International Women’s Day, 47 years on, how far have we come?

Written By: - Date published: 7:22 pm, March 8th, 2017 - 50 comments
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Text of a speech given today by feminist icon Sandra Coney

Greetings on this International Women’s Day, a day when we should celebrate the progress of women, but also think about the tasks that are still unfinished and need to be addressed.

I have very vivid memories of the early women’s liberation movement and am often brought up short when I realise how long ago it was. Broadsheet was started 45 years ago and even the Cartwright Inquiry was 30 years ago.

In 1970, I gave birth to my second son. A group of us was in the 5th year of getting a crèche – the 1st in New Zealand – up and running on the campus. We were famously told by a member of the University Council that we had to choose between motherhood and higher education – we couldn’t have both.

I got involved in women’s liberation not long after, on the invitation of the late Sharyn Cederman, a colleague of Sue Kedgeley’s, though I said to her I didn’t need it for myself as I had a kind husband, but could see that other women needed help.

When my marriage broke up, it is worth comparing what wasn’t there with now, as I find younger women completely oblivious of the gains that were made. There was no DPB, nor benefit of any sort, and many women with babies were forced to take unpaid housekeeping jobs that involved sleeping with the boss.

In 1970 there was no equal sharing of the marital chattels on marriage breakup. There was no Matrimonial Property Act, you received what your husband agreed to give you. If you went to court, your role in running a household and bringing up children counted pretty well for nothing.

If you came out of that with enough to put a deposit on a house, the bank would expect you to have a male guarantor.

Of course, there was no such thing as equal pay in the private sector in 1970. Only 4% of working women in the private sector had equal pay laid down in an award.

My first job was as a counsellor at New Zealand first abortion clinic, in Remuera Auckland. This made it possible for women who could get there to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

The road to reasonably available safe free abortion was a long one. Just that one battle involved multiple fronts and huge effort: there were police raids of the clinic, a High Court case against the clinic doctor, Jim Woolnough, a royal commission, serious arson, a planned bomb attack on the hospital, and several acts of parliament by MPs opposed to abortion.

It’s interesting, thinking back, how every battle that was fought or won, involved multiple antagonistic stakeholders. It was not the same group that opposed abortion, as fought equal pay, or opposed home birth. Sometimes they coalesced, but feminists had to be flexible, nimble and persistent, and everywhere.

On IWD it is good to reflect on where to from here? What are the big issues that need tackling for women and how can we tackle them.

I want to raise here a precept of the early women’s liberation movement that is still highly relevant. That is, you measure women’s progress not by how women are doing at the top but how they are doing at the bottom.

Yes, women on boards, and women as CEOs and so on, are important, but it is much more important to put effort into improving the position of the women who are doing worst.

That’s why I think that the campaign for a Living Wage is so important. Women workers are disproportionately clustered in low paid work, part time work, and casualised work.

To its credit, Wellington City Council has already adopted a Living Wage and I am pleased to say that the Auckland Council mayor, Phil Goff, has supported a living wage and this has gone out for consultation in the Annual Plan.
So, Number 1, a Living Wage.

Number 2, restoring the relativity of benefits, and increasing benefit levels and other support for sole parents who are disproportionately poor. The well-argued programme put forward by the group Child Poverty Action would improve the position of many women immensely.

Number 3, a real campaign against sexual stereotyping of girls

The women’s liberation movement made this a priority. We focused on education and sex stereotyping in children’s literature and the school curriculum. Those campaigns were very successful at bringing about change.

But we have slipped backwards. I am astonished at the gendering of toy shops, the aisles of pink, the fairy shops, the tulle dresses, the hair bows for babies – the enormous slippage that has occurred since we boycotted shops and letter-bombed manufacturers who stereotyped girls and boys. You hardly ever see a girl these days with short hair. Girls are being groomed as tiny Princess Elsas or Annas, rather than a Mowgli who does not need the opposite sex as a motivation.

Number 4, action on Violence against women.

