by Brooke Stevenson*

 

Auckland’s female political history has been more vibrant and diverse than one might assume. After trail blazers such as Elizabeth Yates and Ellen Melville, we see the emergence of women who become experts in mastering the art of networking and public speaking, bringing their own feminine approach and experiences into local and national level politics. Unique in this way, these women are able to operate and contribute to society on both  issues largely affecting women and children as well as issues that concerned  society at large.

Two such women who exemplified this female contribution to politics in the 1930s and 40s were Mere Newton and Mary Dreaver. These two women navigated different political careers, shaped by their  different lives and backgrounds. The social and cultural differences of these two women diversified the causes they pursued and promoted during their careers as well as their approaches to achieving political gains.

 

The Art of Relationship Building

Mere Newton is a previously unknown – in Auckland’s political history – local council woman in the Onehunga Borough. She was born in 1888 and was of Te Atiawa tribe descent of Taranaki. Her Māori cultural identity very much shaping her political drive.[1] Evident through her prowess as a political facilitator and through dedicated local social work, Newton held a strong connection within the Māngere and Onehunga community and often hosted events in her garden that overlooked the Manukau harbor.[2] Harnessing the power of  social occasions, Newton was head of the social committee at the Epsom – Oak branch of the Labour government. It was through this position she hosted many gatherings which raised awareness of a diverse range of social causes usually relating to the female sphere. Topics ranging from abortion to motherhood, female healthcare and women’s involvement in politics were spoken about in these meetings.[3] In her capacity working for the Labour Party she also organised many Pōwhiris and gifts to visiting politicians. A couple of examples of this are Newton organising a traditional Māori welcome for the visiting Prime Minister to Orakei with a Hāngī. She also organised a Māori farewell for MP W J Jordan when he left for London to take up a new role as Māori commissioner.[4]

 

T. H. Ashe, Onehunga Borough Council portrait, with Mrs Mere Newton in the second row, 1941-1944. Auckland Council Archives, OHB 009/23. The only available picture of Mrs Mere Newton in the Auckland Council Archives.

 

In addition to working in politics, she was a well known social welfare worker and was a first grade interpreter of Te Reo Māori.[5] She also founded the Tāmaki branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.[6] Through her presidency she used her position as a way to connect and uplift the Māori community through vigorous social work, including during the early 1930s Māngere housing crisis.[7] Newton was the second Māori woman to be honoured with a Justice of the Peace position in 1937.[8] Following this appointment she was voted in to Onehunga local Borough Council in 1938 and had a successful two terms in office. Newton opted not to stand in 1944 for a third term, instead retiring.[9] In her capacity as a councilor, she often advocated for a Māori voice in different community issues, such as housing, Māori employment and even inciting a move to change the name of ‘One Tree Hill’ to Maungakeiekie for the centennial celebration.[10]

She married Charles Parentinga Newton, who was a licensed interpreter who worked for the Native Land Court. She had two children as reported in the Auckland Star, a son who isn’t named and a daughter Delia, who was a tennis champion.[11] Newton was the first female Māori councilor elected for the Onehunga borough. Newton sold up much of her extensive land in 1945 and 46.[12] She passed away at the age of 66 in 1955. She is buried in Waikopua cemetery.

 

The Power of the Public Speaker

 Another successful Auckland woman in politics at the same time was Mary Dreaver. Dreaver had a very different experience in politics, shaped by her own background and career path. She is a well known and celebrated figure in New Zealand political history, born in Dunedin in 1887  where her father was a cabinet maker.[13] Religion enabled her to have a strong moral foundation, with her mother an Irish Catholic and her father a Scottish Presbyterian. In addition to this, her father was a committed trade unionist and Dreaver as a result fostered a strong sense of social conscience.[14] She married in 1911 and moved to Auckland where she had 6 children.[15]

 

Mary Manson Dreaver. Ref: 1/4-020149-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22780014

 

Dreaver was an active member of the community, participating in many different organisations. She wrote for the women’s weekly an astrology column and hosted a radio show.[16] She usually held a position of authority, testament to her outgoing personality.

Dreaver was also very successful politically as she pursued her goal for advancing women and children and healthcare.[17] She joined the Women’s International and Political League in 1922 and the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1923. Through these roles she was often put forward and elected as a Labour candidate, through which she sat on the Auckland Hospital Board and the Auckland City Council.[18] In this time of her life she advocated for Women Police Officers and greater female participation on hospital boards.

