Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…
Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia (1868-1920, Aotearoa New Zealand)
In 1893, Aotearoa New Zealand was the first self-governing nation in the world in which women gained the right to vote. This fact is recognised on the $10 banknote, which features leading suffragist Kate Sheppard. Sheppard’s battle for the recognition of women was not the only activism in the second half of the 19th century but was part of a larger movement in the nation to address the inequalities that the colonial rule of the country had brought about. This included demands for governance by the Indigenous peoples and in 1867, 14 years after the county’s first ever elections, 4 Māori seats had been added to the 72 other seats in parliament and all Māori men aged 21 and over had become eligible to vote. Prior to this change, only land owners were allowed to vote, a system which had disadvantaged Māori who tended to have a communal system of land ownership rather than holding individual deeds. Another issue with the colonists’ world view, was that it did not recognise women’s ability to own land, further undermining Māori women, who were traditionally bequeathed land or given charge of land management within their whānau. As such, while the Māori women’s rights movement had much in common with their fellow Pākehā suffragists, such as battling alcoholism and domestic violence, they also had other priorities including the protection of their culture and recognition of their status.
Meri Te Tai was born in Hokianga, daughter of chief Re Te Tai of Te Rarawa. She married Hāmiora Mangakāhia, who was the first Premier of the Kotahitanga Paremata Māori (Māori parliament). Established in 1892, its goal was legal validation from the New Zealand parliament and a voice in the issue of land rights. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia took an active interest in politics and, in 1893, helped set up Nga Kōmiti Wāhine, an organisation to focus on the issues faced by Māori women. In the same year, she was the first woman to address the Kotahitanga Parliament in the Hawke’s Bay, submitting a motion in which she requested not only that the parliament allow women to vote, but also accept them as members. Her stated reasons focussed on the issue of land ownership and management, and included:
“There are many women who have been widowed and own much land”,
“There are many women who are knowledgeable of the management of land where their husbands are not” and
“There are many women whose fathers are elderly, who are also knowledgeable of the management of land and own land.”
She also acknowledged that women in particular were being left behind in the concessions the national government had made towards Māori,
“There have been many male leaders who have petitioned the Queen concerning the many issues that affect us all, however, we have not yet been adequately compensated according to those petitions. Therefore I pray to this gathering that women members be appointed. Perhaps by this course of action we may be satisfied concerning the many issues affecting us and our land.”
Her final appeal was one of sisterhood, directly to Queen Victoria herself,
“Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well.”
Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia died of influenza in 1920, by which time both Māori and Pākehā women in Aotearoa New Zealand had voted in every election since 1893 (including 4000 Māori women in that first year), and female candidates had stood for election for the first time in 1919. Aotearoa New Zealand has had female MPs since 1933, female Māori MPs since 1949, and 3 female Prime Ministers; all part of the legacy of determined women including Kate Sheppard and Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia.
Te Ara – “Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia” https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m30/mangakahia-meri-te-tai
Te Ara – “Māori Women” https://teara.govt.nz/en/te-mana-o-te-wahine-maori-women/page-5
NZ History – “Meri Mangakāhia” https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/so-that-women-can-get-the-vote
Auckland Museum – “Meri’s parliamentary chest” https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/stories/history/meris-parliamentary-chest-and-mary-anns-chair