In the Auckland Sunday paper, Ruth Herbert, the founder of a new organisation speaking for victims of domestic abuse, The Backbone Collective, pointed out we have the highest rate of women experiencing violence and abuse in the developed world.

Violence against women is New Zealand’s dirty big secret.

The first refuge was set up in 1974 in Christchurch, 43 years ago. There have been numerous initiatives to help women who face violence, but it is my perception that it has got worse, and the level of violence has got worse.

Until we face the causes of the violence, no number of “It’s Not OK” marches through the street will get us very far. There is something badly wrong about the way we model masculinity in New Zealand.

So why haven’t we made more progress in these “unfinished business” issues.

The women’s movement really ceased to exist as an organised force in the mid-1980s. This coincided, probably not randomly, with enormous structural change to New Zealand.

You will recall that the Govt, a Labour one, continued by the following National govt, went into a death dance with the captains of corporate industry and international finance. Govt institutions and agencies were handed over to these millionaires to reshape the New Zealand public sector in the model of the market. This also involved winding back the state, which had been the support and safety net people of my generation and those before.

Perversely, despite subsequent market failures and international money market collapses, despite the accumulating evidence of the social cost of restructuring, there has been no resiling from this course.

The 80s fracturing of the social structure and the social consensus it relied on, with the new dogma of individual responsibility, was something the women’s movement did not survive.

At the beginning of this period, 30 years ago, Phillida Bunkle and I published the Metro article – the unfortunate experiment at NWH – which led to the Cartwright Inquiry and sweeping reforms in the health sector. We did this through the organisation Women’s Health Action, but we were supported by a network of feminist women’s health groups throughout New Zealand, a strong union movement, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The Ministry was represented throughout the Inquiry by legal counsel and played a key role in drawing out issues for women, and especially Maori women.

It is this strong, organised feminist network that is missing now. Could a Cartwright Inquiry be achieved in 2017? The answer is somewhere between No and Only with the greatest difficulty.

For right now, the truth is, the women’s liberation activist groups have withered away, and we only have the mainstream women’s groups to provide any longevity, stability and sustainability for the women’s movement.

What they have got going for them, and what is lacking elsewhere, is organisation: doing the hard yards, progressing through the formal routes, keeping agendas on the table year after year. And when you look at issues like pay equity, it is very much year after year, decade after decade.

New methods have come along, such as social media, online petitions, and so on. I am a little dubious about the effectiveness of these. They are instantly activated, but are equally instantly gone. They lack sustainability and it is not clear how much they achieve.

Just a final question for IWD. The Auckland Sunday paper magazine led with a feature article “Has Feminism become Feminism Lite” as in L I T E. This feminism will be “guaranteed not to – add weight, Increase body hair, Reduce sex appeal, Offend anyone and Change anything.”

So my final question is, can women have it all? Can we cling onto to some of the trappings of traditional femininity, and be powerful agents for change. My answer is No. You cant make compromises and not be compromised. You cannot expect to be treated like an adult while hugging your chains.

One of the slogans of the women’s movement, was, We don’t want a slice of the pie, we want to rebake it.

Well, we haven’t. We’ve been satisfied with the slice. We’ve argued about getting a bigger slice, but we haven’t rebaked the pie. In fact the pie we started with in the 1970s, based on the welfare state, was better for women than the New Zealand we have today. Women were powerless to hold back the restructuring of New Zealand, and indeed some thought they could make gains for women within it. Some women even led the changes.

We have ended up with a New Zealand with wide and worsening inequalities, and women suffer most in this type of society, directly and indirectly.

On this International Women’s Day, as a task for New Zealand women, I’d like to see the setting of an agreed agenda that would bring about real significant change for girls and women at all levels. A bit like a Working Women’s Charter updated for the 21st century. Now that would be a project women everywhere could work on, and it might just bring us back together as a powerful force for change.

50 comments on “International Women’s Day, 47 years on, how far have we come?”

