Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia was one of the first Maori suffragists, and now recognised as an unsung hero of Aotearoa's suffrage movement.
She was a prominent and influential Māori woman activist in the 1890s and was fiercely dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights.
Meri Te Tai wanted more than just the right to vote. She wanted women represented in Parliament to be part of the decision making process.
She was involved in the establishment of Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, iwi based women’s committees associated with Te Paremata, the Māori parliament. While Pākehā suffragists were focused largely on moral reform and temperance (restriction of alcohol) Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine were more concerned about the wellbeing of Māori culture and the negative effects of colonisation. Included in this was the loss of land and the lack of recognition of Māori women’s rights as the owners of land and resources.
Address to Kotahitanga Parliament
In 1893 Meri Te Tai became the first woman to personally address Kotahitanga Parliament. She presented a motion in favour of women being allowed to vote for, and stand as, members of the Parliament.
English translation of Meri Te Tai's address to the Kotahitanga:
"I exult the honourable members of this gathering. Greetings.
I move this motion before the principle member and all honourable members so that a law may emerge from this parliament allowing women to vote and women to be accepted as members of the parliament.
Following are my reasons for presenting this motion that women may receive the vote and that there be women members:
1. There are many women who have been widowed and own much land.
2. There are many women whose fathers have died and do not have brothers.
3. There are many women who are knowledgeable of the management of land where their husbands are not.
4. There are many women whose fathers are elderly, who are also knowledgeable of the management of land and own land.
5. 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.
Perhaps the Queen may listen to the petitions if they are presented by her Māori sisters, since she is a woman as well." (source)
Post Suffrage Life
In 1893 all New Zealand women, Māori and Pākehā, won the right to vote. However, it wasn't until 1897 that Māori women won the right to vote in the Kotahitanga Parliamentary elections.
Meri Te Tai continued to be active in Māori politics. In partnership with Niniwa i te Rangi of Wairarapa, she started a column called Te Reiri Karamu (‘The Ladies’ Column’) which was published in Te Tiupiri (The Jubilee). The column shows the engagement of Māori women in lively and intellectual discussion of women's issues.
Meri Te Tai is remembered as a suffragist who pushed boundaries and inspired future generations of Māori women.
She died of influenza in 1920 and is buried at the Pureirei cemetery in Lower Waihou.
Coney, Sandra: Standing in the Sunshine-A history of New Zealand Women since they won the vote. Penguin Books NZ Ltd, 1993
Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia
Radio New Zealand: Unsung Heroes of New Zealand's Suffrage Movement