The Maori Women's Welfare League
Since its beginning in September 1951, the Maori Women's Welfare League has become an organisation well-known to Maori and European alike for its vigour in attacking the social welfare problems of the contemporary Maori, and its attempts to teach its members the secrets of certain arts and crafts which would otherwise be lost to us with the passing of an older generation. In the Spring issue of 1953, To Ao Hou reports on ‘Another Successful M.W.W.L. Conference’, and only a glance at this is necessary to convince the reader that the League may be as important to the Maori of today and tomorrow as the Young Maori Party was to the Maori of fifty years ago. But perhaps the biggest job that the League is tackling is to foster a deeper and wider understanding between Maori and European, and to encourage the Maori individual to take his place in out European society, not with feelings of inferiority and reluctance, but with confidence, realising that as well as being a Maori he is also a New Zealander, and as such has rights and claims on the community similar to those of the Pakeha. Keeping in mind this side of the League's work, it is not surprising to find that although the League is a Maori organisation working principally for the benefit of Maoris, it is modelled in nearly every detail on similar European organisations.
The saying that necessity is the mother of invention is so well-known and has been used so often that it has almost lost the full force of its meaning. However, no one phrase could describe more accurately the beginnings of the M.W.W.L. For many years, Maori women have felt the need for an organisation in all respects their own, where they could air their common problems without fear of embarrassment, and to which they could turn for support and encouragement in any endeavours to better their position. And many of them did, and still do, wish to improve the standard of their living. Immediately the question arises, why did they not join the Women's Institute of the Women's Division, both of them, as we shall see, organisations very alike in nature to the M.W.W.L.? Could they not have found there the help they sought? The answer is, that a few of them did become members of European organisations, but these few were Maori adapted in some degree to European life, and with some point of contact with the Pakeha women in their community; friendship, education, or a Pakeha background to their upbringing. But the rest, and that means the majority, who had no such point of contact, felt too diffident or self-conscious to confess the inadequacies of their homes to a group of Pakeha women, who were in most cases sympathetic or at least interested but who had no
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first-hand experience of such difficulties. There has always been, and probably always will be, a stigma attached to a low standard of living, though nine times out of ten the causes lie beyond the control of the people concerned. For these reasons Maori women, especially in rural districts, wanted an organisation held together, not by racial bonds or even cultural background—that varies in the Maori population almost as much as in the European—but simply by the feeling, well, here we are, all in the same boat, what can we do about it?
I can remember that I first heard of the M.W.W.L. with some surprise, because it seemed to shoot into prominence without any warning. It was suddenly laid before us, tailored to fit the occasion, apparently ready-made, for us to step into. But in actual fact that was not the case at all. The M.W.W.L. is the last link, and 1 may say the most important one, in a chain of events stretching back to 1936. In that year the Maori Health League was formed in Rotorua under District Nurse Cameron, and carried out valuable work in that area. The next step was in 1945, when the Maori Welfare Division appointed women's welfare committees as sister organisations to the tribal committees. The Health Leagues and the welfare committees joined forces under a central committee at Rotorua, but could not agree on constitutional and administrative matters. So the Health League remained a separate entity and branches formed by Welfare Officers combined under a revived constitution in September, 1951. This organisation, entitled the Maori Women's Welfare League, held its first annual conference in the Maori Community Centre at Auckland.
The League took for its motto ‘Tatau Tatau’, which, translated, reads, ‘let us be united’. It is a motto peculiarly suited to the main aims of the League: to promote fellowship and understanding between Maori and Maori and Maori and European; to take an active interest in all matters concerning the health and general well-being of Maori women and children; to preserve, revive, and maintain the teaching of Maori arts and crafts and to perpetuate the Maori culture. In 1951 the League had a total membership of 2503. This has steadily increased, till in April of this year it stood at 3758, an increase of 1255 in two and a half years. This encouraging response indicates how great was the need for such an organisation. (It should be noted here that the League is by no means exclusively Maori.) The League is organised on three levels; first, the League
Branch, which consists of a minimum of five members, and which sends two delegates to its District Council; then the Distrct Council, which sends two representatives to the Dominion Council, which elects an executive committee.
