Earlier this week a press release came out from Waikato University, announcing my appointment as Writer in Residence there for 2015. It must have been a quiet day on the news front at the NBR, because writer Nick Grant slapped together an inflammatory little piece entitled ‘Hager named Waikato University’s 2015 Writer in Residence’ . No doubt designed to stimulate the trolls, it insinuated that both myself and Nicky were bludgers off the state, undeserving because we have the audacity to accept money from Creative NZ while speaking out against the present government. A nasty little piece in itself, but there was also a casual put down right at the start, introducing me, not in my own right as an author of nine novels, but as “Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager’s younger sister”.
Now, to many, this isn’t an issue. But you’d be surprised by the number of comments I got back about the inherent sexism of this remark from women colleagues, friends and family. I, however, am not surprised. Women live with this kind of virtually invisible sexism every day. And god help us if we speak out against it – we get accused of everything from man-haters to that evil F word (usually uttered through the spittle of pent up fury)… ‘FEMINIST’!
For instance, remember the vitriol poured upon the poor woman who sparked the resignation of CERA boss Roger Sutton? The tsunami of angry and hostile comments from men to articles such as Philip Matthews ‘Sexism: We can’t escape it’ is quite astounding – and certainly intimidating to anyone who considers speaking out on such issues. When Debbie Hager, a senior tutor and PhD student at the School of Population Health, University of Auckland (oh, and incidentally my older sister!) wrote a piece in the Herald in 2013 about the way our supports for women are being eroded by the current government (‘Celebration? It’s a national day of shame’) the site was inundated with angry and abusive comments by men.
Internationally, we’ve seen similar storms of abuse against women daring to speak out against the gaming industry, for instance. See ‘Trolls drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her house to prove misogyny doesn’t exist‘ and ‘Sexism, Lies and Video Games: The Culture War Nobody is Winning‘ for an overview. Yet, despite all the publicity, commentaries and outrage, how did one media outlet follow up this serious issue? Why with this: After ‘Gamergate:’ The Five Most Sexist Video Games of All Time . Yes, folks, click through and watch – just in case you hadn’t already seen these gross exploitative images, here they are for your viewing pleasure… gah! So, in fact, nothing has really changed.
Then today, scrolling through Twitter, I followed a reputable link declaring High Ability Women in the Arts . It says: ‘A list from ranker.com – Many of these women “are members of the high IQ society Mensa International…others on this list are just some of the smartest female celebrities, proving so by being multilingual, earning degrees from top universities, and/or studying and working in all sorts of complicated academic fields.” Great! An empowering story for once… oh, hold on… the accompanying photos are so-called ‘glamour’ shots – near naked shots that totally undermine the positive message – and totally unnecessary. What were they thinking? How could this be viewed as acceptable? Or could it, in fact, be more sinister? Yet another subtle way to put smart women down?
My mother was a feminist, joining the fight for women to have access to contraception, abortion, financial independence, government support in times of need. She empowered her daughters to believe we had as much right to agency in the world as men. I saw how hard she and her peers fought on our behalf, and I want to acknowledge the benefits my generation and my own daughter’s generation have gained from women in the past fighting for equal rights. But it is growing increasingly obvious that there is a conservative backlash at work now, insidiously undermining the gains past feminists have made. And one of the worst things they have managed to achieve is the smearing of the word ‘feminist’ itself, so much so that young women are now heard to say they are not feminists and (even more bizarrely and depressingly) that ‘we are equal.’
So, just for the record, here’s my take on FEMINISM, that most contentious of F words:
Feminism is a reaction. A position. A belief that women should, by right, be entitled to all the same ‘privileges’ as men: fair pay, high quality free education, control of their own money (and bodies), freedom to choose who to love and how to act. Freedom of movement, association, dress, beliefs. Respect as an equal. Opportunity. Equity in decision-making. A voice.
It is not about hating men – never has been, though I can understand the anger and frustration that from time to time erupts. Nor is it about wanting to be like men, heaven forbid! It is about acknowledging the value of our differences and our strengths, and allowing women to use our differences to add value. And it’s about acknowledging that literally BILLIONS of women live under the iron fist of men, with repression so deeply entrenched into the structures of society that many still can’t even see it, or refuse to, or don’t want to (for fear of losing something, when in fact they’d gain.)
This, of course, brings me to that other word – the V word. Violence. We need to talk more about this too. Several years ago I wrote a resource about Violence Against Women from a global perspective for Amnesty International. Rape as a weapon of war, partner abuse, the aborting of female foetus’s, sexual violence, trafficking, slavery, female genital mutilation… All these huge, ugly issues that we, in little old NZ, somehow think we are immune to… when we really aren’t. We continue to have terrible statistics around violence against women. Women die on far too regular a basis here, often at a time when they are supposedly protected by the law. They are controlled. They are abused. Sometimes they are driven mad.
But until we can openly and honestly discuss the deep core of male privilege in this country such crimes – and such outpourings of misogyny as those seen above, will continue. Until our young people are led by example, seeing the male adults around them respecting women and allowing them equal agency and respect, nothing will change.
Now, I can hear some among you muttering ‘but women can be violent against men too.’ Yes, that’s true. But, sorry guys, that’s a red herring. Sure, there are a small percentage of cases where the roles are reversed. But this is tiny compared to the damage inflicted on women by men. Of course, my sympathy goes out to men being abused, and I hope they are treated fairly and assisted with their plight. But to claim that women are somehow unfairly advantaged by targeted funding and services is yet another way of down-playing the issue and undermining our status as equal partners with equal rights.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, with Christmas just around the corner, in houses all over the country women are living in dread. Festivities switch to fist fights. Toddy turns into violent binges. Christmas drinkees turns to rape. Families are fractured. Rape Crisis and Women’s Refuge bulge at the seams. Therefore, in the absence of the robust debate we still need to have around how we fix such inequalities and shameful goings on, at least try this: pass some money on to Women’s Refuge or your local Rape Crisis. The women who work there are the real face of feminism – women working to support women – working for a fairer world.
And if you hear, or read, or see a blatant act of sexism, point it out! Refuse to acquiesce. Refuse to condone it by your silence. Educate your kids. Look inward and winkle out your own assumptions and stereotypes. Be the change.