Bill English ignited a bit of a furore about feminism when he responded to a question saying he didn’t quite know what the term means. Paula Bennett added to the excitement by failing to state that she was a fully committed 24/7 feminist.
RNZ: PM wouldn’t describe himself as a feminist
Prime Minister Bill English says he is not a feminist; in fact, he claims he does not know what that means.
Asked whether he was a feminist, Mr English said he would not describe himself as a feminist.
“I don’t know quite what that means.”
He made the comment after his deputy and Minister for Women Paula Bennett told RNZ this morning she was a feminist “most days”.
The previous Minister for Women, Louise Upston, said she was not a feminist, however the new minister, Mrs Bennett, said she was one, most days.
“You know there’s some days when I don’t even think about it and I’m getting on being busy, but I still get a bit worked up about some of the unfairness that I’ve seen, mainly for other women and not for myself these days.”
There was a rapid response to this ‘news’ on Twitter, with journalists and opposition MPs expressing outrage.
It was quickly pointed out to English and the world that…
…the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism as ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’
Most people would agree with that, but it’s not that simple. In fact that definition was cherry picked from Merriam-Webster, which also details:
Definition of Feminism
1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
Definition of feminism for English Language Learners and for Students
: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
: organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests
Medical Definition of feminism
: the presence of female characteristics in males
Oxford has a different definition:
The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
It’s possible to agree with and be an advocate for equal rights without focussing specifically or only on women’s rights.
The Urban Dictionary goes into more detail with as number of definitions – this is their ‘top definition’:
The belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual equals and social equals to men. These people can be either male or female human beings, although the ideology is commonly (and perhaps falsely) associated mainly with women.
The basic idea of Feminism revolves around the principle that just because human bodies are designed to perform certain procreative functions, biological elements need not dictate intellectual and social functions, capabilities, and rights.
Feminism also, by its nature, embraces the belief that all people are entitled to freedom and liberty within reason–including equal civil rights–and that discrimination should not be made based on gender, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicity, religion, culture, or lifestyle.
Feminists–and all persons interested in civil equality and intellectuality–are dedicated to fighting the ignorance that says people are controlled by and limited to their biology.
Feminism is the belief that all people are entitled to the same civil rights and liberties and can be intellectual equals regardless of gender. However, you should still hold the door for a feminist; this is known as respect or politeness and need have nothing whatever to do with gender discrimination.
I suspect a few staunch feminists would rankle at that comment about holding doors open. I hold doors open for women, sometimes, and also sometimes for men. It depends on the situation.
There was some initial anti-English reaction from Green MPs but the Green Party later circulated on social media:
“I don’t really mind if people call themselves a feminist or not a feminist…what really counts is what they do.” – Prime Minister Bill English.
We agree, that’s why we’re proud to stand up for women.
They then detailed ‘7 ways the Greens stand up for women every single day’ – but a blog post was more staunch:
Last week, our new PM Bill English announced his upcoming Cabinet, with Paula Bennett being appointed Minister for Women. Today, English said that he “doesn’t know what feminism means,” following on from Bennett’s earlier comments that she calls herself a feminist “some days”.
Not only do the Greens understand what feminism is, we work to stand up for the rights of women in Aotearoa and around the world. Every. Single. Day.
Greens on Twitter:
I responded to that:
Quickly proving my point – to some people being a feminist is more than equal rights.
There was an interesting post and comments on this at Dim-Post in Feminism! in which Danyl pointed out
I guess I know what twitter and all of the Green and Labour Party MPs have been talking about today. This poll conducted by a Feminist charity in the UK is a pretty typical example of the various surveys about public attitudes to feminism (I’m not aware of any similar work in NZ). Most people will say they believe in gender equality but very few people will self-describe themselves as feminist:
When split out by gender, women were more likely to identify as feminist, with nine per cent using the label compared to four per cent of men.
But men were more supportive generally of equality between the sexes – 86 per cent wanted it for the women in their lives – compared to 74 per cent of women.
Sam Smethers, the charity’s chief executive, said: “The overwhelming majority of the public share our feminist values but don’t identify with the label. However the simple truth is if you want a more equal society for women and men then you are in fact a feminist.
I suspect the results are similar for New Zealand, and that National knows this which is why we’re having this little sideshow.
A comment on the Merriam-Webster definition quoted:
But that’s a foreign definition. Let’s try the Women’s Studies Association of New Zealand: “We believe that a feminist perspective necessarily acknowledges oppression on the grounds of race, sexuality, class and disability, as well as gender. Māori are the tangata whenua of Aotearoa. We address racism and promote biculturalism in our work and activities as aims of our organisation.”
That’s a fairly wide description.
I did some very limited research in New Zealand (I asked a couple of women):
What is feminism? Equal rights for women.
Do you agree with it? Yes.
Do you see yourself as a feminist? Ah…no…um…
I’m with them. Except that I prefer to look beyond equal rights for women, to equal rights for everyone.
But even that can get complicated. Even in a relatively equal society equality is an ideal that has some limitations. Here’s a few.
- Criminal prisoners don’t have equal rights of freedom.
- Prisoners and non-residents don’t have the right to vote.
- Children don’t have equal rights of adults – they are restricted from getting drivers licenses, marriage licenses, they can’t legally drink alcohol or fight for their country.
- None of us have the right to trespass on the private property of others.
But we all have the right to choose whether we label ourselves as feminists or not.