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Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women

by Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith

To Māori, women are te whare tangata – the house of humanity – and are venerated for their ability to create life. Many strong women have been prominent in Māori society, including the Māori queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, and land-rights activists Eva Rickard and Whina Cooper.

Atua and tipua

Atua wāhine during creation

All mana is sourced from the atua (gods). For Māori women, the sources of this mana (mana wahine) include te ara uwha o Tahu (the heavenly female path of Tahu), the primal parent Papatūānuku (the earth mother, and creator of all life) and other female deities.

In the Māori creation narrative, Papatūānuku is the first female entity, followed by Hineahuone, who was created out of clay by Tāne at Kurawaka. The next atua wahine (goddess) is Hinetītama, who fled to the underworld and became Hine-nui-te-pō after discovering that her husband, Tāne, was also her father.

Māui and atua wāhine

In traditions about the demigod Māui, atua wāhine are often an essential element in his endeavours. Māui’s grandmother, Murirangawhenua, provided him with her jawbone, to enable him to fish up the North Island and slow down the sun. Māui’s encounters with Mahuika provided the source of fire. His adventures ended with Hine-nui-te-pō crushing him to death between her legs.

These traditions highlight these women’s mana, as they supply Māui with the knowledge to achieve his deeds. Māui meets his doom between the legs of a woman, but this too highlights the potency of women’s tapu – especially their genitalia and their ability to whakanoa (remove tapu, or make normal).

Tinirau and Kae

Another group of atua wāhine feature in the tradition of Tinirau and Kae, as the first kapa haka group. These women are seen as deities in their own right. They include Hineteiwaiwa, the atua of childbirth and te whare pora (weaving and female arts), Hineraukatamea, the atua of entertainment, and Hineraukatauri, the atua of music. Hineraukatauri is personified as the case moth, on which the pūtōrino musical instrument is modelled.

Natural phenomena

Some natural features are attributed to atua wāhine. Hinepūkohurangi is personified as the mist, Hinepūtehue as the gourd and Hinemoana as the ocean. Hineraumati is the personification of summer, Hinetakurua of winter and Whaitiri thunder.

Rona whakamautai represents the moon, and in one tradition is said to be a daughter of Tangaroa, god of the sea.

Female tipua and taniwha

In tradition there are some important female tipua (supernatural creatures) or taniwha who represent the kaitiaki (guardians) of different geographical features. According to the Tūhoe people, the taniwha Haumapuhia is said to have formed Lake Waikaremoana in her attempts to break out to sea. In tradition, the taniwha Āraiteuru guided the voyaging waka Māmari from Polynesia to New Zealand. It is said she still occupies a cave on the south head of the Hokianga Harbour, and is regarded by locals as a guardian of the surrounding district.

According to Ngāti Māhaki tradition, the four names of Tamaāhua’s wives give us the four varieties of pounamu (greenstone) found on the West Coast of the South Island – Takīwai, Aotea, Pounamu and Aūhuka.

Whare tangata

Māori refer to women as te whare tangata (the house of humanity), recognising the vital roles women play in providing life and nurturing future generations. Women are respected for their ability to create life, so they are treated with the same consideration as Papatūānuku, the creator of all life. Terms associated with te whare tangata are synonymous with the land. Whenua means both placenta and land, and the afterbirth was buried, binding people to their source of life, physically through women and spiritually to the land.

Tapu and peacemaking

Tapu and noa

Women in traditional Māori society were considered very tapu during menstruation, due to the degree of tapu associated with blood. Menstruating women were kept away from common areas because of their tapu state – contact with materials essential to society was seen as insulting the atua (gods). Women were not allowed to enter the whare mata (housing for nets and snares), cultivated areas, shoreline or food storage areas, and did not associate with men or their belongings. Such acts were thought to bring dire consequences.


The presence of women was seen as a potent form of whakanoa (to remove tapu, or make normal). First-born females who had ceased menstruation were known as ruahine, and were required in ceremonial whakanoa processes.

Because of women’s ability to whakanoa, they were never to purposely walk over a man, for fear of removing his mana and tapu. However, when warriors returned from war they would crawl between the legs of the ruahine to whakanoa themselves from the killing and bloodshed, which had rendered these men extremely tapu. During the opening rituals for houses women took the integral role of being the first to enter – usually a puhi selected by the hapū would enter first to whakanoa the house.

