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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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President’s Column – The Women’s Issue

Since becoming the first nation state to grant women the vote in general elections, New Zealand has been upheld as a leader and exemplar of gender equality.

Nowadays, it is a common assumption that women ‘have it all’, which generally includes equal access and treatment in education, the workforce, housing, and in relationships and family situations.

New Zealand has until recently boasted a host of oft-cited examples to substantiate such an argument: a woman Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Governor General, CEO of Telecom, and Chief Justice.

The fact women held these positions attracted media and popular attention here in New Zealand and internationally. Young women were – and still are – said to be provided with excellent role models by virtue of women being in such leadership positions.

However, it is argued that having a few women in high power, high profile positions doesn’t really tell the whole story.

In 2009 the position of Chief Justice is still held by a woman, but the other leadership roles mentioned earlier are all now held again by males. Whilst no doubt other women will hold such roles in the future, it is fairly possible that for some time these roles will continue to be held by men.

It is important to realise that having a scattering of women in leadership roles should not in itself be interpreted as representing the position of the majority of women in New Zealand.

Some may argue the same could perhaps be said of men or of any other identity based group within society. After all, does having a male prime minister automatically mean that all men are in positions of influence or automatically better off? Of course it doesn’t.

All the same, women as a group in New Zealand are still statistically worse off than men as a group. On average, women earn substantially less than males, despite decades of equal pay laws. The Child Poverty Action Group report women and their children continue to comprise the majority of those living below the poverty line. Rape Crisis and Women’s Refuge report that not only do women continue to comprise the majority of victims of rape and sexual violence, but rates of such crimes are far from decreasing. The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) have long barrelled the point that women are systematically disadvantaged under the student loan scheme, quoting repayment times for women as double their male counterparts. Lower pay levels are partially to blame for repayment times, coupled with women continuing to be primarily responsible for the care of children and other family responsibilities. These responsibilities lead to women taking more time out of paid work. This directly influences wages, and limits career and promotion prospects.

It would be misleading to imply that the current situation for women is completely bleak. Women have made gains in both public and private life since achieving the vote in 1893.

At the time of the women’s suffrage campaign in New Zealand, women were not even permitted to stand for office as a Minister of the House of Representatives. This was a right that was not granted until 1929, with the first woman holding office several years later in 1933.

While the number of women politicians still remains comparatively low to that of men, progress has clearly been made. In my adult life New Zealand has had two female prime ministers—something that for many would have been unfathomable decades earlier.

The status of women in personal relationships has also been a significant area of change. Until the mid 1980s rape within marriage was effectively sanctioned in New Zealand law. Until that time a husband was legally deemed to be exempt from claims of rape by his wife.

Feminism has had an important role to play in all of this. Contemporary feminisms, dominated by the two primary strands of post-feminism and the third wave, have each made their own interpretations of the situation of women and the best way forward.

Naomi Wolf has been one of the most visible representatives of contemporary feminism. Her 1993 book, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century centres on the philosophy that feminism forces women to see themselves as ‘victims’ rather than ‘empowered’.

In Fire with Fire Wolf coins two terms key to post-feminist thought. The first is that of ‘victim feminism’—the idea that academic feminists and what Wolf considers academic feminism’s formulation of ‘women as victims of patriarchy’ actually functions to alienate young women.

Wolf argues that the concept of ‘power feminism’ is more positive and empowering for contemporary women. According to Wolf, ‘power feminism’ is the way to real gender equality, because, similar to classic liberal feminism, this will motivate women to claim individual power and achieve as much as men under the current social structure.

Post-feminism generally upholds the belief that women are on an equal footing with men, or at least, have the potential to be, providing that they really want to achieve equality.

By contrast, third wavers argue against concepts of ‘empowered women,’ instead highlighting the reality that many women are ‘victims’—usually in result of male perpetrators.

They claim post-feminism itself promotes the commodification not the liberation of women, via media such as Cosmopolitan magazine which emphasises women’s role in men’s pleasure – rather than giving women more freedom to pursue sexual expression for their own benefit.

Third wavers and other critics argue that while the individualistic and self-promotional nature of post-feminism works a treat for women who are white, bourgeois, heterosexual and university educated, it really doesn’t represent many other groups of women. Thus, the ‘tools’ that post-feminists suggest women should utilise in order to bring about individualistic social change—such as playing an ‘empowered’ role in the family and workplace—are simply not an option for the majority of women. Clearly, feminism is as divergent now as it has been in the past.

At the same time, women in New Zealand also have a long tradition of working together for wider gains. Whether your priorities lay with the campus women’s group or the Women’s Division of the Federated Farmers, the removal of barriers surrounding participation and achievement generally stands as common goals. These goals, as our predecessors have shown us, are certainly worth fighting for together in order to being about a better life for everyone.

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