  1. Carolyn_nth 1

    Oh. Yes. That’s telling it as it was and is. Interesting how the naming went from “Women’s Liberation Movement”, to Women’s Movement”, and now “feminism”. Also important to note the explanation of how feminism became Feminism LITE in the neoliberal era, with the organised women’s movement decimated.

    And I think Coney lays out well some beginning points for a new, reinvigorated feminist charter:

    1. a Living Wage.

    2. restoring the relativity of benefits, and increasing benefit levels and other support for sole parents who are disproportionately poor.

    3. a real campaign against sexual stereotyping of girls

    4. action on Violence against women.

    • weka 1.1

      “Also important to note the explanation of how feminism became Feminism LITE in the neoliberal era, with the organised women’s movement decimated.”

      I also think that there was an intentional backlash from anti-feminists. I doubt that neoliberalism cares one way or the other about feminism, so long as it gets what it wants, so sure, happy to co-opt the bits that worked and reject the stuff that threatened it. But the backlash against feminism was also about making sure that politically organised women didn’t become more of a threat than they already were to the dominating culture (and by dominating culture I mean the 5,000 year old one, not that young whippersnapper one of Rogernomics).

      Good speech from Sandra Coney.

      • Carolyn_nth 1.1.1

        Yes. There’s the threat thing.

        I’ve just been listening to RNZ’s discussion with 5 women posted online today:

        Contemporary Feminism 1: Feminism – the Morning After


        “It’s not so much that we went forward and now we’re going backward,” says Dr Anne Else. “It’s always been in flux.”

        “And the resistance to feminism has always found new ways to come out. The resistance is a measure of the threat that we are.”

        • weka 1.1.1.1

          Thanks for the link. That’s a good quote from Anne Else.

          Seeing these women, my contemporaries or older, and I don’t know whether I am inspired or depressed 😉 So much gained, so much still fucked up. I do feel incredibly grateful to them.

          “And the resistance to feminism has always found new ways to come out. The resistance is a measure of the threat that we are.”

          Just to give an example, I’m sitting here debating whether to name some of those on the largest left wing blog in NZ.

          • Carolyn_nth 1.1.1.1.1

            I think it’s important to recall how shackled women were back in the 1950s and 60s – how difficult it was to be financially independent.

            An example in the RNZ discussion about a woman fronting up to the NZ Herald and being told they didn’t employ women in the role she wanted.

            And the problems to survive financially when a woman split up with her husband, as Sandra Coney experienced in the late 60s and early 1970s.

            But there’s also the problem today that many young women are expected to look great (with help from consumerist products) and also be doing a fabulous job. While other women are struggling to survive on less than a living wage, and single mothers are often getting a meagre benefit and being treated punitively.

            • greywarshark 1.1.1.1.1.1

              Carolyn nth
              Those are good points.

              Sandra Coney knows the road, and takes us along it pointing out the milestones but also that vandals keep pinching ir swinging round the road signs.

              The emphasis is still on Princess something, rather than Dora the Explorer.
              And the past of good gains for women has been overlooked, almost abandoned like weekend time together for families, at home, at sport with enough money to participate.

              Time and money are denied to both men and women, but women are still mainly the child rearers and there we notice how much lip service there is to the role of parenthood, and how much it is regarded as an individual hobby by influential society. And I have read disparaging comments about mothers alone by a post writer on this blog.

              Single women show up in searching analysis in NZ as the poorest people in society, and usually they won’t have caused that by imbibing costly substances such as alcohol or drugs. They are often quietly working away being the salt-of-the-earth citizens being paid 81% or whatever of the male wage but being charged possibly 100% of the market cost of anything they buy.

              • Carolyn_nth

                Well said, greyw.

                I think solo mothers are those whose lives and families have been the most damaged by the neoliberal agenda: struggling to make a good life for their children, while being demonised by some with way more wealth and power.

                But I didn’t realise single women generally were the poorest in society.

                • Anne

                  But I didn’t realise single women generally were the poorest in society.

                  They often are… yes. They are also the ones who are perceived as the most vulnerable, and cop the back-lash from a stereotyping society. This applies to young women as well as older single women.