Tapu or noa?

Some writers have interpreted women’s ability to whakanoa as meaning that women are perpetually noa (non-sacred or ordinary), ignoring the fact that women can also make objects tapu. As noa is considered the antithesis of tapu it is sometimes assumed that women have no mana, and hold an inferior position within Māori society. However, numerous narratives extol the power and mana of women, who hold important roles in Māori society.


Peacemaking was an important activity for parties in dispute, and women emissaries were often sent to negotiate a truce. Peace mediated by women was known as rongo ā whare. In a letter to Māori newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi in 1905, Te Waaka Tamaira noted, ‘i nga wa o mua ... ki te haere te wahine ki te hohou i te Pakanga kia mutu, kore rawa e taea te takahi e tetahi taha, e tetahi taha, tona whakatauaki he rongo taketake e kore e taea te whakahe, ki te takahia kua he’1 (in times past ... if a woman went to mediate a conflict, she would not be touched by either side, for the saying associated with this event was that a lasting peace cannot be undone; if it is, it is an unforgivable transgression).

Crowded house

The saying ‘Ano ko te whare whawhao a Te Ao Kapurangi’ (this is like the crowded house of Te Ao Kapurangi) refers to a Ngāti Rangiwewehi chieftainess who protected her people from the onslaught of war by having them enter a house through a doorway she was straddling. Their protection was ensured by a deal that she had struck with the enemy, Hongi Hika of Ngāpuhi, who agreed that only people who had passed beneath Te Ao Kapurangi’s thighs would be protected. The survival of Ngāti Rangiwewehi was due to the protection afforded by this woman’s genitals.

Peacemaking marriages

In addition to their role as mediators, high-ranking women were often given in marriage to their former adversaries, to show good faith in the pursuit of a durable peace. For example, after the siege of Te Rangiita on the eastern shore of Lake Taupō, the Ngāti Raukawa ancestress Waitapu was given in marriage to Te Rangiita ‘as a token of a greenstone (permanent) peace-making’.

Ka puta ki waho ra, Waitapu.
I haere ra ia i te maunga-rongo
O te ture a Whiro …
And begat Waitapu.
She it was who went by way of the peace-making
To end the fiat of Whiro …2
  1. Te Puke ki Hikurangi 6, no. 10 (29 April 1905), p. 5 Back
  2. Quoted in Apirana Ngata, Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha/he mea kohikohi nā Sir Apirana Ngata: The songs: scattered pieces from many canoe areas. Vol 2. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005, pp. 390–391. Back

Women of rank

Terms for high-born women

Tribal histories and traditions speak of numerous women of high rank. The terms used to describe these women include puhi (high-born, unwed woman), wahine rangatira (women of rank), kahurangi (chieftainess) and ariki tapairu (first-born in a family of note), depending on the woman.

According to Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), in Ngāti Kahungunu, first-born females of senior families were known as māreikura. They were seen as tapu, and as young girls their puhi (virgin) status was jealously guarded by the hapū so they could be betrothed to a suitable suitor from another community. Attendants were often assigned to such women to take care of their needs, as their special status prevented them from doing menial tasks.


One renowned ariki tapairu was Hinematioro, whose genealogy represented the leading lines of descent on the East Coast. Hinematioro was the acknowledged leader of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, but her influence extended from Whāngārā to Tolaga Bay. Her mana is captured in the following song excerpt: ‘my fame mounts o'er the sea, Like Hinematioro's; — she of noble birth and mien’.1 It is said she was considered so tapu she did not walk on the ground, and was instead carried on a litter.

Te Rangitopeora

Another female leader was Te Rangitopeora of Ngāti Toa. A signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, she was often referred to as the Queen of the South. She was a noted composer and mediator, and rejected European clothing throughout her life.

Te Atairangikaahu

A 20th-century ariki tapairu was the late Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who succeeded her father, King Korokī, in 1966, to become the first Māori queen in the Kīngitanga. Affectionately known as ‘the Lady,’ Dame Te Ata was held in high esteem not only because of her inherited status but also because of her humility, her tireless work with numerous organisations and and the many relationships that she nurtured.

