Simply put, feminism is a belief that gender should not limit anyone’s chances at life. Now that doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing does it? Yet there are few words promulgating equality – a positive concept – that are seen as negative and prickly as the word “feminism”.
Describing someone as a “card- carrying feminist” implies they must also be carrying a man-shaped chip on their shoulder. Don’t forget to imagine the hairy legs, aversion to makeup and tendency to spell words like women and history, “womyn” and “herstory”.
In case you weren’t aware, we’re past that. So here’s a catchup.
Using more academic descriptions, feminism has gone through “waves”.
First-wave feminism, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, centred around the right to vote, second-wave could be characterised as a resurfacing of activism around a broader range of issues such as sexuality, family, the workplace from the 1960s. Third-wave feminism arrived in the 1990s and aimed to include queer and non-white women. And, arguably, a fourth, more inclusive wave, could be on the rise.
In any case, there are plenty of voices saying that no matter how far gender equality has come, there is still a long way to go. Feminism is loud, it wears Pussy Riot masks and screams with breasts exposed in protest. It goes on Slut Walks and it Reclaims the Night. It yells through megaphones but it often speaks in a clear and reasoned voice.
Feminist commentator and taxation lecturer Deborah Russell says she learnt at her “mother’s knee”.
“My parents have been married more than 50 years and in the context of a stable and secure marriage she was always determined that I have a career of my own.
“At it’s most basic level, feminism is believing in the fundamental equality of women and men. But then you have to work out how that gets achieved.”
It is well and good to have legal arrangements around discrimination, she says. But then something like Air New Zealand’s in-flight video, Safety in Paradise, pops up. The ad featured supermodels in bikinis explaining the buckle-up system.
“One of the things that 20th-century feminism talks about is informed consent and a positive attitude toward sex and sexuality,” she says.
“So if everyone involved is a consenting adult and agrees to be there, who are we to say they shouldn’t enjoy? But here’s the thing, when you are stuck inside the metal tube of an airplane and you can’t go anywhere, you cannot consent. It wasn’t illegal; it was objectification of women.”
“We still ask what she was wearing. The police still say ‘don’t go into these areas’, not ‘we are going to catch these people’.”
And then there was the Roastbusters shame, in which a group of young men claimed to be intoxicating young women to rape them. Russell says its one positive feature was that it brought out conversation online and in mainstream media explaining rape culture and how it can be combated.
Early sexualisation of girls is a problem too.
“For God’s sake, padded bras for 6-year-olds? It’s enough to make you sick,” says Russell. “And the pinkification of girls? You go into a shop and it looks like flamingo vomit.
“High heels and wearing lippy is fun. Of course you can do that and still be a feminist but when young girls see that as being the marker of being a woman rather than an independent, capable person then we need to talk.
“If you are going to say something nasty about a woman you go for ‘ugly’ because she is not performing her critical function in society as a decoration.
“And leaders like Hilary Clinton, Helen Clark, Julia Gillard – we always comment on what they wear, which is hardly the most important thing.”
There are ways women can stand up, Russell says. To help themselves and each other.
“We can do shoulder-tapping. There is research that shows that if men see they can do 50 per cent of a job, they will apply. But women see the same job and think that if there is 20 per cent of the job they don’t know how to do, they won’t.”
As the Rangitikei Labour candidate, Russell apologises for putting in “the political boot” about her party’s plan to have an equal representation of female candidates. “But there is nothing wrong with gender equity. If anyone says ‘man ban’ I think they are barking. It encouraged highly qualified women to come forward.”
New Zealand has a respectable history of women in high-profile roles. We’ve had female governor-generals (Dame Catherine Tizard and Dame Silvia Cartwright), prime ministers (Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark) and we have a female chief justice (Dame Sian Elias). Our younger ones aren’t too bad either – think Lorde and Eleanor Catton.
There is an online campaign going around in which older people are told to run or throw “like a girl”. Participants do so weakly, in a comic fashion but the young people run and throw with all their might.
There remains a part of the population that believes women do have equality, so perhaps today’s feminists ought to close their pouty mouths and simmer down, but a few recent examples prove otherwise.
