Mira Szászy emerged from a humble upbringing to become one of the greatest Māori leaders and proponents of mana wāhine in the twentieth century. Throughout her life, Mira pushed for education, health and social reforms, and helped shape twentieth-century cultural and gender politics and forge new pathways for Māori women. She dedicated her life to te ao Māori, Māori women, and upholding the principles of humanity, social justice and equality.
Miraka (Mira) Petricevich was born in the isolated Far North Māori community of Waihopo on 7 August 1921. Her mother, Makareta Raharuhi, was a descendant of the Ngāti Kuri and Te Aupouri tribes, while her father Lovre (Lawrence) Petricevich was a Dalmatian immigrant who had come to New Zealand in the hope of profiting from Northland’s kauri-gum industry. Like many other Dalmatians who married into local tribes, Lovre became fluent in te reo Māori. Mira’s parents found that prosperity eluded them, and were soon struggling to feed their family. Mira’s mother died when she was three years old, leaving Mira’s older sister and wider whānau to care for her while her father worked the gumfields.
Mira recalled a childhood ‘with little to eat, scratching the garden for carrots, one tattered dress through the year, no shoes, and underwear made from flour bag material’. Mira also recalled, however, how members of their community ‘possessed great inner strength’ and a strong Māori identity.1 Indeed, as one of eleven siblings, Mira learned to assert herself and speak out in order to make her voice heard. Mira’s academic talents also drew the attention of her teachers at Te Hapua Native School. When she was about 15, she and Merimeri Rapata (later Penfold) were selected to continue their education in Auckland. Mira remembered leaving home with little more than the weight of her community’s expectation that she would reach great educational heights.
In Auckland, Mira was subjected to racism for the first time in her life, which made her determined to prove she could do as well as, if not better than, the Pākehā students. She attended Queen Victoria Maori Girls’ College and Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, followed by one year at Fagan’s Coaching College. Mira enrolled at Auckland Teachers’ Training College and Auckland University College in 1942, and by 1944 she had earned her teacher’s certificate. In 1945 she completed her BA and became one of the first Māori women to graduate with a university degree.
Mira taught briefly in Kaikohe before returning to Auckland in 1947, where she was employed by the Department of Maori Affairs as a welfare officer. Recent policy changes had provided for the establishment of tribal committees across the country. Mira worked long hours assisting in this process, travelling to marae and hui (meetings) between Wellsford and Meremere. She remembered this as an eye-opening experience. The tribal committees were dominated by men, and the ability of Māori women to voice their understandings of, and solutions to, the challenges facing whānau and communities was limited.
Mira’s thoughts about the role of women no doubt evolved when she won a fellowship at the University of Hawaii in 1948. She was awarded a Diploma of Social Sciences in 1949, and while studying in Hawaii she also observed, as an audience member, the capacity of women to collectively engage in global gender politics at a Pan-Pacific Women’s Association conference. After her return to New Zealand Mira took up a position as an employment officer with Maori Affairs in Wellington. By the early 1950s she moved easily between the Māori and Pākehā worlds and was honing her communication and secretarial skills alongside some of the mid-twentieth century’s most fastidious and well-known Māori civil servants: Rangi Royal, Michael Rotohiko Jones, Ralph Love, Charles Bennett and Tipi Rōpiha. Within this context, Mira became a key executive member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, established in 1951.
Mira’s administrative skills, knowledge of official processes and concern for the welfare of Māori made her a strong candidate for first secretary of the League. But her suitability was initially contested, with some Māori believing she had become too ‘Westernized’ and ‘too educated to be able to relate’ to her own people.2 Mira soon proved her critics wrong, developing close relationships with the first patron, Te Puea Hērangi, and the first national president, Whina Cooper. Mira looked up to them as mother figures and they responded with aroha (love) and openness. Mira drove Whina around the country, recording hui and conversing in te reo with women from all tribal areas. Dealing with issues related to health, housing, education and justice was both time-consuming and important. Mira essentially managed the League during this period and later became its representative on the Maori Education Foundation, founded in 1961. Mira and her colleagues on the League’s executive worked hard, with a single-minded focus on what needed to be done.
While serving as the League’s secretary between 1952 and 1957, Mira was its representative at Pan-Pacific Women’s Association conferences in Christchurch in 1952 and Manila in 1955. Sophisticated and articulate, she raised the profile of Māori women on the global stage. Described as ‘Beauteous’ and an excellent public speaker, she was voted the ‘glamour girl’ of the 1952 conference.3 But she prioritised politics over popularity and three years later, reporting on the Manila conference, expressed how the Māori delegates resented having to present themselves alongside Pākehā women as ‘New Zealand delegates’. This meant they were unable to formally express their gratitude to and empathy with their hosts, as fellow indigenous women. The ‘one people’ ideal, which Pākehā delegates viewed as a show of equality, was at odds with Mira’s view that Māori women should have the freedom to express their own culture and political views. For her, race and gender inequalities were parallel oppressions.
Mira was at once a glamorous, intelligent, hardworking, determined and politically astute Māori woman. In her social life, she exhibited courage, energy and style. As a rangatahi (young person) she was a member of her university Māori culture group and basketball (netball) team, and regularly attended dances and balls, revelling in fashion that was far removed from the world in which she had grown up. Indeed, she exhibited her fashion flair and intelligence in 1947 when she was voted runner-up in the Miss New Zealand competition.