                  I have a part-time job, and yesterday I heard a young woman crying in one of the staff toilets. She emerged a short time later and I noted she was young, attractive, nicely dressed and… Indian. The location was an up-market mall and it went through my head she was being bullied in the work-place. I could have been wrong, but having been down the bully-boy road more times than I can remember I detected the same signs.

                • greywarshark

                  carolyn nth
                  I am sorry that I don’t have the link to hand to back up that poorest in society statement. It is something I saw years ago and it stuck in my mind out of surprise. And I think it was single women alone, not single parents whom I would have thought would have been the most disadvantaged which struck me.

                  There is or was help gained as Sandra says, now government does in a grudging way, for single and solo parents but single women bear the brunt of costs and living alone. Without someone to share household tasks with, and their lives are made more difficult by being discrinated against by lower wages things are more burdensome for them. Also they are not widely socially acceptable because they aren’t the accepted mixed gender pair, though a pair of women these days would usually be okay I think.

                  Co-housing is the answer to happier mingling and affordability! It’s on the move in people’s minds around NZ.

                  Living wage, and true support and respect for parents would give the country a boost from the doleful place, with outbursts of volcanic violence, that it mostly is for those in Struggle Lane.

          • Antoine 1.1.1.1.2

            Share?

            International Womens Day is surely the time, if ever there was one

            A.

            • weka 1.1.1.1.2.1

              TS often isn’t a particularly safe place for feminists or conducive to good feminist discussions. It’s part of why there are no regular feminists posting here on feminism, why many women find it difficult to comment here, and why TS doesn’t have a good reputation in this area.

              In terms of Anne Else’s point about resistances to feminism, I would name those safety and macho culture issues as a vehicle for how women’s voices are resisted in 2017. Some of that is just the culture of TS, some of it is active and intentional.

              On the other hand, there are some positive aspects to the culture here. There is general support amongst the authors to make the place better for women, and I’ve seen many times here when men commenters have stepped up and argued the important points in support of women’s politics. That gives me hope 🙂

              #shePersisted

              • Antoine

                I would have thought a reduction in the general level of aggro would help

                Also a reduction in the specific level of aggro directed at newbies

                • James

                  It’s not just Agro – it’s downright personal abuse at times.

                  It would not be accepted in the workplace, or if people saw a woman being spoken to like that in the street it would be called abuse. Yet on here sadly it seems to pass often unchecked or supported by other commenters.

                • Carolyn_nth

                  It seems to me that the wider political culture is pretty combative, and some of that gets incorporated into TS comments.

                  I think every guy, gal and transgender person that takes a non-aggro approach here, helps improve the level of discussion.

                • weka

                  that’s a separate issue IMO.

                  • Antoine

                    I think it’s a women’s issue because women, on average, are less inclined to hang around aggro places than are men.

                    (I admit I may have this wrong however, being a man myself)

                    A.

                    • weka

                      Yet there are places that are polite that are still sexist and exclusionary. TS is here for posts and robust debate, but even the women who want robust debate can find it difficult to be here.

                      Yes we could have a discussion about where the balance is on robust debate vs aggro/abusive, but it’s pretty hard to separate that out from what happens when RWers run politically offensive lines in a left wing space 😉 I’d really rather not go down that track in this thread.

                    • Antoine

                      OK, it’s not my kaupapa

    • Draco T Bastard 1.2

      3. a real campaign against sexual stereotyping of girls

      Not just girls but boys as well.

    • Miles Cederman 1.3

      Amazing to find this article (and its mention of my mother, Sharyn Cederman) on International Women’s Day – a wonderful speech by Sandra and a great reminder of how many challenges we still need to solve.

      • greywarshark 1.3.1

        Good to hear from you Miles. The family behind the activist are part of the person’s strength and character, and it is hard to do much without that, so thanks.

