Dame Whina Cooper

Almost at once she found a new role as a pan-Maori rather than tribal leader. At the inaugural conference of the Maori Women’s Welfare League in Wellington in September 1951, Whina was elected foundation president. Her first task was to stump the country to establish local and regional branches. This gave full rein to her substantial powers of oratory and persuasion, and she accomplished the mission with triumphant success. She and her executive then turned their attention to devising programmes to improve the circumstances of Maori women and children and to liaising with local and national government and other women’s organisations.

One of the league’s first initiatives, instigated by Whina, was a survey of Maori housing in Auckland. This revealed that many immigrants from rural areas were crowded into insanitary dwellings and led the Auckland City Council and the Department of Maori Affairs to demolish slums and provide a higher quota of state and council houses for Maori tenants. The league also addressed education, crime and instances of racial discrimination in housing, employment and the health service. As the first national Maori organisation, its submissions were taken seriously by politicians and government departments. Whina established especially close relationships with National’s minister of Maori affairs, Ernest Corbett, and the leader of the opposition and Labour spokesman on Maori affairs, Walter Nash. As the public face of the league, Whina became the best-known Maori woman in the country, a frequent subject for newspaper stories and features. She was appointed an MBE in 1953.By 1956 the league had more than 300 branches, 88 district councils and over 4,000 members. Some of those members were now voicing reservations about Whina’s growing inclination to act without consulting her executive and her assumption that she would remain president for life. The following year she was persuaded to step down and the annual conference rewarded her with the title Te Whaea o te Motu (Mother of the Nation).