By the late 1950s, Mira was also a wife and mother. She married Albert Szászy, a Hungarian accountant, in Wellington on 19 May 1956. Mira left Maori Affairs in 1957; her sons Mark and Philip were born over the next few years and by 1961 the family had relocated to Auckland. Mira instilled in her children the value of hard work and devoted ten years to raising them. In practice, this also entailed remaining in touch with and vocal about many of the issues affecting Māori women. In 1969 she was working with 22 organisations to improve the lives of ‘Māori and Māori women in particular’4
One driving factor for Mira in the 1960s was her belief that the role of Māori women and the League was challenged by the establishment of the New Zealand Maori Council, which the government came to view as the national voice of Māori. To Mira, the council’s formation was also partly about Māori men reacting against ‘Māori women running the Māori world’ for ten years, and the ‘beginning of the dichotomy of power and development’ between Maori men and women. The hard-won recognition of the status of Māori women was being undermined.
Mira continued to focus on education and the League as means to empower Māori women. In 1972 she was appointed lecturer in Māori studies at the Auckland Secondary Teachers’ Training College, and in 1979 she became director of the community department at Nga Tapuwae Community College. Mira was also elected president of the League in 1974 and held this office until 1977. She worked hard during her tenure to raise the League’s profile and boost its declining membership, spearheading a comprehensive review of its performance to ensure it remained relevant, effective and independent. This entailed systematically updating all the League’s policies and preparing a constitution, creed, and code of ethics. In 1979 the League bestowed upon Mira the title of Whāea o te Motu.
Not all Māori women shared Mira’s view that the League was an effective means of empowering them. Māori activists, including feminists, thought it too conservative.5 While the League heartily supported the Land March of 1975, Mira felt she was the League's lone voice on racial and gender inequalities until the 1980s. In her keynote speech at the first convention for the United Nations Decade on Women in 1973, she publicly criticised the New Zealand feminist publication Broadsheet for misrepresenting the traditional roles of and the contemporary challenges facing Māori women. She also pointed out, as she had following the Pan-Pacific Women’s Conference in Manila, that gender and racial oppression were intertwined – while Pākehā women progressed, Māori women were being left behind.
Mira was a woman of and before her time. She had long understood and fought against what she called the ‘blood-brothers’ of sexism and racism, but was loath to define her approach as ‘feminism’.6 She could find no equivalent term in te reo and felt she was on a different wavelength to the generation of Māori feminists who came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet Mira related to and agreed with the concerns of women like Donna Awatere and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. She had witnessed the oppression of women at the hands of Māori men and observed how tribal committees and marae protocols stifled women’s voices. Mira felt she differed from Māori feminists only in terms of strategy.
In 1983, in her last address to a League conference, Mira focused on the issue of sexism within Māori culture and courageously criticised the prohibition on Māori women speaking on most marae. Mira felt that she had held back for 20 years and could now speak her mind, prepared for the criticism that would follow.
I don’t think I have been particularly popular with some men. I suspect that some of that resistance is based on insecurity about their own position, and a desire perhaps to retain the last bastion of power that they have. I understand that our men have lost their forums or their power in society. They’re not in industry, they’re not in politics, nowhere do they have power, our people. What do you do when you don’t have power? You oppress those you can oppress.7
Mira’s contribution to te ao Māori and the nation has been recognised widely. In 1978 she was made a CBE, and in 1990 she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire. Her commitment to working with and promoting the role of Māori women was also recognised when she was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by Victoria University of Wellington in 1993. The University of Auckland’s Mira Szászy Research Centre and Dame Mira Szászy Māori Alumni Award recognise Mira’s lifetime of achievement and her support for business development. Mira sat on advisory boards and committees for a wide range of organisations, including the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Radio New Zealand, the Women’s Convention, the New Zealand Race Relations Council, the New Zealand Council for Protection of Citizens’ Rights, the Social Welfare Commission, the New Zealand Anglican Synod, and the Maori Women’s Development Fund.
In 1984, Mira retired from her position at Nga Tapuwae Community College. Her husband died the following year, and Mira moved north to Ngataki, where she and Albert had built their retirement home. She wanted to ‘find herself’ after working within collectives all of her adult life. It was time for her to ‘go fishing’. But she remained politically active. In 1993, she served on the Waitangi Tribunal Fisheries Commission, spoke to a United Nations human rights conference in Vienna, and travelled the country conducting interviews for a book about the history of the Maori Women’s Welfare League. In the same year, she was one of the Māori leaders who ‘lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal [the Mana Wāhine Claim] relating to Crown actions, policies and processes inconsistent with the Treaty of Waitangi which they believed had undermined the rangatira status of Māori women’.8 The claim had still not been heard when Mira died at Ngataki on 20 December 2001, aged 80. She was survived by her sons, Philip and Mark, her daughter Kaye (whangai by Mira’s sister, Jean) and six grandchildren. She was buried at Ngataki. She had lived a full life according to principles she had made explicit in her creed:
My first love is my family but I love my tribe
I know my tribe but I am proud of my race
I am proud of my race but I am not racist
Therefore I belong to my race but I would serve my nation
I would serve my nation but I have a reverence for humanity.
Because I have a reverence for all humanity
I would oppose inhumanity anywhere and everywhere
It is because I have this reverence for humanity that I grieve for all who now suffer,
and pray for all mankind9