A Turning Point for Māori Welfare: The Māori Women's Welfare League
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
‘Our organisation does not exist because of segregation, but because of the very fundamental needs of our women, the most important of which is the need to identify themselves as self-determining individuals, with the right to choose what was best for themselves in this ever-changing world’ . These words were spoken by Mira Petricevich, the first secretary of an organisation that changed the course of Māori welfare in New Zealand. Seeking to bridge the inequality gap between Māori and Pakeha in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Māori Women’s Welfare League provided not only a place for Māori to air their concerns over the discrimination they faced in their communities but also to promote and foster their cultural traditions and retain their tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) as a people.
Te Ropu Wahine Maori Toko i te Ora, or the Māori Women’s Welfare League was established in 1951 in response to concerns over housing, employment and educational opportunities for Māori following the close of World War Two. The Labour Party in New Zealand during the 1930s aimed to promote and address racial equality, especially regarding the discrepant living standards for Pakeha and Māori around the country . However, many felt that this had not been addressed properly. Families living in Auckland required proper housing as many were living in tents or single-room houses. Not only was this present in Auckland, but those moving away from the big cities to places such as Hamilton were relegated to ‘sheds’ with unsanitary facilities . In 1944, the Auckland Māori Tribal Executive Committee wrote to the Minister in charge of the Māori War Effort Organisation explaining the urgent need for proper housing and issue that was continually noted yet never addressed in full. It was quickly recognised that though housing and employment were problems, the root for this issue was discrimination. Landlords would discriminate against who they would rent their houses to and few Māori were given the opportunity to be promoted to authoritarian positions in the workplace.
In her well-known article on the League, Barbara Brookes states that the damage and consequences of the Māori position were felt ‘most acutely in the home’, which meant that women had to ‘cope with them daily’. It was for this reason that they were the ones ‘most strongly moved to do something about them’ . On 25 September 1951, 87 delegates representing over 2500 women in Wellington attended the first inaugural conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League . The representatives were select members of groups that had formed throughout the 1940s in an attempt to discuss and find solutions to these pervading issues. The League provided a place for these groups to consult together to change the inequality, instability, and uncertainty present in Māori life.
The League aimed to improve Māori life in a number of ways, by focusing on Māori self-development; retaining and stimulating pride in their culture; “mastering” Pakeha culture in order to operate effectively in it yet without assimilating; preserving and maintaining the teaching of Māori arts; and giving aid to members and those in the community who were in need . Indeed, the League garnered government support in order to achieve these aims. However, it also provided Māori with a location to voice their concerns. This was revolutionary and a necessary step towards the improvement of Māori welfare. Notably, Aroha Harris stated that this was just not a radical moment in time for Māori as a people, but also for women in New Zealand, as it ‘was the first instance of Māori women appointing their own representatives at a national level’ .
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the League continued to bring change to Māori life and even extended beyond the original affairs of housing and employment. The League brought relief to Māori struggling with health issues through the provision of immunisation, family planning, obesity aid and tuberculosis treatment. This also extended beyond the personal into the communal as it sought to address domestic violence in the 70s and to set up Lifestyle programmes in the 80s. The 90s found the League providing services for families at a regional level and it ‘continues to be a formidable voice for Māori people’ throughout the entirety of New Zealand and Australia today .
The Māori Women’s Welfare League provided a turning point in history for Māori representation, as it catalysed a movement towards raising awareness for important welfare issues. Not only did it provide a place for Māori to raise their concerns over housing, employment, domestic violence, and medical treatment, but it became the first national organisation where Māori women appointed their own representatives. The League continues to provide welfare and aid to this day to more than 3000 direct members and their communities.
Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
 Brookes, Barbara, ‘“Assimilation” and “Integration”: the Māori Women’s Welfare League in the 1950s’, Turnbull Library Record, 36, 1, Wellington, 2003.
 New Zealand History, ‘Māori Women’s Welfare League Established: 25 September 1951’, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/page/maori-womens-welfare-league-established.
 Brookes; Te Ara, ‘Women’s Organisations: Māori Women’s Welfare League’, https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/womens-organisations/page-6.
 New Zealand History.
 Maori Women’s Welfare League, ‘Who We Are’, http://mwwl.org.nz/who-we-are/.