christian doctrine supported his view, women did not preach or take part in the political assemblies of Europeans. ‘It is only in the last few years that the voices of fanatical women have been heard in the streets of Wellington and Gisborne and other places. This has considerably puzzled us. We do not know whether the old rule was the correct one or whether this is the right thing’. He believed that most laws had a ‘sting’ and the vote might bring unforeseen burdens for Māori women. The measure should be delayed until they had been consulted.” (p.32)

The influence of christianity in the positioning of Māori men who spoke against the motion can not be underestimated. However, what is clear from the numbers of Māori women who did vote in 1893 was that Māori women did not view the vote as a right only for Māori men. This too is patently clear in the assertion of Māori women to vote and stand in the Kotahitanga movement.

Where gaining the vote was for those Māori women considered a victory the involvement of Māori women in the WCTU was not completely beneficial. In Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, Māori women were seeking to retain Māori women’s traditional skills, however, the WCTU expected Māori women to give up certain traditional practices. The Temperance Pledge to be taken by Māori women was worded as follows:
“He whakaae tēnei nāku kia kaua ahau e kai tūpeka, e inu rānei i tētahi mea e haurangi ai te tangata, kia kaua hoki ahau e whakaae ki te tā moko. Mā te Atua ahau e āwhina.
I agree by this pledge, not to smoke tobacco, not to drink any beverages that are intoxicating, and also not to take the tā moko. May God help me.”

The Temperance movement maintained that Māori women should not take moko kauae, which in terms of wider dominant discourses was considered a barbaric act. Tania Rei (1993) notes that one possible reason for Māori women agreeing to such a pledge could have been due to the infections that were experienced from the movement from bone to metal implements in the practice of tāmoko. Whether that was the case is not certain however what was clear is that for those Māori women seeking to be involved in the Temperance and Suffrage movements the practice of moko kauae was expected to be discontinued. It is also documented that moko was often viewed by Pākehā as ‘ugly’ and a ‘savage’ custom (Robley, 1896). In this period the practice of tāmoko was considered a dying practice (Robley, 1896). Grey and Lubbrock (Robley, 1896) respectively wrote that the illustrations gathered by Robley were valuable documentation of an art that was passing away and was an important part of preserving an part of Māori traditions that were disappearing. Such statements are indicative of the view regarding aspects of Māori life that were being intentionally removed or denied to our people through impositions of colonial superiority, of which the WCTU pledge played a part.

Additionally it was highlighted the Election Act required that individuals be freehold property owners in order to vote:
“The 1893 Act stated, in addition to persons aged over 21 years with freehold title to land being able to register to vote,
[e]very person of the age of twenty-one years or upwards who has resided for one year in the colony and in the electoral district for which he claims to vote during the three months immediately preceding the registration of his vote, and is not registered in respect of a freehold or residential qualification for the same or any other district, is entitled (subject to the provisions of this Act) to be registered as an elector and to vote at the election of members for such district for the House of Representatives. (Electoral Act 1893, s 6(2).)
The Act specifically defined “person” as including “a woman,” and furthermore stated “[w]ords and expressions in this Act importing the masculine gender include women, except where otherwise expressly stated.” (Id. s 3.)”

The freehold property requirement mitigated against many Māori generally given the collective land holdings of whānau, hapū and iwi, and that by that time our people had experienced colonial confiscation, the theft of Māori lands and the individualisation of land titles by the colonial government.

As a part of re-membering the place of our tūpuna wāhine in the Suffrage period it is important that we create the space for their voices and their positions to be heard. As such below is the text of the speech given by Mere Mangakāhia in her advocacy for Māori women’s voices to be heard and to be acknowledged in our own right:
E whakamoemiti atu ana ahau kinga honore mema e noho nei, kia ora koutou katoa, ko te take i motini atu ai ahau, ki te Tumuaki Honore, me nga mema honore, ka mahia he ture e tenei whare kia whakamana nga wahine ki te pooti mema mo ratou ki te Paremata Māori.
1. He nui nga wahine o Nui Tireni kua mate a ratou taane, a he whenua karati, papatupu o ratou.
2. He nui nga wahine o Nui Tireni kua mate o ratou matua, kaore o ratou tungane, he karati, he papatupu o ratou.
3. He nui nga wahine mohio o Nui Tireni kei te moe tane, kaore nga tane e mohio ki te whakahaere i o raua whenua.
4. He nui nga wahine kua koroheketia o ratou matua, he wahine mohio, he karati, he papatupu o ratou.
5. He nui nga tane Rangatira o te motu nei kua inoi ki te kuini, mo nga mate e pa ara kia tatou, a kaore tonu tatou i pa ki te ora i runga i ta ratou inoitanga. Na reira ka inoi ahau ki tenei whare kia tu he mema wahine.
Ma tenei pea e tika ai, a tera ka tika ki te tuku inoi nga mema wahine ki te kuini, mo nga mate kua pa nei kia tatou me o tatou whenua, a tera pea e whakaae mai a te kuini ki te inoi a ona hoa Wahine Māori i te mea he wahine ano hoki a te kuini.
English translation:
I exult the honourable members of this gathering. Greetings.
I move this motion before the principle member and all honourable members so that a law may emerge from this parliament allowing women to vote and women to be accepted as members of the parliament.
Following are my reasons for presenting this motion that women may receive the vote and that there be women members:
1. There are many women who have been widowed and own much land.
2. There are many women whose fathers have died and do not have brothers.
3. There are many women who are knowledgeable of the management of land where their husbands are not.
4. There are many women whose fathers are elderly, who are also knowledgeable of the management of land and own land.
5. There have been many male leaders who have petitioned the Queen concerning the many issues that affect us all, however, we have not yet been adequately compensated according to those petitions. Therefore I pray to this gathering that women members be appointed. Perhaps by this course of action we may be satisfied concerning the many issues affecting us and our land.
Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well.

(Source: )

What we know is that our tūpuna wāhine stood with their own mana, and that the struggle against the importation of colonial tools and systems has been something we have been actively engaged in for many generations. To celebrate the 125th Anniversary of the Suffrage movement is not unproblematic for Māori women as it remains a celebration of a struggle for involvement in what is fundamentally an imposed democratic system that continues to work against the interests of our people. What is important is that we reflect more critically not only on the processes by which our people came to vote, but that we look more deeply at how we came to have this system in place in the first place, and who really benefits from its ongoing reproduction.

Published References
Rei, T. (1993) Māori Women and The Vote, Huia Publishers, Wellington
Robley, H.G. (1896) Moko: The Art and History of Mäori Tattooing, Chapman and Hall, London Reprinted 1998 by Senate, Tiger Books International, UK
Te Puni Wāhine (1994) ‘Te Puke Ki Wairarapa’ 26 Äperira 1898 Wharangi 5, Wellington: Huia Publishers

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