  2. Heather Tanguay 2

    Well said Sandra. Yes we remember those times, hard work by community groups supporting each other for change. Change came and, as you say has been lost.
    There are many today that believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen making the scones.
    I remember when I went to my first Local Government Conference and on registering, I was asked if I was there fore the partner’s programme! I am sure there have been some gains made in Local Government. But when you look at different council photographs, they are still dominated by men. Look at Auckland Council with a male Mayor and Deputy Mayor. In Norway, as a matter of course, there is gender balance.
    I too am disturbed by the casual acceptance of young girls being made into adults with their dress, makeup and hair styles.
    Thank you Sandra for such an excellent look back at history.

    • mickysavage 2.1

      And thank you Heather for your contribution as well.

    • weka 2.2

      What time period was the conference?

      The gender stereotyping part of the speech was most interesting. There’s a whole gordian knot of issues there.

      • Antoine 2.2.1

        Is it too late to win the battle on gender stereotyping? Pop culture seems so all pervasive…

        A.

        • weka 2.2.1.1

          Pretty sure that was what was being said back in the day too 😉 Never too late.

          • Carolyn_nth 2.2.1.1.1

            Yes. And like everything else, pop culture continually changes. I understand there’s quite a bit of feminist discussion by young NZ women on facebook, etc, that tends to go under the radar, because it’s among personal networks.

          • Draco T Bastard 2.2.1.1.2

            It only becomes too late if you stop.

            IMO, those who are asking if it’s too late are usually the ones who want you to stop.

            • weka 2.2.1.1.2.1

              I thought that too

            • Antoine 2.2.1.1.2.2

              You can do what you like for all of me!

              • Antoine

                For myself, I think you can’t get rid of gender stereotyping and nor can you keep it away from your kids (once they reach a certain age). The best you can do is to steer through it as you try to raise your kids to be good people.

                That’s just me though.

                A.

              • Draco T Bastard

                Well, that’s just it – we’re trying to change all of society which means it’s not just you but you’re most definitely one of the people standing in the way of that societal change.

  3. Awesome article thanks

    • Carolyn_nth 4.1

      Although Jessie Crispin actually is a feminist, but she is protesting against, what Sandra Coney calls Feminism L I T E – which aims not to offend, but incorporates commodification of women.

  4. AB 5

    “We don’t want a slice of the pie, we want to rebake it.”
    Yes totally – and this is how we close the gap between ‘identity-based’ and ‘class-based’ action

    • weka 5.1

      That looks like an inclusive framing. Care to say more?

      • AB 5.1.1

        Well I guess I am dealing in generalities again…
        I start from the principle that even though humans aren’t equally clever, beautiful, talented or hard working, they are all equally capable of suffering. And that suffering and wasted potential is the enemy whatever its origins, be that a broken economic system or engrained discrimination against identity groups. Our rebaked cake needs to address all these things. It really is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time. And personally Id be really interested to hear what feminists think that rebaked cake should look like.What would they have to say about economic justice and the environment for example?

  5. swordfish 6

    In 1970, I gave birth to my second son. A group of us was in the 5th year of getting a crèche – the 1st in New Zealand – up and running on the campus.

    May have been the first on a University campus …. but certainly not the first crèche in New Zealand – not even remotely !!! My Grandmother for example took an active role in the establishment of the Wellington Railway Station crèche way back in 1937 !

    And that was by no means the very first.

    She was also – I might point out – part of the very energetic and vigorous 1940s-1950s campaign for Equal Pay in the Public Service – involved many women (and progressive men) and – along with other key feminist campaigns during the allegedly “quiet” era between the 2 (Boomer-identified) waves – shouldn’t be downplayed in favour of sole emphasis on the Second Wave.

    • Antoine 6.1

      Thats pretty interesting

    • Carolyn_nth 6.2

      I think also, some of the earliest feminists pre-dated the first wave.

      e.g. Mary Wollestoncraft who wrote The vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

      Wikipedia calls her a proto-feminist

      Apparently my grandmother gave a talk or two on the rights of married women to, i think, something like the National Organisation of Women. That’d have been in the 30s or 40s, I think.

      The struggle has continued throughout and between the acknowledged waves.

