Butting the trend, Marion McLeod

In the Lifetime of a Goat: Writings 1984 – 2000
Marilyn Waring
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95,
ISBN 1877242098

Journalism is an ephemeral business. “Today’s news, tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping” – the saying may be out of date but the sentiment remains true. Even columnists write not for posterity but for this week’s or this month’s readers. So what justifies the publication of a collection? In short, fine writing and/or timeless topics. Alice Thomas Ellis’s book Home Life, one of my favourites, qualifies on both counts: the externals of family life change over the years but the essentials remain, and Ellis’s humour will survive long after her daughter’s fashion fads.

Marilyn Waring’s concerns extend way beyond the domestic, of course, and for that I and the world’s women give thanks. Yet, of the four dozen columns and articles collected here (Waring herself calls them “short essays”), those about her personal life interested me most: memories of a childhood running free in Taupiri, for instance, published in the Waikato Times in 1998. Most of this collection was first published in the late 1980s though the material spans 16 years, the maximum life of any goat the author has known. Hence the title: when Waring began writing, she had hopes of farming angora goats, and now that dream is a reality.

The earliest piece, dated May 1984, is the introduction to five years of “Letters to My Sisters”, commissioned for the Listener by then editor David Beatson. Titled “On Leaving Parliament”, the first letter is much longer than the subsequent columns and in it Waring gives a brief history of her experience in the male corridors of power. (It’s chastening to recall that in her second term, 1978 – 81, she was the only woman in government.) By May ’84, she had served nine years as National MP for Waipa (earlier Raglan), and was preparing to serve another six months up to a General Election in November. As it happened, the snap election in July meant an even earlier retirement than planned.

In an afterword to this piece, Waring comments that she had not expected her male colleagues to pay attention to her Listener article:

Yet three weeks after its publication, the Prime Minister quoted (reasonably accurately) large chunks of it as he abused me in the government whip’s office, the night he decided on a snap election in 1984. Between his commentaries he would bark at his chief whip (later Commonwealth Secretary-General ) Don McKinnon, “We don’t behave like that do we, Don?” and McKinnon would dutifully respond “No Prime Minister”.

 

I quote that in full because such snippets of “inside information” make for lively and informative reading. This is the material of diaries and collected letters that, published after the event, throw light on political history, on the machinations of those in power. How interesting, I think, and look forward to more of the same.

But such expectations are not met. For the most part, the Listener columns were written after Waring had left national politics and was working for feminism on the international stage. One section of this collection (Waring divides the pieces into six “series”) is entitled “Women of Influence” and extols the virtues of American feminist Bella Abzug, of Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo of Portugal, Gertrude Mongella from Tanzania, and our own Elizabeth Sewell. Another series, “Abused and Left Out”, collects columns dealing with appalling problems that women face the world around, while “One Way to See the World” reports on Waring’s international travels and “A Vigorous Vigilance” deals with several key issues in New Zealand in recent years – the anti-nuclear debate, apartheid, the electoral system, the Waihopai “spy station”.

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These are undoubtedly hugely important topics, and they are topics that interest and concern me. But I have to come clean and admit that most of this book bored me. It is a real challenge to deal with such big issues in the prescribed length of a column; for that column to lift off the page years after its first appearance demands both great insight and great powers of expression. Words on the page are not Waring’s forte, for all that what she has to say is very important. When content and argument matter above all else, she can be superb. Her Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (1988) is undoubtedly a very important book. There Waring draws attention to something too often overlooked – the discounting of the work of half the world’s population – and her collation and analysis of statistical evidence is an immensely valuable contribution to thinking about economics.

In the travel section of the new book, the same feminist concerns are to the forefront but of course they do not attempt analysis; they are “letters”. The situations Waring describes are appalling, so much so that it seems crass to criticise her writing on the grounds that it does not entertain. Read one at a time over a period of months in the mid- 1980s, they would have alerted New Zealand readers to rampant inequalities. But I found that reading one after another now simply meant that Thailand, Burma, India, Ethiopia, China, Brazil and the Philippines all merged into one depressing ocean of sexism. Nobody would disagree with her message but few, I imagine, choose to read about the need for human rights unless the sermon offers a new angle or a lively style.

Perhaps what a collection like this has to offer is a picture of an era. Students of social history – some of whom will have little or no idea of Waring’s huge contribution to women’s rights – will find this volume informative and interesting. For someone like me who has followed Waring’s fascinating career from the 1970s on, it seems merely repetitive and curiously unengaging. Even the more recent and personal pieces occasionally have the stilted ring of a school essay and reveal remarkably little. The author seems to have achieved an enviably balanced life as farmer, lecturer and consultant on economic and political issues. But if happiness writes white, as Henri de Montherlant put it, then worthiness writes a drab fawn. Waring’s life has clearly been fascinating, her achievements major: what I look forward to now is a well-written biography.

 

Marion McLeod is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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Posted in Essays, Gender, Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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