Caroline Criado-Perez is a feminist activist campaigning to have women retained on Bank of England notes. Her calls for this were met with threats of rape and murder.
Labour leader David Cunliffe’s speech at a Women’s Refuge symposium opened like this: “I don’t often say it – I’m sorry for being a man because family and sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.”
He was right – 84 per cent of people arrested for domestic violence are men and 16 per cent are women. But we lost about 84 per cent of that sentence and concentrated on the “sorry for being a man” part.
Look at popular culture. Take a film you have watched recently and give it the Bechdel test. To pass, all a film needs is to have at least two women, who each have a name, and talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s harder than it sounds.
American writer Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way describes being at a party and having a man lecture her on “an important new book” without pausing to hear that she had actually written it. Colloquially, we might call it “mansplaining” but in Solnit’s words:
“It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.
“It trains us in self-doubt and self- limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
Earlier this year a 22-year-old man went on a murder spree in California. He left leaving a video on YouTube saying the killings were to punish women for rejecting him. Shortly after, a hashtag appeared on Twitter “#yesallwomen”, a response to the constant refrain “not all men”.
Again, Solnit explained it well: “There’s this incredibly annoying phrase, ‘not all men’, that comes up all the time.
“You say three women a day are murdered by male partners and so often some guy will say, ‘Not all men do it.’
“An angry feminist said to me, ‘What do they want? A cookie for not raping, beating and murdering?’
“And we know it’s not all men, but we need to talk about the fact that it is all women.
“Yeah, we know not all men are rapists and murderers, not abusers and misogynists, but all women are impacted by the men who are. And that’s where the focus needs to be.”
There are some women who do not want to be represented by feminism. A Facebook group popped up recently called Women Against Feminism. Members post photos of themselves holding paper explaining why they “don’t need feminism because . . .”.
Thoughts range from not wanting to have their “thoughts policed”, or they felt “strong enough to live without feminism and its toxic culture”.
“Modern feminism is actually a fascist social tool which demands men must listen to women’s views,” said one commenter.
Still a long way to go
Modern feminism had to have some shoulders to stand on. One pair of New Zealand shoulders is author and co- founder of Broadsheet, a 1970s feminist magazine, Anne Else. Now 69, she would be considered a “second-wave feminist”.
Else said it was virtually impossible to find out anything about women, rights and equality heading into the 1960s.
“Kate Sheppard wasn’t even on the $10 note. Feminism just did not exist. The idea of women getting an even pay was too far-fetched.”
Else was educated and well-read, she married at 19 and looked after her children at home but felt something was wrong. “It was called the problem that has no name. A growing proportion of women were going to university but then they were expected to just go home and look after children.
“I went out to work when my children were quite young and it was seen as shocking but it was an immense double standard because women were desperately needed in the workforce.”
Else sees many issues related to feminism, such as the treatment of animals and green issues.
“Caring about these things is part of being in the world of human beings. I have been very impressed by the wonderful visibility of younger feminists. I think feminism went through a concerted campaign to discredit it.”
An example of this, she believes, was the lacklustre national celebration of the suffrage centenary in 1993.
“People spent an extraordinary amount of time decrying the centenary and saying no money should be spent on it. On the actual day, on a national newspaper’s front page was a very deliberate and massive photo of a rugby player. There were small local events but on a national level it was ambivalent at best and hostile at worst.”
One of Else’s major points about equality today is the economic problems facing women.
“There are 285,000 children living in poverty and an appallingly high percentage of them have women who are struggling to look after them on their own.
“They are expected to get out there, do a job and look after the kids. The value of doing a good job as a parent has gone off the radar. There has never been a time when women on their own with kids has been well-treated. Ever. There has been a concerted campaign by successive governments to denigrate sole parents.
“Now think about Pike River, some of those women will have to go on the benefit so why do we starve them and treat people like that as the scum of the earth?
“But there is a lot to celebrate. The number of women doing jobs they want is great. I see guys on the bus with their babies in a backpack, talking to their kids, that is great to see. Women have proved they can do any work and men have proved they can take care of the kids and the home.”