    • greywarshark 6.3

      WE should never forget swordfish, to stop and remember today the almost forgotten people from the past.
      There was Margaret Thorn for instance. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t you who replied to my request about this wonderful woman whom I had just heard about somewhere.
      http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t16/thorn-margaret

      A person who becomes interested in being a citizen probably learns the habit of thinking about their world, at home! Mum and Dad actually talk about important things.

      <i Margaret Anderson was born in Manchester, England, on 11 February 1897, one of twelve children of James Anderson, a master bricklayer, and his wife, Margaret Blanshard.

      Her primary schooling in the outlying village of Crab was supplemented by informal education in her extended family, where music, good literature and challenging books on social questions were discussed. The realities of working-class life made her a lifelong rebel against poverty and injustice, especially as they affected women.

      In 1912, when she was 15, Margaret arrived in New Zealand with her parents, three younger sisters and a brother. For a start the family ran the cookhouse at the Maunganui timber mill, 10 miles into the Tararua Range behind Waikanae. They moved to Palmerston North in the year of the 1913 waterfront and general strikes.

      There, her father worked at his trade; Margaret was employed as a waitress while attending lectures on economics at the WEA and lessons on bookkeeping at a commercial college. She joined the Social Democratic Party along with her father, later becoming its local secretary.

      Here she became friendly with James Thorn, a journalist,

      I wonder if there are any Thorn-bricked houses still in Palmy?

  6. AsleepWhileWalking 7

    I think the attitudes of the males in Wellington College say it all – not very far. I imagine they celebrated the day by pissing over their own mothers.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/90165634/investigation-launched-over-rape-comments-made-on-facebook-by-wellington-college-students

    • Carolyn_nth 7.1

      On the other hand, John Campbell, talked to the head teacher on Checkpoint, about ways guys can help their boys to be better people.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=40&v=2U4foDSBUOs

      And, I think it was in the RNZ discussion I linked to above, the women talked of how it was judges, and men in authority who publicly made rape jokes back in the 60s.

    • greywarshark 7.2

      AWW
      Many males don’t find it beyond-the-pale to use the term ‘motherf…..rs’ or just to shorten the term to ‘mothers’ which they use to express utter contempt for anything, not necessarily related to females. And ‘fuck’ is a word expressing outrage or annoyance similar to ‘shit’. So while watching every word shouldn’t be enforced or dictated, there is a background of putdowns to females in the minds of the public, in this mainly heterosexual society, coupled with sexual overtones.

      Teenage boys are said to go through an anti-female stage, probably in a psychological phase as they grow into being male individuals and separate from being a child under their mother’s influence. This is a recognised stage in development of young adults, (and girls will undergo it too, taking a different path).

  7. bwaghorn 8

    How do you stop woman dressing their sub teen girls up like spice girls, shops will stock what sells so blaming them is wrong.

    • Carolyn_nth 8.1

      Do not under-estimate the power of marketing.

      Back in the 60s and 70s women’s liberationists strongly campaigned against marketing women as objects and this had quite a significant impact. But then came the commodification of everything and the marketing of girl power, spice girls, etc.

      There was, though a counter alt. type of music that resisted that – the whole riot grrrl thing.

  8. Ad 9

    I’m a little surprised she didn’t comment on sexual attack, pornography and teaching young men about respect. You can’t fit everything into one speech, but the normalization of internet pornography, and anecodes about the normalisation of internet commentary about drunk rape, would be worth raising.

  9. Simonm 10

    And yet another thing to celebrate. NZ has the most progressive sex-work legislation and practices in the world, which set the gold standard for a harm minimisation approach. Ain’t it wonderful, Sandra!

  10. greywarshark 11

    I think this song gives an idea of how women are up against unreasonable attitudes, This song is about a woman who is unmarried and she says never had an offer to step out with some feller. Then there are the ones who got sent to the Magdalene Home for being too pretty and looking as if they were going to have it off before being married and dacent.

    Steeleye Span and The Old Maid in the Garret and a good reel
    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8IhFbTfX2o

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