Auckland Museum’s new exhibition ‘Are We There Yet?’ examines gender equality 125 years since women in NZ got the vote. Sasha Borissenko spoke to Helen Clark and Raewyn Dalziel about the meaning of feminism in the year of #metoo.
What better person to kick off an exhibition that uses the historic anniversary as a springboard to examine the successes and failures of gender equality than New Zealand’s 37th Prime Minister, and former head of the UN Development Programme, Helen Clark.
“Women in New Zealand are known for breaking through glass ceilings,” she used as her opening line.
Addressing a room full of feminist trailblazers, Clark spoke of simpler times, when her taxi driver couldn’t fathom taking her to Parliament back in 1981, or the bank of women who tried their best to make Robert Muldoon’s life miserable.
And who could possibly forget those “ditch the bitch” stickers of yesteryear?
But while Clark – now, a public good advocate – said New Zealand may on paper be seen to be making great strides with a pregnant female Prime Minister, the reality is far from desirable.
Domestic violence ‘pernicious’
Speaking to Newsroom after the opening, Clark said it was ridiculous that New Zealand, with one in three women experiencing some form of domestic violence throughout their lifetime, had the worst rates in the OECD.
“It’s one of the most pernicious barriers women face. How can women reach their full potential if they’re terrified at home?”
It’s something she’s spent her entire career trying to tackle. One of the reasons for the anti-smacking bill of 2007, for example, was to reinforce the fact “we needed to see hitting children as a bad thing. It’s part of a cycle, if you hit your kids, you hit your wife, if you’re hit, this gets past down through generations”.
“We need to work more on removing the incredible pressures a lot of the families are under. It’s a complex problem that no society has solved to date.”
Clark points to the high-profile case of the Kahui twins, saying there is something violent in our culture: “They were parents and associates who had dropped through every safety net, as it were. It’s often the most marginalised and impoverished who lose any moral compass about how you treat each other as human beings.
“It is overwhelmingly a male problem and men have to take it seriously and address it. Women can’t do it. There’s a sort of deep seeded attitude towards women where they’re seen as chattels, people that can be owned, controlled, it’s just not right.”
“It’s not a glass ceiling it’s just a thick layer of men”
New Zealand’s gender pay gap – about 10 percent – may not be as bad as what it was 20 years ago, but it’s still very real, Clark said.
“Women still lose time out because they have a disproportionate share of the unpaid family work, whether that’s due to bringing up children or looking after relatives with needs. The time out affects career profession, so men’s lives have to change to see a real effect.”
Then there’s pay equity, the issue where female-dominated occupations are paid significantly less than their male counterparts.
“I endeavoured to tackle this in the 1990 pay equity legislation. It was repealed, then, and is alive now, and we need to find meaningful ways to deal with it.”
“[Council of World Women Leaders secretary general] Laura Liswood said society shouldn’t really talk about a glass ceiling, it’s just a thick layer of men, and that still rings true today”.
The most recent world economic forum gender gap survey was concerning, as it found a downward trend across key indications,” she said.
“They had a figure where it’s going to take something like 217 years to achieve gender parity in the workforce, and 99 years to achieve global gender parity in government.”
Hillary Clinton not winning the US presidency was a prime example. “I mean who’s to be so bold to say there was no gender element in that. Of course there was. Look at the way Trump predated on her in those debates.
“I mean she’d been trashed as a women since she was the First Lady of Arkansas. [She was] clearly the best qualified candidate and she couldn’t make it”.
The UN Secretary-General contest was also a wake-up call for a number of women.
“Not only me, there’s a bank of women who could never get into the top racket polling. ‘There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark’, as was said in [Shakespeare’s] Hamlet.”
Progress – a fixed trajectory?
Former University of Auckland deputy vice chancellor and history professor Raewyn Dalziel says while it was a magnificent achievement to get the vote in 1893, it’s not correct to assume progress is linear.
“In some ways it was about women in a new society, New Zealand had broken the mould in lots of ways. It had been progressive. It wanted to be progressive around that one too,” she said.
“Women for the first time became first-class citizens. But I don’t think people realise it was touch-and-go there for a while.
“But there are backward steps, absolutely. In the 1920s not a lot happened. In the 1950s not a lot happened. There are sort of decades where that whole push towards rights gets, for various reasons, stalled, be it due to the war, or pushing women out of the workforce.
“You can’t assume things will just get better, you have to make sure it happens.”
Women thrived in the seventies and early eighties, but took a step back in the late eighties and nineties thanks to neoliberalism, Dalziel said.
“I think MMP did make a difference, it was supposed to get more women in politics, to better reflect society. It got us over a hurdle in some ways, but I’m not sure whether that continued. There was a plateauing.”
Women’s organisations increasingly became disenfranchised with the introduction of contracting services, she said.
“The other thing was a lot of the women who had been around in the seventies and eighties actually out there fighting, were at a career point where individualism became more important in a way. They’d moved up in organisations or their workplace and they went somewhere else too.”
Despite the neoliberal age of Trump, Dalziel suspects society is about to undergo a shift in light of the #metoo movement.
“I think we’re going into a different stage of gender relations between men and women. I think it will be personally more equal.
“There’s a strong message being delivered, particularly to men, [that inequality at home] is not right, it’s not okay. They’re going to have to hear that now because their lives are going to be made bloody uncomfortable for them if they don’t hear it.”
What exactly are the waves of feminism, again?
For Auckland Museum head of exhibitions Victoria Travers, who identifies as a third-wave feminist, the future is optimistic.
“I have teenage kids, a boy and a girl who were shocked when I told them there was a time – only 125 years ago – when women couldn’t vote. I think there’s more of an expectation of equality among genders than I [had] growing up.”
The waves of feminism had developed quite substantially since 1893, for example.
Where the first wave sought to have similar desires and needs as men, the second wave demanded that women have agency. The third wave suggested women could do anything, but just needed the tools and an equal playing field, while the fourth – an era we’re currently in – is something quite unique, she said.
“For a third-waver, where I’ve spent my life rejecting body-conscious clothing, women are now reclaiming the colour pink. They’re talking about diversity, and intersectionality – fourth wavers are quite different altogether, and perhaps the advent of technology has something to do with it.”
Where to from here
Museum manuscripts curator, millennial, and fourth-wave feminist Nina Finigan told Newsroom the feminism of today addresses the criticism that former movements didn’t provide room for.
“It’s not just how you present your gender, it’s much, much more than that. People may have multi-layered experiences of oppression as a result of gender, sexuality, class, and, race, for example, and at different levels and to different degrees,” Finigan said.
“It’s not just about equal pay, race is a really big thing. There’s a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, women are sleeping in cars with their children, and sending their kids to school on empty stomachs.
“Opportunities may be limited because of gender, but also because of race, class, and age and they’re all intertwined.
“The exhibition offered an opportunity, not just to have these conversations, but to have a look at the organ that is the museum – who does the hiring, what voices are being heard.
“Often museums are very Eurocentric built on colonisation, who speak on behalf of cultures that are represented.
“We are making great progress though, we’re definitely ahead of the game. This exhibition is an opportunity for all people to see that they’re welcome here. It’s not just for tourists, or Pākehā people.”