Moko kauae

Traditionally women who acquired moko kauae (female chin tattoos) received them on the basis of their mana, established through their whakapapa. They were nominated by the hapū to ensure there was a woman of mana to represent them on the marae.

Rere-o-maki of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi was a woman of mana who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, putting her moko on the treaty taken to Waitangi by Henry Williams. Hēni Materoa Carroll, wife of 19th-century politician James Carroll, had a moko kauae. So did the Ngāti Apa prophet Mere Rikiriki, who foretold the emergence of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana as a religious leader.

However, not all women of mana acquired moko kauae – sometimes for the very reason that they were considered too tapu to receive one. One of the few recorded examples of such a woman who was deemed too tapu to be tattooed was Mihi Kōtukutuku, a woman of high rank from Te Whānau-a-Apanui and Ngāti Porou. During her adolescent years some tohunga tā moko (tattooing experts) from Te Arawa arrived on the East Coast to tattoo chosen girls with moko kauae. The tohunga refused to operate on Mihi Kōtukutuku due to the mana of her whakapapa and therefore the degree of tapu that would be associated with her blood.

From the late 20th century moko kauae have been revived among Māori women as part of a reassertion of Māori female identity.

    • Daily Southern Cross XII, no. 842 (24 July 1855), p. 1. Back

Waiata, karanga and whaikōrero

Early women composers

There is a strong tradition of Māori women as poets and composers. In his collection of traditional Māori waiata (songs), Ngā mōteatea, Apirana Ngata noted that women dominated as composers. He suggested students of the Māori language ‘delve into the songs so as to discover the nature of the spirit of womankind (as expressed) in the songs they composed.’1

Songs are also major sources of tribal oral tradition, history, geography, and political and social commentary, and are testament to Māori women as knowledge bearers and leaders. One such composer in the 19th century was Puhiwahine, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maniapoto. Pei Te Hurinui Jones commented that her compositions ‘show that she was well-versed in the history of her tribes and had a good knowledge of genealogies. She also had a good knowledge of tribal land affairs; took an intelligent interest in what was taking place in the alienation of the lands of her people, and felt that she should warn them against the ‘ways of the Governor’ and the ‘lure of rent’.2

More recent composers

The tradition of women as composers continued with the likes of Tuini Ngāwai and her niece Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi. In the 1980s Pēwhairangi wrote popular songs including ‘E ipo’, sung by Prince Tui Teka, and ‘Poi e’, made famous by the Pātea Māori Club.

In the early 21st century Whirimako Black, Moana Maniapoto, Hinewehi Mohi and Maisey Rika were singer-songwriters who promoted Māori music and drew on their identity as Māori women.


The most obvious public expression of mana wahine is the customary practice of karanga, the first cry of welcome on the marae. Dr Tutere Wi Repa, in an obituary for his wife in 1929, spoke of the inherent mana of the voice of women: ‘[N]o mua iho ano te mana o te reo o te wahine ... ma te wahine e powhiri te manuwhiri, ka maru’3 (the mana of woman’s voice is ancient ... the woman welcomes visitors, and protects).

A woman’s ability to make the marae ātea (ground in front of the meeting house) tapu with her voice and words during the karanga complements the role of men with whaikōrero (speeches) during the rituals of encounter. The karanga is an exchange between tangata whenua and manuhiri (visitors) to ascertain the nature of the visit and the visitors, thus providing the basis for the whaikōrero. It is also a chance for women well-versed in the art of karanga to express their own opinion on topical matters.


In some tribes, such as Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu, women of mana perform whaikōrero. However, not all iwi permit their women to do so, in order to protect them, and because of the tapu nature of women as the whare tangata (motherhood). Whaia McClutchie and Mihi Kōtukutuku of Ngāti Porou and Niniwa-i-te-rangi of Ngāti Kahungunu were all renowned orators.

Controversy has arisen over the gender aspect of the welcome. One of the best-known was in 1998, when Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark was challenged by Titewhai Harawira over speaking rights at Waitangi. Harawira argued that Māori women should be allowed to speak if a Pākehā woman was.

