In his latest Political Roundup Bryce Edwards has a detailed look at gender issues and feminism in politics.
Feminism is on the rise. This year has seen a greater focus on gender issues than perhaps ever before. In this extended column Bryce Edwards looks back on one of the most important trends in New Zealand politics in 2015.
A variety of different gender issues have been part of the political conversation in New Zealand this year. Some have been focused at the elite level – such as how to get more women into the ranks of the political or financial establishment. Other debates have been about attitudes, ideas and behaviours – especially “casual sexism” – but also about domestic violence. And another focus has been on the women at the bottom of the heap – those struggling on low pay.
The variety of gender politics stories show how feminist politics has now moved from the margins into the mainstream. Now it seems almost everyone wants to call themselves a feminist – from Judith Collins through to Police Commissioner Mike Bush.
He then looks at a number of issues.
Who is a feminist?
Are you a feminist? It’s becoming increasing popular to identify as feminist, even if you’re a man, and especially if you’re a politician. This year has seen a surge of concern about gender inequality, discrimination and the degraded position of women in many aspects of New Zealand life.
A number of high profile advocates for women’s rights have spoken out recently. And many of these are men: a campaign was launched on Friday to get men on board the feminist struggle – see Simon Collins’ Men sign up to feminist cause.
Collins’ column referes to a HeforShe campaign
A journalist, comedian and the national police chief are among 21 Kiwi men who are championing a campaign to end inequality between men and women by 2030.
Journalist Jack Tame says men should be proud to call themselves feminists when they sign up to the “HeforShe” campaign launched at the United Nations last year by actress Emma Watson and kicking off in New Zealand in Wellington today.
I don’t know if I’d sign up for something like that. I’m more for equal and opportunties rights for everyone – more MeforUs.
I grew up strongly influenced by my mother, who was someone who just bloody well did what she wanted to do without considering she was disadvantaged as a woman. In many respects she acted like a staunch feminist but without labelling herself or using a label as a tool.
She was just very independent and determined to achieve what she wanted to achieve. She just was rather than claiming to be.
Back to Edwards.
National’s progress with women
Feminism used to be associated with the political left, but today’s feminist agendas are often pushed from the political right, including within the National Party. Probably the most prominent MP speaking out this year on gender issues has been National’s Judith Collins. In May she talked about her feminism and what it means to her, stating “I’ve been a feminist a lot longer than most people. I’ve been a feminist all my life” – see the NBR’s Lifelong feminist Judith Collins wants cabinet job back.
That could as well be Women’s progress with National. Political parties should allow equal gender opportunity but quality women have to step and promote themselves and compete and prove their worth – just like men should.
National’s problem with women
John Key’s “rapist” allegations in the debate about the Australian detention centres has clearly made the Prime Minister vulnerable to counter-allegations that he’s insensitive to rape victims and gender issues. His refusal to apologise for any offence caused has been criticised by the Herald – see it’s editorial, Why John Key should say sorry.
columnist Paul Little paints Key as an old-fashioned male chauvinist for how he has handled his opponents: “he is about old-fashioned values, like putting women in their place, teaching them to be seen and not heard, and never backing down or apologising, especially when you’re in the wrong” – see: John Key put those women in their place.
There could be an element of truth in that but Key has put a number of women in places of significant importance and power, not just in his Cabinet.
Sexism in parliamentary politics
Debate continues about whether the National Government will be harmed by John Key’s controversial “rapist” comments, with Patrick Gower reporting last week National still ahead in polls despite ‘rapist’ remarks.
TVNZ’s Q+A put together a 12-minute panel discussion on Sexism and politics, featuring Judith Collins, Annette King, Julie Anne Genter and Claire Robinson. And RNZ’s Amelia Langford asked: How sexist is New Zealand politics?. For more on the topic you can also listen to her 18-minute Focus on Politics for 30 October 2015.
Regarding apparent sexist comments and behaviour by political leaders and their popularity it should be noted that some women, and possibly many, are bothered by what some see as sexist behaviour. There will be some women who by choice look up to men as leaders.
Women at the top
It’s a sign of how mainstream feminism has become, that today much of the gender politics agenda is about the women at the top – the broadcasters, CEOs, politicians and others in positions of power. There is currently a particular focus on women in business – see, for example, Fran O’Sullivan’s article from Saturday:Women’s arrival at top taking too long. In this, O’Sullivan celebrates “that women are finally taking their place at the top tables of New Zealand business”, but laments that the changes are happening too slowly.
Significant societal changes will almost always happen slowly. Some people will be impatient with that but it’s a natural reality – most people resist drastic change – and lurches can create as many problems as they solve.
Equal rights and opportunities will always be a work in progress.
And society will never be perfectly balanced in everyone’s eyes.
Casual (and serious) sexism
Much of the renewed feminist focus in politics is about highlighting some of the behaviours, stereotypes and beliefs that are said to be rampant in a sexist New Zealand. The problem of so-called “casual sexism” was outlined well by Alison Mau back in March with her column, The curse of #casual sexism. This referred not just to the everyday gender discrimination experienced by many women, but also to TVNZ’s Facebook post of “Vote For Our Sexiest Female Presenter”. Similarly, see Aimie Cronin’s I’m not sexist but….and Shelley Bridgeman’s Sexism is alive and well.
Some women (and men) may abhor “Our Sexiest Female” anything, but what if some women don’t mind it or even like it? Should things be PC’d out of existence because some oppose?
Domestic and gender violence
Possibly the single most controversial item published on the topic of gender and domestic violence this year was Rachel Stewart’s New Zealand has reached the pinnacle of world number one in domestic violence. In this she laid the blame and the solution for domestic violence “firmly at the feet of men” and called for some tough physical responses to the offending men.
Violence is a huge and insidious problem in New Zealand. Certainly some men are the main and worse culprits with violence of all types, but this is a far more complex issue than some acknowledge.
Some women are violent, especially versus children but also in relationships albeit on a smaller scale than male violence. They are real problems that shouldn’t be ignored.
And when psychological ‘violence’ is taken into account the responsibility will be more evenly spread. There’s no excuse for violent reactions but frustration and provocation are significant factors.
Individual responsibility is important – but so are joint responsibilities in relationships.
Women at the bottom
Although much of the attention of gender politics is focused on helping women “at the top” of society, or dealing with sexist stereotypes and behaviour, some is focused more on economic structures and how they impact on women at the bottom.
For Deborah Hill Cone, much of the focus on “casual sexism” is banal when more serious gender discrimination is going on, and so she responded to Alison Mau’s column on “The curse of casual sexism” by saying: “What I do care about is the reality of the economic power of women, especially older women and minority women. This matters more to me than the objectification of television presenters. Like most things in life, it all comes down to money” – see: Let’s turn focus to women’s pay.
It’s low pay that is probably the biggest problem for women at the bottom of the socio-economic heap
Income inequality is a real problem but also with no easy or quick solutions.
Gender inequality and sexism in general remain issues deserving of more attention and action.
But I think we have to be careful and avoid making this a them versus us issue.
We, men and women, need to do more to strive for more equal rights and opportunity.
But we also have to recognise there is no perfect equality, and equality means more to some peoeple than others, and equality looks different to different people and grouops of people.
I’ve only posted small excerpts from Edwards’ column. All the detail is here: Political roundup: The Rise of gender politics and feminism