Julie Fairey, co-founder of feminist blogging collective, the Hand Mirror, says despite years of making her voice heard, she understands it is not always easy to confront people on ingrained views and gendered language.
“It takes practice and guts so if you have a response prepared it makes things a bit easier. I don’t get it right every time.
“Pick your fights and use inclusive language yourself. You don’t have to rant, you are just challenging a person to think about what they are saying.”
“Care work is a skilled job. There is a high level of trust, long hours, a quasi-medical knowledge and they are working at a hard time in people’s lives. And it is a minimum wage.
“Compare that with a lawyer or someone doing tax. We trust them with our savings and they get three figures. We are all out of whack.”
Marama Davidson, feminist and Green candidate for Tamaki Makaurau fights for indigenous rights: “Feminism for me starts with a recognition that the status of Maori women is grounded in our whakapapa of powerful rangatira and atua wahine. The need for feminism is that our esteemed genesis was removed through colonisation and patriarchy – and I want to support our fight to get that back.”
Megan Whelan is a content producer with The Wireless news website who says feminism can be as simple as widening the net of news. “As a public service media we represent diversity and make all women visible – women of colour, queer women, women with disabilities. It’s not about those voices over and above everyone else’s, it’s about expanding who we hear from.
“The things that hurt women are also the things that hurt men, if you think about it. Suggesting women are the emotional ones means men who want to cry, can’t. Suggesting only women should be home with the kids, hurts the men who want to do that.”
The younger generation
A younger group of feminists are wanting to educate and be educated in feminism. And you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist.
Sionainn Byrnes, 23, is one of the founding members of the University of Canterbury’s FemSoc. She estimates a 60-40 ratio of female to male members.
“I think people can be suspicious of feminism. They go on what they see in the media and think anyone who is a feminist must be a bit mad, or very angry.
“Women are portrayed as irrational, overly-sexualised, not funny, and those messages are sent through popular culture.
“If women in politics argue, it’s a cat fight. You’re a dog, a bitch, a fox, a chick. Are you a breast or a leg man? You’ve got a nice rack – we’re not even called names that belong to humans. What does that say to young women?”
Byrnes says feminism is most effective when tied to social movements around progression and equality. So whereas civil rights and social justice was tied to second-wave feminism, she believes this surge of feminism could be globally tied to the Occupy movement.
Megan Bowra-Dean is a Wellington- based trans woman who works in the IT field. She agrees feminism has evolved to include all those who are “othered” and affected negatively by society.
“Anyone who thinks sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia are over is being wilfully blind and deaf.
“These issues are still huge problems with a real, quantifiable cost to health and wellbeing. The statistics are almost unbelievable: one in three women suffering domestic violence, 40 per cent of trans people attempting suicide . . .
“Perhaps what is truly unbelievable is the way people casually dismiss those statistics: ‘Oh it’s not me who’s doing it.’ They’re the people who stand around watching the bully pick on the kid without intervening.
“Unblock your ears and listen to marginalised people. Quite often they’re going to be angry and although it may seem like an overreaction, it’s probably the last straw in a long chain of events that has built up to them speaking out. If you feel targeted by said criticism then you’re probably part of the culture and are in the best place to challenge the problems of it.”
Editor of Fairfax’s Sunday magazine Rebecca Kamm calls herself a feminist and says “male privilege is still alive and well in New Zealand”.
“Call out your male friends, colleagues and family members when their privilege starts showing. Alert them to it. Show them how relevant feminist issues are to their own lives, if only because their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters are women.
“I think there’s a huge disconnect in this sense. Feminism is a ‘thing’, an ‘other’ – but actually, it’s not. It’s about the welfare and happiness of the women they know and love.” She repeats where gender equality has a long way to go – sexual and domestic violence against women, a lack of representation across governmental and corporate bodies, economic pay disparities – especially where non-white, non-wealthy women are concerned. And she finishes with a gentle reminder, not a hairy-legged stomp. “These are all things that would benefit men, too.”
– The Press