Whina Cooper, Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira stand together at Waitangi, February 1985. Photo: © John Miller 1985

Five wāhine Māori protestors (who other Māori thought were a pain in the ass)

Māori protests in New Zealand have often been led by women. From the suffrage movement in the late 1800s to the fight for Ihumātao today, here are five wāhine Māori leaders who faced large criticism, but left larger legacies.

“The protest at Ihumātao is a feminist issue,” explained Pania Newton during a hīkoi of the land in Māngere last month. “It was a group of women who started this and it’s a group of women who are still leading this fight.”

One of six cousins who started SOUL, a land occupation movement to stop a housing development on stolen Māori land in south Auckland, Newton has become the face of the protest movement while attracting plenty of criticism from both Māori and Pākehā for her efforts.

Her own uncle, Te Kawerau a Maki kaumatua Te Warena Taua, disagrees with the kaupapa. He’s firm in his stance that negotiations with Fletcher Residential will allow local iwi to benefit from the development. He’s disputed claims that the protest has been peaceful and told people to clean up their own areas instead of protesting Ihumātao. NZ First MP Shane Jones recently accused Newton of auditioning for a job in politics, and Winston Peters has characterised the protest as being full of “imposters”. 

But wāhine Māori have been at the frontlines of protest movements for decades. Here are five more wāhine toa who defied their sometimes lowly societal positions to fight for the rights of their people against the government, against colonial structures and sometimes, against their own whānau.

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia (Ngati Te Reinga, Ngati Manawa and Te Kaitutae)

The great-grandchild of Nga-kahu-whero, a wahine Māori chief,  Mangakāhia had leadership in her blood. She was prominent in the 1890s for her work with the suffrage movement, specifically her work to create fairer laws around Māori women’s rights to govern. 

Mangakāhia was the first woman to address the Māori (Kotahitanga) Parliament, presenting a motion for women being allowed to vote and stand for membership. In her speech she explained that if women could own land, they should be allowed a say on it, going so far as to say some women were more competent with land management than their husbands.

“There have been many male leaders who have petitioned the Queen concerning the many issues that affect us all,” she said in one famous speech. “However, we have not yet been adequately compensated according to those petitions… Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well.”

When women won the right to vote in the general elections in 1893, the men on the Kotahitanga Parliament still refused to listen to the pleas of Mangakāhia and her supporters. It wasn’t until 1897 that Māori women were given the right to vote for the Kotahitanga Parliament. 

Mangakāhia died in 1920, but is remembered as a pioneer of Māori women’s rights. Someone who fought for women all across Aotearoa, against Pākehā and Māori.

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia in the 1890s.

Ngahuia te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tuhoe)

In 1971, te Awekotuku led a group of students from the University of Auckland in protest over the lack of progress made towards gender equality since the vote was given in 1893. The six students carried a coffin in a ‘funeral procession’ towards the statue of Queen Victoria in Albert Park.

While the protest attracted media attention, it tended to focus on the age and appearance of the group, undermining their message with patronising descriptions of the “attractive young things”.

In the early 1970s, the women’s liberation movement was gaining traction around New Zealand, but te Awekotuku was criticised by other Māori women for her involvement. Many Māori felt that it was a Pākehā problem and that she should instead focus on Māori land rights and the reo.

Te Awekotuku was also criticised for her efforts to merge the lesbian rights movement with women’s liberation. Conservative feminist Connie Purdue said te Awekotuku had put the movement back 50 years with this kaupapa.

Ngahuia te Awekotuku. Photo: gg.govt.nz

Dame Whina Cooper (Te Rarawa)

A respected kuia who fought for Māori land rights and Māori women’s rights, Cooper is one of the most iconic figures in Māori protest history.

Cooper’s most well-known achievement was the 1975 land march when, at 80 years of age, she led a hīkoi from Te Hapua in the Far North to Parliament in Wellington. This protest was against the taking of Māori land, and Cooper hoped the march would gather support from Māori and Pākehā as she made the over 200-kilometre journey down the country.

But Cooper’s activism started well before this. At 18, outraged by the leasing of a mudflats to a farmer who planned on draining and sowing the land, she led a group of protestors to fill in the drains as they were being dug. The land was used by Māori to gather seafood, and the Marine Department withdrew the lease following the protest. 

Cooper was, in her life, the first woman elected president of a rugby union branch, president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, appointed an MBE, CBE and DBE, and the leader of various church and community groups in Tai Tokerau.

She was heavily criticised by many, but it seemed her main opposition came from Māori. By accepting her many titles, she was seen as selling out to the crown, and her leadership style with the Māori Women’s Welfare League was criticised as domineering. 

She died in 1994, her funeral watched by over one million people. Today, her 1975 land march phrase “not one more acre” is still being used in the protest at Ihumātao.

Dame Whina Cooper. Photo: TVNZ documentary, Koha 1983.

Tuaiwa (Eva) Rickard (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa, Tainui)

Given the name Eva when she started school, Rickard was forced to assume a Pākehā identity from an early age. 

During the 1950s, Rickard was a member of many committees in the Raglan area, and a founding member of the Raglan Surf Lifeguard Patrol and the local St John Ambulance Brigade. She showed a knack for leadership during this time, working with her husband James (Tex) Rickard.

In 1972, she took a stand against the local government when they refused to return land they had used temporarily as an airstrip. The land had instead been turned into the Raglan Golf Club, and while Rickard was a member of this club, she did not support its extension over Māori burial grounds. This campaigning gained Rickard recognition as a land rights activist, and she joined the land march led by Whina Cooper in 1975.

In 1978 Rickard invited supporters from across the country to gather at the Te Kōpua urupā on the same day as the annual golf tournament. Before the tournament started, Rickard and 16 other protestors were arrested for trespassing, but their actions gained recognition for the cause countrywide. Five years later, most of the land was returned with conditions, and in 1991 the property was handed over to the Te Kōpua Trust.

Rickard was one of the protesters who stormed the field at the Springboks match against Waikato in July 1981, and on a visit to Tahiti in 1985 she spoke up against the French government, despite knowing this would lead to her deportation.

Tuaiwa (Eva) Rickard. Photo: Nga Tāonga, 1993.

Titewhai Harawira (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai)

Outspoken political commentator Titewhai Harawira has been at the forefront of some of the most important Māori rights protests in modern history. In 1979 she was part of a group which formed the Waitangi Action Committee, disrupting celebrations at Waitangi to ask for the treaty to be properly honoured.

Harawira had a role to play in the 1975 land march, too. She was one of the two people tasked with asking Whina Cooper to lead the hikoi.

She told E Tangata in 2017 that her campaigning for the revival of te reo has brought a lot of backlash over the years. “We were treated really badly by our people. On our marae. Thrown off our own marae. Told we had no right to be taking our concerns out into the public.”

In 1990 Harawira even travelled to the Netherlands to ask Dutch authorities to take back the name New Zealand so the country would be known officially as Aotearoa. 

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She was unafraid to challenge any authority, Pākehā or Māori, over treaty rights, fisheries, broadcasting and te reo. Her staunch advocacy for Māori rights has earned her more than her fair share of criticism.

Harawira is a divisive figure, considered by many to be rude, arrogant, and selfish, but she told the New Zealand Herald in 2013 that these names were usually thrown around by men who “aren’t used to having women say what they think.”  

Titewhai Harawira in 2018. Photo: Maori TV.

The fight for Māori rights in Aotearoa has been a long one, and at Ihumātao, as with many other places in New Zealand, it is ongoing. The wāhine at the front of all of these protests have been criticised, argued and belittled, but their kaupapa has had lasting effects on Māori rights.


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