Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia (22 May 1868 – 10 October 1920) was a campaigner for women's suffrage in New Zealand, a suffragist who inspired future generations of Māori women.
Meri was born Meri Te Tai, in Lower Waihou near Panguru in the Hokianga valley. A member of the Te Rarawa iwi, she was of Ngāti Te Rēinga, Ngāti Manawa and Te Kaitūtae origin and was the great-grandchild of the woman of mana, Ngākahuwhero. Her father, Rē Te Tai (circled below), was an influential chief of Te Rarawa in the Hokianga district in the 1890s and later; her mother was Hana Tēra. Hana's marriage to Rē Te Tai was her second; three children had been born of her first marriage, to a member of the Parore family.
Meri was the eldest of the four children of Hana's second marriage. Family tradition suggests that she was well educated and it is thought she studied at St Mary's Convent in Auckland, and was an accomplished pianist.
In the late 1880s or early 1890s she became the third wife of Hāmiora Mangakāhia, of Ngāti Whanaunga and other Coromandel hapū. He was an assessor in the Native Land Court, and was working at Waimate North in 1887. He was also at the Bay of Islands in 1889, attending the meeting at which Te Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament movement, was formally initiated. Meri gave birth to four children: two sons, Mohi and Waipapa, and two daughters, Whangapoua Tangiora Edith and Mabel Te Aowhaitini. Mabel Mangakāhia became a registered nurse and midwife, and is thought to have been the first Māori to gain the postgraduate diploma in public health nursing, in 1939.
Women's suffrage in early colonial New Zealand was an important political issue in the late nineteenth century. As in European societies, women were excluded from any involvement in politics. In Polynesian society and European aristocracy women could achieve significant formal political rank through ancestry. However, Polynesian and by extension Māori society differed in letting charismatic women have significant direct influence. This was limited by the inability of women to speak at some meetings or marae (community houses). As a result some historians see colonialism as a temporary step back for women's rights in New Zealand.
By 1893 there was considerable popular support for women's suffrage. The 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition was presented to Parliament and a new Electoral Bill passed through the Lower House with a large majority. During debate, there was majority support for the enfranchisement of Māori as well as Pākehā women; the inclusion of Māori women was championed by John Shera, who was married to a woman of Māori and European descent.
In June 1892 Hāmiora Mangakāhia was elected Premier of the Kotahitanga Parliament in Hawke's Bay. The following year both he and Meri attended the second session of the parliament at Waipatu in Hawke's Bay where a motion, submitted by Meri, was introduced by the Speaker of the lower house of the Kotahitanga parliament. Her motion requested not only that Māori women be given the vote, but that they be eligible to sit in the Māori parliament, thus going a step further than the contemporary aims of the European suffrage movement. The women's suffrage movement had been gaining strength from the 1880s, and it is likely that Meri had knowledge of this. She may, like many Māori women, have come into contact with the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned for women's suffrage.
Meri was asked to come to the House to present her motion, and in doing so, she became the first woman to speak to Te Kotahitanga. Her argument was that Māori women had always traditionally been landowners, either because they had no male relatives or because the women were more competent, but that under Colonial law they were losing this land. She also noted that as landowners, these women should not be barred from political representation. She claimed that although chiefs had appealed to Queen Victoria over Māori problems, Māori women had received no advantage from these appeals, and suggested that the Queen might more readily respond to representations by women.
By all accounts, she was an eloquent speaker with excellent organisational flair. An oil portrait painted about this time, preserved by her family, shows a beautiful young woman dressed in the height of European fashion.
Little further is recorded of Meri's participation in the Kotahitanga movement, but she continued to be active in Māori politics and welfare. In the same year as her parliamentary speech, she was involved in establishing Ngā Kōmiti Wāhine, committees associated with the Kotahitanga Parliament, that discussed issues such as family violence, smoking and retaining traditional Māori skills. These committees, early forerunners of the Māori Women's Welfare League, organised the activities of young people attending Kotahitanga meetings, and undertook massive catering. They also held meetings and debated political issues. She also started Te Reiri Karamu (The Ladies’ Column) in the Te Tiupiri (The Jubilee) with Niniwa I te Rangi of Wairarapa. This collection of articles and letters were a place where Māori women raised and debated women's issues.
In the 1890s, Māori women seeking the vote fought on two separate fronts; nationally for the New Zealand parliament, and also within Kotahitanga Māori parliament. Many Māori women dedicated themselves to the retention of their ancestral lands and sought political power to aid their aims. Between 1886 and 1896, forty petitions around land issues were presented to the New Zealand parliament, signed by Māori women on behalf of themselves or their Iwi.
In 1897, after years of effort by women's suffrage campaigners, led by Kate Sheppard, Meri's dreams were realised when women won the right to vote in Te Kotahitanga elections and New Zealand became the first nation in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
Sadly, considering how influential she was, little information is known about Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia. As her great-grandniece Emma Frost recently noted in an interview, “Māori women who shaped our nation were very invisible. There wasn’t a lot written about them.”
If you'd like to learn more about the Māori women's organisations, I can recommend this fantastic article written by Tania Rei, Geraldine McDonald and Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku on the New Zealand History website: Ngā Rōpū Wāhine Māori – Māori Women's Organisations
Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, pen on paper (2021)
- an art print (with customisable background)