Two years before the birth of a Māori baby who would grow into a woman who changed New Zealand, a kinswoman from the remote north Hokianga became the first Māori women to address the government about women's rights.

Mere Te Tai Mangakāhia, whose whānau included that baby — the future Dame Whina Cooper — wanted suffrage for a different reason to Pākehā women.

Pākehā suffragists were focused on moral reform and the restriction of alcohol, an issue that also resonated deeply with Māori women. The latter, though, were more concerned about the erosion of Māori culture and the need to counter the effects of colonisation, particularly land loss.

Mere Te Tai Mangakāhia
Mere Te Tai Mangakāhia

By 1893 Mere Te Tai was establishing Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, committees which addressed issues confronting women and their whānau, such as domestic violence, smoking, alcoholism, religion, single mothers and the retention of traditional skills.


Her historic address to Kotahitanga (the Māori parliament of which her husband Hāmiora Mangakāhia was leader) sought recognition of Māori women's rights as owners of land and resources, and the decision-making power many women of mana had over men.

Pākehā women had fewer ownership rights and had long endured male domination.

But Mere Te Tai asked that women, who were entitled to vote through New Zealand's newly won suffrage, also participate in the selection of Kotahitanga members. They won that right in 1897 but Kotahitanga disbanded in 1902, replaced by the first four Māori seats.

The late Dame Whina Cooper's daughter Hinerangi Cooper-Puru acknowledges the similarities between her mother and her tupuna wāhine. The name Hinerangi was gifted to Dame Whina's daughter by an older relative who had been close to Mere Te Tai, whose mother was Hinerangi.

Dame Whina, born with the right to vote, understood that it meant nothing unless used for change.

''You can tell she's from the same whānau [as Te Tai]. She was always directing, was Mum,'' Cooper-Puru said.

''It wasn't about being a woman, it was about getting the work done.

''When we were growing up in Panguru, it was quite natural for her to do men's jobs. She would oversee the men. She had the blessing to be like that from her father, and from my father.


''She used to coach the rugby team and she became president of the Hokianga Rugby Union. She was also president of the Federated Farmers at one time too.

''Can you believe that! In those days those organisations were always ruled by Pākehā men, but Mum owned three farms while she was still a young woman.''

Cooper-Puru spoke of when Dame Whina rallied women of Motukaraka nearer Kohukohu to gain road access to their marae.

''Mum was always ready to put on her gumboots and dig ditches herself. She had to show them, 'pick up the shovel and start'. The local borough council wouldn't help so Dame Whina took the women to Wellington to demand the Māori Affairs Minister approve the work.

''She knocked on his door the night she arrived and he said, 'Whina, we have rules here at Parliament', and she said, 'I didn't come to see the rules, I came to see the minister'.''

Dame Whina sent her two surviving children (another child had died) to boarding schools in Auckland and eventually moved to be near them. It was the 1950s.


''She bought a place in Grey Lynn and saw there were a lot of Māori living in run down areas in Auckland. That was when she founded the Māori Women's Welfare League, to show Māori women how to improve their lives and their whānau's future. She became Dominion president.

''She was a great woman for empowering other women. She used to say, 'You men should let the women lead our people for change'.''

Dame Whina's attention shifted to the ''land grab'', the plight of landless Māori, those whose land wasn't in their own power, and land settlements.

In 1975, aged 80, she led the famous hikoi from Cape Reinga to Wellington, after spending the year before talking to as many Māori possible across the country.

Cooper-Puru said her mother would be pleased to see Māori women have come a long way.

''It's exciting to see how many Māori women are in Parliament.''


National Party long time hard-man Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was a great friend of Dame Whina. She would often stay with his family at their Hatfield Beach bach near Orewa, and together they shared a love of gardening.

He once gave her some rare lily seeds which she lovingly sowed back at her Panguru home.

''After Mum died there was a terrible lot of rain, it flooded here, and all these beautiful lilies went floating down the road.''

Only weeks before she died, the great Dame Whina, the enduring figurehead for modern Māori women's aspirations and rights, organised one last thing for her people: she had a memorial stone erected at the north Hokianga birthplace of Mere Te Tai Mangakāhia, in honour of that earlier Māori woman whose vision, hopes and achievements equalled that of any suffragist.