The Māori Women’s Welfare League started life in the 1950s, encouraged by the state to produce good and compliant citizens from its wāhine Māori membership.
Historian Aroha Harris explains why the early women of the League should be seen as creative negotiators — not just conservative homemakers.
In September 1951, some 300 Māori women gathered in Wellington to attend the inaugural conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.
The league was a new unit of social and political organisation which had been sponsored into being by the Department of Māori Affairs.
The department was influential at that time and policies of integration pervaded its work. It envisioned itself as engaged in the task of remedying “Maori problems”. And it was relying on the women in the League to further the state’s goals of assimilation and integration for Māori.
The department urged the women to apply themselves, in the spirit of self-help, to the important role of providing happy home environments that produced citizens of the modern world.
The common depiction of the League was that it was conservative or complicit with the state — a fixed and passive group which would uphold colonial policies and systems. But while the League women recognised, and even respected, state expectations, they were still able to rework the state’s goals to meet their own ambitions as wāhine Māori.
At all levels, members organised activities and discussion that reflected their own priorities and issues, including their concerns about the state.
In fact, the Māori Women’s Welfare League became an important link between the social and reform efforts of the late 19th century, and the radical political movements that emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Unsurprisingly, League women did not see themselves, or Māori generally, as problems to be solved. Far from being passive recipients of the department’s integration policies, the women became active participants in workable, though often strained, relationships with its officials.
In this way, they used the Māori Women’s Welfare League to enter the public sphere, and to engage with what they saw as the most important and relevant political and community issues of the mid-20th century.
The department also documented the League’s activities, including its inaugural conference and constitution, and the files are now housed at Archives New Zealand.
Mira Szazy was the League’s first secretary and became its president from 1973 to 1977. Reflecting on the League’s history, she said that, at the time of its formation, Māori women were being excluded from discussions about community life: “Nothing was being done with regard to one of the greatest needs of the Māori people — housing, and the conditions of the family, the women and the children.”
Whina Cooper, then a prominent leader from the Hokianga, was the League’s first president. She was a high-profile participant at the League’s inaugural conference, where she was the first to respond to the mihi whakatau, to answer the roll call, and to question the organisational constitution.
The buoyant congratulatory mood and the smooth running of the conference belied the underlying complexities of relations between the League women and the officers of the department.
Indeed, Whina and the other League women are remembered for “assaulting the ears of Government Departments”, particularly on issues related to housing and mortgages.
Over three solid days, the women finalised and adopted a constitution of 64 clauses.
Regional reports attested to the “versatility of the delegates” as the women debated health, housing, education and justice, producing 72 resolutions that reflected the diversity of women and their respective concerns.
Rumatiki Wright, welfare officer and conference chair, gave an impression that the League was embarking on a grand enterprise, leading the people through a time of enormous change. Māori women, she said, “are on the march” on behalf of Māori and Pākeha alike. “Then ‘tatou tatou’ (we of one house) will indeed be a reality in this land of ours.”
Rumatiki’s “we of one house” was a telling interpretation of the League’s motto. It reflected the political rhetoric of the day, particularly the idea promoted by conference speakers that Māori and Pākehā were “two people in one house” or “family”.
Though they were on the path to unity, Māori and Pākehā were not yet one people, and, it was thought that the League could play an important role in smoothing out any difficulties.
The department didn’t explicitly require the League to serve as the country’s race relations monitor or national explainer of things Māori. However, it did expect the League to fit with the philosophy of integration that underpinned the government’s Māori policies.
The women were urged to be shining examples of good New Zealand citizenship — clean, healthy, sober, law-abiding, family-oriented and Christian. And they were also counselled to maintain Māori arts and traditions.
The League’s constitutional aims therefore included “discussion and instruction in the proper care and feeding of babies, the preparation of meals, the care and maintenance of the home, and the benefits to be derived from fresh air and sunshine.”
But the apparent conservatism of the League’s constitution didn’t accurately reflect its activities. While some observers (then and since) may have narrowly ring-fenced the League’s interests around breastfeeding and flax-weaving, the women understood these practices as culturally and politically important. Nor did their interests stop there.
Two conference remits, for example, advocated for the inclusion of Māori language, arts and literature in schools.
The first advocated that all libraries of all schools attended by Māori children include books on Māori subjects. The women considered that Māori children who attended public schools were at “a definite disadvantage” because they lacked access to this material and therefore tended “to grow up in ignorance of their own people.”
The second remit made a case for the teaching of te reo Māori in Māori schools and urged the Department of Education to address the difficulties caused by the lack of qualified teachers and reading materials.
The women understood that proficiency in English was “essential in modern life” but they also felt that te reo Māori had a place in schools, noting that even children who learned Māori at home lost it because it was absent from the school curriculum.
These two education resolutions were referred to the Minister of Education. And throughout the ensuing years, remits on education were fine-tuned — recommending, for example, that Māori arts be incorporated into the training of teachers, and that te reo Māori be made a compulsory subject.
Various government responses generally noted that basic support was given for Māori language, arts and crafts in both schools and training colleges. However, they found it was “impossible” to endorse the suggestion that language be made compulsory.
Over the years, the League made pivotal contributions to the survival of the weaving arts among Māori women, supporting workshops during a time when few, if any, government resources were applied to the task.
The area of language and culture, and the focus on continuing the cultural distinctiveness of Māori, illustrates how the so-called conservatism of the League eventually dovetailed with the radicalism of the Māori protest movement that flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Indeed, Whina Cooper’s speeches during her tour of League branches in 1952 were described as making “every individual more than ever conscious of his or her responsibility to family, community and race.”
So it is that the women of the Māori Women’s Welfare League might also be cast as creative negotiators. They did not forsake their Indigenous autonomy, or their own cultural and social priorities. They creatively navigated the tensions that existed between state expectations and their own aspirations for themselves, their families and communities.
They may not have explicitly rejected integration. But they simply went ahead and built their views, their families, and their communities on a foundation of their own Māori thinking and aspirations.
Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is an associate professor in history at the University of Auckland. Her research interests span Māori histories of the 20th century, and she is a founding member of Te Pouhere Kōrero, Māori historians’ collective. Aroha was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2008 and is currently a member of Te Rohe Pōtae (Wai 898) panel.
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