The same difference, Alison Laurie

Feminist Thought in Aotearoa New Zealand, Connections and Differences
ed Rosemary du Plessis and Lynne Alice
Oxford University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 19 558356 6

“Feminist scholarship is founded on contestation of  hat counts as knowledge and what knowledge counts”, write the editors in their introduction to this wide-ranging collection of essays. To capture the complexities of  “differences and connections”, they explain that they have encouraged contributors to “incorporate different voices” illustrating “the variety of writing styles … that present feminist writing.” They acknowledge that these “alternatives to the conventional academic essay sometimes generate unease” and “may disrupt assumptions about how ‘knowledge’ should be presented.”

Setting the stage in this way is an attempt to dismiss the complaints which the editors have seen looming: about the inconsistent writing styles and the lack of a coherent voice to guide itinerant readers through the text. The answers are predictable: that feminisms are diverse; that we want to incorporate a selection of writings from across the range of thinking and thinkers; that this is not a monolithic subject; that we need to include contradictions and connections, differences and directions; and that the book is specifically underpinned by postmodernist/poststructuralist theoretical perspectives.

The collection has an introduction by the editors and is then divided into four sections: Feminism, Colonialism and the Politics of Difference; Political Scholarship/Politicised Teaching; Bodies, Sexualities and Identities; Politics and Policy. The introductions to each section provide something of a pathway but I didn’t find this sufficiently cohesive. However, I found all of the contributions interesting and valuable as stand-alone pieces – my reservation is whether they should have appeared together in one volume.

There are 31 chapters in the collection, authored by a range of writers – some from within universities, others from the wider community. This contributes to the inconsistency of the writing styles of the collection as one moves from e-mailed conversations (Sue Middleton and Eluned Summers-Bremner) to journals (Victoria Carchidi) to autobiography (Judi Pattison, Pat Rosier) to the excellent feminist research of the chapter co-written by Rosemary du Plessis and the late Nicola Armstrong, to postmodern discussions and accounts (Jenny Carryer and Karen Rhodes, Lynne Star) and to feminist economics (Prue Hyman).

However, I find it remarkable that in spite of the focus on “difference” both editors are white, and that there are apparently only four Maori authors in the whole collection, with one chapter each by Chinese, Samoan, Indian, Arab and Jewish writers. I would have expected that in a text focusing on differences and connections in Aotearoa/New Zealand, there would have been a bicultural focus with comment on relations between and among Maori and non-Maori women. The four Maori writers (Patricia Maringi G Johnston, Tania Rei, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Donna Matahaere-Atariki) stand out like oases in an editorial selection examining itself endlessly but unwilling to share power or influence. It is significant that Johnston writes:

although feminist discussions of difference can include Maori women, these discussions cannot account for us. The prerogative of exploring difference, of reclaiming our identities, of becoming visible in positive ways, lies clearly with Maori women ourselves.

And yet the differences of race as described by Maori women are insufficiently included in this collection in spite of the editorial claim that “Maori scholars, located in various academic disciplines engage critically with attempts to craft ‘women’ as a homogenous political category.”

The section on Feminism, Colonialism, and the Politics of Difference begins with a fascinating discussion of constructing and deconstructing “white women” by Tricia Laing and Jenny Coleman. It examines the writings of Sarah Selwyn, Mary Martin, Susanne Aubert and Ellen Ellis with a focus on how these women disrupted the process of colonisation. Aorewa McLeod and Nina Nola then discuss “the absent Maori” in the writing of early New Zealand women novelists and go on to argue that in contemporary New Zealand literature autobiographical lesbian texts are absent and that Tahuri, a Maori lesbian text, by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, has become forgotten.

This brings me to other omissions. There are insufficient lesbian critiques of heterosexuality. There is no inclusion of political issues such as lesbian rights or of topical concerns such as lesbian/gay marriage, lesbian/gay parenting using artificial insemination by donor or of violence against gays and lesbians. Nor is there an adequate discussion of bisexual, transsexual and transgendered issues.

There is little theorising of class as a major area of difference between women in spite of the increasing female poverty in this country.  But there are important and timely contributions by Prue Hyman, who discusses the importance of women’s unpaid work, and by Margaret Wilson, who argues that equality in paid work and public policy is not an end in itself but is part of the feminist goal of self-determination. And Celia Briar and Christine Cheyne discuss the possibility of “female friendly” social and economic policies that would improve women’s material position while respecting and recognising differences between groups of women.

The differences of class, age and disability continue to be under-theorised in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I found Missy Morton and Robyn Munford’s chapter on intellectual disability significant and interesting – but there isn’t a general chapter on disability, even though physical disability, illness and aging are major areas of difference between women. I was also puzzled by the monocultural emphasis of many articles which could have dealt with questions of difference more widely.

In attempting to deconstruct the political category “woman” by a focus on differences among women, this collection does not sufficiently analyse the implications for feminist political activism. Rae Torrie and Deborah Jones examine Equal Opportunity Programmes, arguing that practitioners must deal with the challenges produced by various definitions of equality and difference. This collection would have been further enhanced by chapters on the implications of deconstructing gender, race, class and sexual identities, not only for the theorising of difference, but for the impact on future legislation and on feminist political activism.

I do not think that the collection discusses what might unite women across difference sufficiently. Margaret Wilson does suggest that reassessing “equality” will highlight not only what divides women but what unites us in our political struggles But no-one really discusses how groups of women might join together to challenge the oppressions and coercive economic practices which affect women globally. 

Some of the most interesting contributions include discussions of the differences of race. Manying Ip documents the position of Chinese women by examining immigration policies and how these have negatively affected Chinese women in New Zealand. Radhika Mohanram discusses biculturalism in Aotearoa/New Zealand based on Maori/Pakeha relations, which she argues creates a hierarchy in which the Black immigrant is excluded. Livia Kathe Wittmann analyses 48 interviews with Jewish women on their understanding(s) of Jewish identity and on biculturalism. These women also feel excluded by a bicultural New Zealand and argue for a multicultural one. Anne-Marie Tupuola writes about the conflict experienced by young Samoan women between the traditional culture of their homes and the more liberal cultures outside.

In the field of health, Phillida Bunkle discusses how women’s activism challenged patriarchal medical power and knowledge and also fought for public health services for women. Liz Tully, Rae Daellenbach and Karen Guilliland discuss putting feminist principles into practice through the partnership developed by midwives, sympathetic general practitioners and women within the home birth movement as an alternative to the authoritarian medical model.

The collection will appeal to feminists within academies, to those already schooled in these approaches and willing to read across rather uneven and diverse texts for somewhat unconnected opinions and argument. For more general readers, much of the collection will present a problem. Is this a book for the uninformed to dip into, which will enlighten them on the state of play in New Zealand feminisms?  Will this book answer the questions of the non-specialist interested in discovering what performances of gender mean and what postmodern analysis implies? Is this a book which could introduce would-be students of feminisms to the topics, idly reading in bookstores, or appropriate for courses at Continuing Education or secondary school? Probably not. Without a fairly advanced knowledge of postmodern approaches to feminism(s), some readers may find parts of the book inaccessible. I think it is a stage three – in some cases stage two – university textbook, suitable for students familiar with the basics and able to accept that the diversity of the writing can be read as a positive contribution to the portrayal of “difference” at the level of language and word-crafting.

Alison Laurie teaches in the Women’s Studies Department at Victoria University of Wellington

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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