Remembering the Legacy of Aotearoa's Māori Suffragettes

"What lofty mountain should we aim for next? I think a wahine Māori Prime Minister is only the start."

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11 October 2018, 3:24am

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia. Mason, Frederick W., photographer. [Copy of Portrait of Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia.] Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-C5101.

The New Zealand Parliament has the most equal representation of male and female members it has ever had. That statistic is the still-not-ideal 48 women to 72 men. Jacinda Ardern is only the second leader of country in the world to give birth while in office, and in terms of gender equality we are considered an example to the world. And yet being a female politician in Aotearoa is still so fucking hard. Yet again we find ourselves as a country in a position of being better than most, but still so much less than perfect. While some of our policy—such as Jan Logie’s Domestic Violence - Victim's Protection Act—is ground-breaking work, other spaces are still far from transformative change.

Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia is one of the most well-known Māori women associated with the historical suffrage movement. Until recently, her name was rarely remembered in the conversation about suffrage. Mangakāhia submitted a motion to the Kotahitanga Parliament that sought not only to give women the right to vote, but to allow women the right to stand in parliament—a right not extended to women in Aotearoa until 1919. As she put it, Māori women were landowners too and thus deserving of that right. Labour MP Louisa Wall acknowledged the legacy left by Mangakāhia. It was that women should never just be satisfied with “opportunity”, but that we should remain steadfastly focused on actual outcomes. We have more women in Parliament than ever. But what can we say of outcomes for Māori women?

As Mangakāhia said Māori women have historically been landowners. At least 17 of the signatories on the Treaty of Waitangi were female leaders in Te Ao Māori. The reason there weren’t more is likely because the Crown representatives that took the Treaty around New Zealand did not approach female leaders. Because for them, a Māori woman could not conceivably be a leader. For Mangakāhia and for other Māori in the movement, I think suffrage was just a small part of removing colonisation from their lives and returning to us the democratic power that we always had.

In the interest of being intersectional, many speechmakers have acknowledged the names of those Māori women who were critical in the suffrage movement. But acknowledging a name is not enough, and often times it feels like ticking off the box of being “not racist”. How many people who speak her name actually know the depth of her history? How many of them can unravel the influences of sexism and racism that would have affected this rangatira, and that continue to affect Māori women in leadership today?

The job of wāhine in parliament is to represent their people. But doing so invites all sorts of discrimination and criticism. NZ First MP Tracey Martin said that while her speaking style has been described as ‘shrill’, she has never once seen a male colleague criticised for the tone of his voice. Golriz Ghahraman, who came to New Zealand as a refugee, is regularly sent death threats. So, too, was Louisa Wall when her Marriage Equality Act was being processed. The two pairs of Spanx that Jacinda Ardern wore on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert became a legitimate news item.

All Māori women in parliament today inspire me. Politics aside, there is a shared history of oppression and an intergenerational desire for change that brought these wāhine into the Beehive. The race politics of Aotearoa continue to dampen my spirits every day, but these wāhine remind me that there are still people who believe in authentic change. Their presence pushes back against the prevalence of whiteness and masculinity in government. Whiteness and masculinity are of course not in themselves bad things, but for so long now have dictated what our political leadership looks like.

It is great that our representatives are as diverse as they have ever been. But until there is a transformation in the very foundations of how parliament functions, these women will always have their work cut out for them.

Acknowledging a name is not enough. Remembering who our Māori suffragettes are does very little to further the vision that these women created for us. I have witnessed people include their names in speeches when I know they have done nothing to save a seat at the table for Māori wāhine to speak for themselves. It is critical that we make space for minority groups to share their voice. We must rebuild the room and allow underrepresented peoples to share their kōrero.

Mangakāhia believed that we should strive for actual outcomes, not just the ‘opportunity’ to have a voice. Those outcomes come after we give space for leadership of different kinds. I am grateful for Iriaka Rātana who was the first Māori woman in Parliament, 70 years ago. I am grateful for Tariana Turia. When the Foreshore and Seabed Act was passed and internationally criticised for not supporting the rights of Māori, Turia fought for a better outcome. I am grateful for Nanaia Māhuta as the first Māori woman to wear a moko kauae in Parliament. I am grateful for Marama Davidson who regularly makes the news for sharing her opinions. She said we should reclaim the C word because it is powerful (something my peers and I already believed). She also said that there was systematic racism in the police force (again, something my peers and I have experienced first hand).

Their existence is an outcome for sure. But we need to see those outcomes created for all citizens of Aotearoa. Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe, me he maunga teitei. What lofty mountain should we aim for next? I think a wahine Māori Prime Minister is only the start.

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