The League Branch stands at the high-water mark of the League field work. It is the ground where experiments are carried out, where the conclusions of the Dominion Council are tested, and where the insight of the executive committee into Maori welfare problems is applied. In its activities, the Branch works on the first level of social welfare, that it, it aims to serve members of specific areas. Because of this, each Branch chooses work best suited to the circumstances and environment of its members. For example, the Branch of the Wellington city area, known as the Poneke Maori Women's League, appoints two members as official visitors to Arohata Borstal and the Alexandra Maternity Home. The Branch members offer to billet any parents visiting Maori girls in these two institutions, supply Christmas presents and Christmas cakes, materials for knitting and sewing, and send any girl celebrating her birthday a birthday cake. They also attempt a ‘follow-up’ of each girl through correspondence, though this is more difficult. This valuable and commendable work falls naturally to the lot of a city branch of the League. There is, however, a general overall pattern of activities for all League Branches. At their fortnightly meetings all branches learn and practise Maori arts and crafts, and some European ones as well. This part of the League's work is, naturally, of particular interest to Maori members, but has also drawn European women interested in Maori material culture into the League. Besides this, all branches conduct monthy meetings where homecraft competitions are held regularly to encourage interest in gardening, sewing, knitting, cooking, and home decoration. What members learn from each other in this way is
supplemented by talks from outside speakers on topics such as health, housing, and education. Every branch submits an annual report to the district council, which allots a trophy to that branch which has most thoroughly carried out its aims. The present holder is the Waikato North District Council.
The work of the Dominion Council and its executive committee is of a different kind, and in some ways more important, in that it has nation-wide implications. It consists mainly in collecting as much material as possible on Maori problems generally, deciding what the League can do, and placing the information before the annual conference. Conference may be described as an opportunity for delegates to meet departmental officals and put their problems before them. The full importance of the conference can be appreciated by looking at the topics discussed—education, child welfare, health, employment, and housing; and the resolutions and remits arising from these discussions.
At the last annual conference held in Auckland, last April, several important resolutions on new problems were passed, and certain unsuccessful remits of previous conferences were reconsidered. For instance, most of the government's answers to the remits on housing, forwarded from the 1953 conference, were not accepted by the executive committee; and the same remits were sent back to the housing division of the Maori Affairs Department. It is to be hoped that the League's concern with the Maori housing scheme will eventually achieve as much as the League's recent survey of the allocation of State houses to Maoris in Auckland city. In that case the allocation has since been substantially increased. Another remit returned to the Government in amended form dealt with the teaching of the Maori lan guage to students in Training Colleges. Orig inally, this remit asked that the language should be included in the curriculum, but the amend ment now suggests, and more reasonably, that methods of teaching the language should be taught in the College.
Perhaps the most interesting resolution of the conferenc was one which concerned the League's own organisation, and called for a revised constitution. A remit was sent to the executive committee asking that all member of the Dominion Council be resident in their own districts. This remit seemed reasonable enough, but its rejection by the executive emphasised, and I think rightly, the League's paramount need at this stage is for a vigorous central body which must meet regularly and frequently; at a minute's notice if necessary With members spread over the length and breadth of the country, this would obviously be impossible.
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From this glance at the organisation of the M.W.W.L., we can see just how closely the League follows the pattern of European Women's societies, which stand alongside the League with similar aims, doing similar work. Because of this, members and intending members of the League (and I do hope this article will encourage any women readers who have not joined the League to do so immediately), may be interested to read a little about European women's organisations in this country.
As far back as 1875 New Zealand has had voluntary organisations with aims similar to those of the M.W.W.L. Some of those arose as attempts to deal with particular problems of women and children at particular times. When the undesirable circumstances disappeared or were improved those organisations ceased to exist. Their primary function was to meet an emergency. But there were other organisations formed to deal with conditions and problems common to all women at all times, and those organisations were of a more permanent nature, many of them still functioning today. To mention a few of the best known, there are the Y.W.C.A. founded in New Zealand as far back as 1878, the W.C.T.U. founded in 1884, and the Plunket Society, perhaps the largest and most active voluntary organisation in New Zealand, founded in 1907. The Plunket Society has become such an important factor in the lives of most young New Zealand mothers that one is apt to forget that it is one of these voluntary organisations. Although Moari as well as European women benefit from the services of these organisations, none of them could be said to be similar in activity to the M.W.W.L., except in the widest possible sense.
