Story: Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women

Page 7. Politics, business and language

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In 1949 Iriaka Rātana successfully contested the Western Māori seat and became the first Māori woman in Parliament. She held this seat for 20 years. Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan held the Southern Māori seat and was appointed minister of tourism in 1972, making her the first Māori female cabinet minister.

Sandra Lee won the Auckland Central seat in 1993. She was the first Māori woman to hold a general seat in the New Zealand Parliament.

In 2023 two political parties had Māori women co-leaders – Debbie Ngarewa-Packer in Te Pāti Māori and Marama Davidson in the Green Party.

Language revitalisation

In 1958 educationalist Koro Dewes commented, ‘Ko te reo te kaupapa o te Maoritanga ... Kei nga koka o nga tamariki te whakautu mo tenei’1 (the language is the core of Māoriness ... The answer for this is with our children’s mothers). Māori women have been the cornerstone for Māori language revitalisation. Hana Jackson led a petition for the teaching of Māori language and culture in schools, presented to Parliament in 1972. Kāterina Mataira pioneered the Te Ataarangi Māori language movement with Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi. Mataira has been described as the mother of kura kaupapa Māori (Māori-language immersion schools), and has also published books in Māori for children.

Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi was the backbone of the kōhanga reo (Māori-language preschool) movement since its inception in the early 1980s. Kōhanga reo were supported by many mothers and grandmothers along the principle ‘Te timatanga o te reo kei ngā waiū o te whaea – the beginning of language is at the breast of a mother.’ 2


In 1987 the Māori Women’s Welfare League established Māori Women’s Development Inc, a financial institution formed, controlled, managed and operated by Māori women for the economic development of Māori. In 2005 the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Aotearoa New Zealand Report found that Māori women rated third-highest in the world in terms of ‘opportunity entrepreneurship’.

  1. Te Ao Hou 24 (October 1958), p. 17. Back
  2. Government Review Team, Government review of Te Kōhanga Reo: language is the life force of the people. Wellington: Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, 1988, p. 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith, 'Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women - Politics, business and language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017