Figure 10: Whina Cooper

Whina illustration portrait

Underrated:

Born Hohepine Te Wake (1895-1994), Whina was inspired from a young age by her father’s role as a teacher of Catholicism and community leader in the Te Karaka region of New Zealand, she grew up flaunting tradition, and was put through college from the age of 12. She soon became the favourite of her father over his sons, and he wanted to make her his successor, at a time when Maori women were not expected to speak publicly. At 18 she was respected enough to lead her people in a protest against the threat of a European farmer occupying their land.

In 1949, after the death of her second husband, she moved to Aukland and became a pan-tribal Maori leader, and founded the Maori Women’s Welfare League, which spread quickly to having 300 regional branches and had a significant impact on the welfare of Maori’s living in cities, who faced housing and job discrimination. Only four years after the foundation of the organisation, Whina was appointed an MBE. She strived for peaceful solutions which would hopefully make settlers and Maoris alike happy.

Whina’s biggest achievement was not to take place until she was 80 years old. Crippled with arthritis, she led 5,000 people on a 700 mile march on Wellington to protest the theft of Maori land by the British colonisation. Of the 66 million acres that make up New Zealand soil, only 2.5 million remained in Maori ownership. Unfortunately this didn’t result in getting any land back for the Maori people, but in 2011 they owned a little over 1.4 million hectares, which I believe is approximately 3.5 million acres (although I could be wrong about the acreage). So, there’s some progress, but very little compared to the rate at which the land was lost;

Whina’s peaceful aims made her well-loved by those of European origins, this was much less the case among her own people. The sexist attitude that she was doing a ‘man’s job’ was pervasive, and she came up against opposition because of her gender throughout her life. To this she said:

‘All men . . . the King, the Governor, the big chiefs . . . they all come out of a woman. Without women they wouldn’t even be alive.’

She was not afraid to go against the grain (for example, when effectively the leader of her people, she became widowed in 1935 she was already pregnant with someone else’s baby, with whom she lived outside of wedlock for six years… Oh, also he was trying to get a divorce. And she was Catholic!!).

The image of Whina at 75, struggling but strong, made an impact on the people of New Zealand, and she remained an important figure for the rest of her life. She was given the title ‘Mother of the Nation’ by the press, and she was named a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1991, and spoke at the opening of the Commonwealth Games held in Aukland in 1990.

Whina died in the region she was born in 1994, aged 98. Over a million people watched her televised funeral. She never seemed to be phased by being different, perhaps because she had known that she was from such an early age. She seems to have, at times, embraced the idea that she was more masculine than feminine, but her two marriages I think imply that this was simply the vernacular she used to support her authority (much like Elizabeth I of England’s ‘heart and stomach of a king’ speech). I hope that nowadays most of us can feel comfortable in more extended gender roles; you can be feminine and very strong, just like you can be masculine and vulnerable. I think that it makes life more interesting, at least!

 

 

 

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