Guiding the kōrero

Māori women’s influence may also be felt behind the scenes in advising or dictating whaikōrero. In 1874 the resident magistrate in Raglan, R. S. Bush, reported the attendance of the sister, wife and daughter of the Māori king, Tāwhiao, to open the house Tokanga-nui-a-noho (which symbolises the peaceful intentions of the Kīngitanga) at Aotea. Bush noted that during the speeches of welcome Tāwhiao's sister, Tiria, did not take part, yet the spokesmen consulted with her before replying to the speeches.

    • Apirana Ngata, Ngā mōteatea: he maramara rere nō ngā waka maha/he mea kohikohi nā Sir Apirana Ngata: The songs: scattered pieces from many canoe areas. Vol 2. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005, p. xxv. Back
    • Te Ao Hou 31 (June 1960), p. 64. Back
    • Te Toa Takitini, 1 December 1929, p. 1928. Back

Leadership after colonisation

Colonisation and Māori women

Māori women traditionally had a say in the affairs of the tribe. A newspaper editorial in 1861 noted the participation of Māori women in the rūnanga: ‘Ta te [M]aori, me hui katoa, te iti te rahi, te tane te wahine, te koroheke te ruruhi ... e uru katoa ana ki nga Runanga [M]aori, me o ratou whakaaro me o ratou korero; e whakatika ana tenei wahine me ana korero ano ...’ ‘(but with the Maori Runanga, all must assemble together, the small and the great, the husband, the wife, the old man, the old woman these all obtain admittance to the Runanga Maori, with all their thoughts and speeches ... this woman gets up and has her talk ...)’. 1

Sign here please

Māori women who signed the Treaty of Waitangi were Takurua, Te Marama, Ana Hamu, Marama, Ereonora, Te Rangitopeora, Kahe Te Rau-o-te-Rangi, Pari, Te Kehu, Ngāraurekau, Rere-ō-Maki, Hoana Riutoto and Te Wairākau.

Māori women landowners

Traditionally land was bequeathed to women, as the mana of women to give birth to descendants meant that mana whenua (authority over land) was not lost through marriage. During the Kotahitanga movement women argued that the law should recognise Māori women as landowners and leaders in their own right. The 1897 petition from the Kotahitanga to Queen Victoria was signed by Māori women and men.

Sticking together

At the battle of Ōrākau in south Waikato in 1864, Ahumai Te Paerata famously responded to the suggestion that the women and children should be allowed to leave, ‘Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki’2 (if the men die, the women and children die also).

Undermining women

Māori legal academic Ani Mikaere has discussed the impact of colonisation on Māori women, as missionaries and settlers sought to dismiss traditional Māori philosophies and values in favour of their own patriarchal belief system. Mikaere states that Māori cosmology and history was retold to emphasise the male characters, while church schools trained Māori girls in domesticity, to become good wives. Most missionaries and settlers struggled to recognise the leadership of Māori women, preferring instead to deal with their male counterparts. Only 13 Māori women signed the Treaty of Waitangi (out of some 512 signatures). The daughter of Te Pēhi, a Ngāti Toa rangatira, was not allowed to sign, as it was believed that women were not important enough. Angered at this insult, her husband also refused to sign.

Treaty claim

In 1993 a group of Māori women filed a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal alleging that the Crown’s actions and policies since 1840 had systematically discriminated against Māori women and deprived them of the spiritual, cultural, social and economic well-being protected by the Treaty of Waitangi. The claim reflected a range of poor socio-economic indicators for Māori women. For example, around 50% of Māori women smoked, and Māori women’s incomes tended to be less than those of Māori men and of women overall.

Land and voting rights

Māori women of rank continued to champion the efforts of their tribes. They fought alongside their men in the New Zealand Wars, and actively participated in the Native Land Court process. Sometimes, like Mākereti Hinewai of Ngāti Kaputuhi, they acted as the principal witness for their hapū, recounting tribal history and genealogical connections with land interests.