In Auckland, in 1893, the Society for the Protection of Women and Children was founded, and soon established branches in the four main centres. The aims of this society, which are comparable to those of the M.W.W.L., are to give advice and guidance on marital problems, to protect the interests of women and children, and to give limited finacial relief in marital discord. And like all organisations, including the M.W.W.L., that work in the field of social welfare, the Protective Societies operate on two levels: they serve their own localised areas through the local branches, and they endeavour to influence the development of social services as a whole. It is on this second level that the activities of the Protective Societies and the M.W.W.L., most closely approach each other.
Two other organisations very similar in their activities to the M.W.W.L., are the Women's Institute, founded in Wellington in 1895, and
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the Women's Division of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand, founded in 1925. Both have as a general aim the improvement of the position of women and children on farms, an aim shared by all rural branches of the M.W.W.L., It is only to be expected that these sister organisations have similar problems which they try to solve in similar ways. But there is a certain difference. Just what this difference is, how it gives the M.W.W.L. its unique character, and how it wholly determines the nature and scope of the League's work, we shall discuss at length in the latter part of this article.
There is one other most important detail which should be mentioned in any comparison of the M.W.W.L, and European organisations; that is the fact that the League, like European organisations, does not stand alone, but has affiliations. In the first place it is affiliated to the National Council of Women, described as ‘a national co-ordinating organisation’, which represents 121 organised women's societies and is affiliated with 375 other organisations whose aims are to promote sympathy of thought and purpose among the women of New Zealand, to co-ordinate, both nationally and locally, organisations in harmony with their purposes, and to act as a link with women in other countries. In the second place, the
League is affiliated to the New Zealand National Branch of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association, which aims among other things to arouse and foster interest in Pacific problems among New Zealand women, and to initiate organised study.
Through these two affiliations the League has gained the encouraging moral support and valuable backing of two large and well-known organisations to any innovations it may wish to bring about in Maori Welfare work, or to any general recommendations it decides to place before the government.
It is abvious that the importance of these affiliations cannot be overestimated: but the affiliation should not be a one-sided affair. Both parties should benefit. The M.W.W.L. can offer to the Pan-Pacific Women's Association first hand information regarding the problems and progress of Maori welfare work, and may even submit case-studies of individuals or groups who have struggled with and finally solved some difficult problem in their living. (I believe this has been done already.) The case studies may prove to be relevant to conditions in other parts of the Pacific, and could serve as examples of obstacles overcome. But perhaps the best indication of the League's willingness to pull its weight in this affilation is the decision of the last annual conference to nominate a delegate to the conference of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association, to be held in Manila in January of next year. Each delegate of course, is financed by her own organisation.
After this brief comparison of the M.W.W.L. with similar bodies we can deal with the question, what is the main difference between the M.W.W.L. and European women's organisations?
The answer seems obvious: the M.W.W.L. is an organisation run by Maoris for the benefit of Maoris. But this is too simple, and when loked at more closely does not really account for the difference at all. The real answer can only be found by facing up to the position of the Maori in our society.
In spite of what may be thought privately or said publicly, the Maori is in a different position from the Pakeha, no matter on what level of living you consider him—socially, economically, or educationally. And I think that statements like this should be made without any attempts to ‘cover up’ in case some one should suspect that a ‘colour bar’, or ‘racial discrimination’, or ‘anti-Pakeha feeling’ is implied. Any attention paid to those terms is in direct opposition to the best welfare work. The real difference between the European organisations and the M.W.W.L. lies in the position of the Maori in our society, a position giving rise to peculiar problems requiring extraordinary methods of solution. This seems to be the critical part of the League's work. Anything that can be done to make the Maoris' half-way position between two cultures a better one (not necessarily an easier one), whether it entails accentuating the difference between Maori and Pakeha in some cases, or minimising it in others, will give direction to all the ambitions and activities of the M.W.W.L.
When I was preparing this article, some one asked me why are the Maori WOMEN in the vanguard of welfare work? Does this imply that the status of women in the Maori community at large has changed, giving them more say in all matters Maori? Frankly, I do not know. But I would suggest that nearly all the disadvantages of the Maoris' position are felt most acutely in the home, so that it is the women, not the men, who have to cope with them daily, understand them more fully, and are most strongly moved to do something about them. If the explanation is more complex than this, if the Maori women today really have more vigour and initiative than the men, well, good luck to them!