 

Mary Dreaver St in the Auckland Suburb of New Windsor, copyright Brooke Stevenson.

 

Dreaver won through a by-election the Waitemata Seat and entered parliament in 1941. She was in the house for two years, where she spoke up on a number of issues regarding women but also mental health. After her term in the house, Dreaver became the government liaison for the Land Girls, which was a government push to recruit more women on farms to replace the male shortage during the war.[19] She was awarded an MBE for this in 1946. In addition to this, her greatest achievement was introducing a Bill into parliament to allow women to become jurors. It passed and was made into law with little resistance from the house in 1943.[20] Dreaver was the third woman in NZ to be elected into parliament. She died in 1961 at the age of 73.

 

Elaine Kingsford, New Zealand’s first female juror, Archives NZ, ARNZ 18828, Weekly Review, 115.

 

Diverse Backgrounds leading to Positive Change

These women held very different political careers, however still made a significant impact on different parts of New Zealand life. Newton worked closely within her community, she built relationships and hosted numerous gathering and social occasions to bring people together, providing a platform for political discussion, a space for bi-cultural relations and social enjoyment. Dreaver operated in parliament and on many boards and committees where she became a strong voice advocating for greater social conditions. She was well respected for her “formidable grasp of procedure” in male dominated spheres of political influence.[21]

Newton and Dreaver were both advocates for women within their political spheres. They used their positions to advance the female issues and concerns. Newton founded the Tāmaki branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare league, promoted female issue causes in her capacity as secretary of the social committee of the Epsom – Oak branch of the Labour party and was a trail blazer for independent women. She owned property in her own name, and held positions of authority in the community. On the other hand, Dreaver’s speeches in parliament are often influenced by her female experience as she advocated and promoted for female struggles during wartime, and better healthcare for females and was a trail blazer in her own right by being the third female to enter parliament.

Beyond these important issues that Newton and Dreaver were involved in, they also played an important political role outside of the female sphere. Newton put much effort into uplifting the local Māori community organising fundraisers and advocating on their behalf to the council. Dreaver in contrast put great efforts into advocating for better mental and physical for citizens and soldiers during the wartime period.

Both of these women, whilst operating in the same time period and within the political sphere, made very different impacts on their communities and of the political narrative of New Zealand.

 

This is the first article in a three part series. To read article two

* Brooke was one of four students awarded a 2020 Summer Scholarship at the University of Auckland out of a highly competitive field. Her award was funded by a Jonathon and Mary Mason Scholarship in Auckland history. Brooke’s research project explored women in Auckland politics. She focused her efforts on two women, studying the motivations, methods and achievements of Mary Dreaver and Mere Newton.

 

[1] ‘Maori Woman J.P’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVIII, Issue 181, 2 August 1937.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘The Problem of Childhood’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVIII, Issue 152, 29 June 1937.

[4] ‘Maori Farewell’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVII, Issue 170, 20 July 1936.

[5] ‘Maori Woman J.P’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVIII, Issue 181, 2 August 1937.

[6]

ansardpast OCATE, 14 acts on thnd was a trail blazer in her own right by being the third female to enter parliament. acts on th Ibid.

[7] ‘Welfare of Maoris’, Northern Advocate, 14 August 1931.

[8] ‘Maori Woman J.P’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVIII, Issue 181, 2 August 1937.

[9] Onehunga Borough Council Minute Book, 22nd May 1944, OHB 100 Council Minutes 1868 – 1989, Item 22, Auckland Council Archives

[10] Onehunga Borough Council Minute Book, 30th September 1940, OHB 100 Council Minutes 1868 – 1989, Item 21, Auckland Council Archives.

[11] ‘Maori Woman J.P’ Auckland Star, Volume LXVIII, Issue 181, 2 August 1937.

[12] ABWN A1825 26719 Box 603, Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga, Mangere,

[13] Hugh Laracy. ‘Dreaver, Mary Manson’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4d18/dreaver-mary-manson (accessed 2 December 2019)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘Liason Officer’ Evening Post, Volume CXXXVI, Issue 114, 10 November 1943

[20] Hugh Laracy. ‘Dreaver, Mary Manson’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4d18/dreaver-mary-manson (accessed 2 December 2019)

[21] Ibid.