Women continue to be under-served by policymakers and harmful narratives about women remain acceptable discourse, so do we need a political party focused on women’s issues?

Last week I had the privilege to be in conversation with one of the world’s greatest economists Marilyn Waring. It was for the launch of her brilliant new book on her time as the only woman MP in the National led-government from 1978 to 1984, until she was joined by Ruth Richardson.

While Waring’s time as an MP is invariable linked to Robert Muldoon and the 1984 snap election (spoiler: the real story will surprise you),  it’s not a story about Muldoon. It’s a story about integrity, about the radical act of listening to and believing women and about the difference this can make to the lives of women.

‘The Parliament Years’  is a powerful story of a woman deeply committed to her principles and values, and improving the lives of New Zealand’s women.

From National voting women working on their family farms, to Labour voting women working in factories. And all the women in New Zealand who had their choice about continuing a pregnancy made for them by a group of men sitting in Wellington, more concerned with personal ambition, than the lives they were forcing women to live.

Marilyn’s approach was not about party politics, it was about finding support overcome policies, practices and attitudes that excluded women.

I asked Marilyn Waring what helped her stay so true to her principles in the face of suffocating and overwhelming opposition from so many people in her workplace. She said it was quite simple – women wrote to her and told her about their lives, and she said “I believed them”.

‘These people are leveraging the suppression of women’s voices and lives for political and media currency’.

While we discussed much that has changed since 1984, the system we have today is still not one that enables people across policy-making to prioritise the lives of women.

All manner of policy issues from employment, healthcare, family law, urban planning and design through to economic policies affect women differently to men, but few policymakers see it.

We have a feminist Prime Minister, many women and men MPs who back women’s rights, yet unpaid labour- a fundamental issue affecting the economic and social wellbeing of women and the entire country’s progress – hardly rates a mention in mainstream political discourse, forty years after Marilyn started arguing for its recognition.

Women’s lives: used for political leverage

Women’s progress and freedom is vital to the wellbeing of the entire country, but the public and political discourse makes it difficult to see it as such, especially when issues so fundamental to women’s wellbeing are frequently used for political leverage.

Last week Alfred Ngaro was very keen to tell us all about women and their experiences with regard to abortion. His woefully ill-informed views showed he has never actually listened to women talking about their experiences of abortion in New Zealand (or perhaps anything?).

While those engaged in political analysis may dismiss the likelihood of parties led by people like Ngaro or the Tamakis (of Destiny Church) making it to Parliament, this misses a serious point.

These people are leveraging the suppression of women’s voices and lives for political and media currency. In using anti-choice and “conservative” family values language, (the ‘danger’ of the sole woman parent on a benefit is still deeply embedded in political rhetoric) the tentacles of a harmful narrative about women remain acceptable discourse.

These narratives can erode understanding of what enables women’s free and full participation in society and support for policies that address the barriers. Continued progress relies on the majority of the public to understand the need for and actively support the progress of women in all our spaces in society. Words matter for that understanding.

Women know, we don’t kid ourselves, that our right to fully participate economically, socially, politically in society is suppressed easily enough, by a violent or controlling partner, a police officer declining to investigate a sexual assault, a senior partner in a law firm with ‘expectations’, a doctor who won’t sign a certificate for an abortion, a rush of hateful speech and threats across the internet, or just an inattentive policymaker. We know that more is needed and we can act.

What is needed to ensure that women’s voices are not “below the level of institutional hearing”?

Policymakers need to restructure the club, not just invite some women to be members. There needs to be a high level commitment to restructuring policy-making with women’s lives in mind.

The tax working group produced one under-cooked paper on tax and gender, which focused solely on childcare (women are more than their childcare responsibilities!).

Where is the support and championing from people within the public services for the critical intellectual analysis on gender? We should expect deeper analysis on the impact of our current tax system on all women, Māori women, Pacific women, women with disabilities, sole parents, when looking at how “fair” the tax system is?

‘…perhaps it is also time to consider a party representing half of the population?’

The public service can and should do better.

Our existing political parties could also do better. While there are plenty of people advocating strongly for women in our main political parties, these voices can be crowded out. The day-to-day realities of fighting for your issue in a political party, as well as long established hierarchies and power structures, can all act to suppress those issues that are still viewed by many people, including those in politics, as niche. Supporting this work means changes to structures in those institutions also.

A party for women’s issues?

As people like Brian and Hannah Tamaki set up political platforms representing what is probably a very small group of the population, perhaps it is also time to consider a party representing half of the population?

A party for women’s issues would give more space in public discourse for the varied and rich voices of women, their lives, experiences, and the changes that policy makers can make to ensure we all progress. New Zealand will not thrive if we continue to accept economic rules that utterly ignores our largest productive sector (unpaid work) or justifies the pay penalties Māori and Pacific women or those with disabilities have to endure.

And finally I want to reflect on another factor Marilyn Waring told me contributed to her principled stand for women. While she may have been the only woman in National for a long time, she was not alone she told me. She worked with a few dedicated men who listened to what women said, and with her, worked to put women’s needs before their own political advancement. Thought provoking indeed.

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