Phenomenal Woman: Whina Cooper

Hōhepine Te Wake, more commonly known as Dame Whina Cooper, was a Māori activist who championed women’s and Māori rights in New Zealand.

She briefly worked as a teacher before leaving the role in 1914, out of frustration at being unable to give her community the attention it deserved.

Her first foray into politics came about because of a land dispute, where settler Bob Holland wanted to drain the local estuaries to support his farming. The same estuaries were used by the iwi (Māori for people) for gathering seafood and racing horses.

Of course, Bob was taken to court to stop the continued abuse of Māori land and misuse resources, but while court proceedings dragged out, Whina organized protestors to fill Holland’s drains to prevent the estuaries from being misused. The protesters were charged with trespassing, but this brave act of civil disobedience provided enough time for a ruling to be made in favour of the Iwi.

Her activism caught the attention of established politicians who worked alongside her to fight for Māori land rights.

In 1949 she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where her activism took the national stage.

She was elected the first president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, lead coalitions of protestors and activists to fight against further loss of Māori land.

In 1975, at the age of 80, Whina Cooper led a march from Te Hepua to the capital city of Wellington. Travelling over 1059 kilometres (658 miles), to proclaim “not one more acre of Maori land”, and demand acknowledgement of the Treaty of Waitangi.

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