IRIAKA RATANA
Politician
1905-1981

The first Māori woman to be elected to New Zealand Parliament

Iriaka Ratana wrote her name into New Zealand political history in 1949 by winning the Western Māori electorate – in the process becoming the first woman to represent Māori in the halls of Parliament.

Ratana succeeded her late husband, Matiu Ratana, in winning the seat.

She held it for 20 years, eventually retiring from politics in 1969.

Her lengthy political career defied criticism – especially from Tainui leadership – that a woman should secure the Western Māori electorate.

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Prominent female Tainui leader Te Puea Herangi was the amongst the most vocal, telling a public meeting that he was opposed to any woman who would "captain the Tainui canoe".

During her time in Parliament, Ratana was a staunch supporter of improved welfare services offered to Māori.

That included supporting pensioner flats for elderly Māori, training schemes for youth and services for rural Māori who were relocating to urban hotspots.

Her Dictionary of New Zealand bio states: "Iriaka painted heart-rending portraits of the hopelessness of some Māori lives, trapped in a descending spiral of poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and basic facilities.

"All these problems she saw as capable of solution by a caring, paternal Department of Māori Affairs with Māori welfare officers, and by such organisations as the Māori Women's Welfare League."

Ratana was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to Māori in the 1971 New Year Honours list.