Women petitioned the government on land rights and argued for women’s suffrage along with their European counterparts, achieving this in 1893. These women’s rights advocates, such as Meri Mangakāhia of Te Rarawa, Niniwa-i-te-rangi of Ngāti Kahungunu, Takarea Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Sophia Hērangi of Tūhourangi, also actively participated in the Kotahitanga movement, the Māori parliament that became based at Papawai, Wairarapa. They formed women’s committees and argued for the right of women to not only vote but also to stand for the Māori parliament, something they achieved in 1897. Niniwa-i-te-rangi was also an editor (and a financer) of the Māori-language newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi, a major commentator on Māori issues at the start of the 20th century.

Within the Māori King movement, Te Puea Hērangi of Waikato emerged as a major Māori leader in the first half of the 20th century. She led the establishment of Tūrangawaewae marae as the movement’s headquarters, negotiated a settlement of Waikato’s grievance over the confiscation of its lands, and through her charismatic leadership generally raised the public profile and national significance of the Kīngitanga.


Leadership and activism, 1950s to 1980s

Second World War

During the Second World War, Māori women, like their Pākehā counterparts, took a role in running farms and increasingly in working in factories. While fewer than 50 Māori women were working in industry in 1926, the number increased tenfold by 1945 to around 500. This began the increasing urbanisation of Māori.

Māori Women’s Welfare League

The Māori Women’s Welfare League was established in 1951 to support Māori in areas such as housing, health and education. The league spread quickly throughout the country, with 300 branches formed within five years. Whina Cooper was the first president, and Mira Szászy the first secretary. She would later also become president. Both are recognised as outstanding Māori leaders of the 20th century and their championship of the league provided it with a legacy that continued in the 21st century. The league continues to take an interest in contemporary issues for Māori society and inform whānau on issues ranging from cervical screening through to representation roles in governance.

Māori women and Māori rights

During the 1970s and 1980s Māori women were at the forefront of Māori protest movements about land rights, racial inequality and Māori sovereignty. A number, such as Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Ripeka Evans and Donna Awatere, were influenced by the women's liberation movement, which critiqued the perceived patriarchal nature of traditional Māori leadership. Some Māori feminists raised the issue of Māori women's speaking rights on the marae.

Many of these Māori women found themselves at the vanguard of the violent clashes between anti-apartheid protesters and the police during the controversial 1981 rugby tour by the South African Springbok team. These clashes were captured by prominent Māori filmmaker Merata Mita in her movie Patu.

Land rights

Two of the most outspoken land-rights campaigners of the 1970s were Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard. Cooper, at the age of 79, led the 1975 hīkoi (land march) from Te Hāpua to Wellington. Eva Rickard led a group of protesters in occupying the Raglan golf course, taken from its Māori owners originally for use as an airstrip in the Second World War.

Politics, business and language


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’.

    • Te Ao Hou 24 (October 1958), p. 17. Back
    • 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

Education and sport

Māori girls’ boarding schools

Although criticised by some as preparing girls for domesticity, Māori girls’ boarding schools such as St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College, Hukarere, Turakina and Queen Victoria have played a major role in educating young Māori women and preparing them for leadership. St Joseph’s and Hukarere were still open in 2016.

University achievers

Bessie Te Wenerau Grace of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, the granddaughter of paramount chief Horonuku Te Heuheu, was the first Māori woman to graduate from a university. She received a BA from Canterbury University in 1926 and later a BA and MA with first-class honours in modern languages from London University.

Ngāpare Hopa of Ngāti Wairere was the first Māori woman to receive a PhD in anthropology, from Oxford University, England. Her commitment to Māori education has spanned more than 40 years, and in the early 21st century she was a leading Māori academic.

In 2016 Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou) was the only female pro-vice chancellor Māori at any university. Based at the University of Waikato, Professor Smith was internationally recognised for her work in education. Her book Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples (1999) challenged Western ways of researching. It argued for the decolonisation of methodologies and a new type of indigenous research.

Māori women and sport

Māori women have also achieved much in sport. They include Margaret Matangi of Te Āti Awa, who was the captain of the first national New Zealand netball team in 1938. Ruia Morrison was a famous Māori tennis player who competed at Wimbledon from 1957 to 1960, reaching the last 16. Dr Farah Palmer of Ngāti Mahuta and Ngāti Waiora captained the Black Ferns rugby teams which won the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cup tournaments.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rawinia Higgins rāua ko Paul Meredith, 'Te mana o te wāhine – Māori women', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

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