Still (regrettably) relevant, Ashleigh Young

Roll on the Revolution … But Not Till After Xmas!: Selected Feminist Writing
Margot Roth
Women’s Studies Association of Aotearoa New Zealand / Pae Akoranga Wāhine,
$25.00, ISBN 9780473351748

Yesterday, I was idling on Facebook when I should have been writing this review. A promoted post from the supermarket chain New World popped up. “It’s International Men Make Dinner Day, can you believe it?”’ said New World. “If you’d like to eat something a little more than burnt toast, take-out or 2-minute noodles then we’ve got just the cheeky giveaway for you!” There was a photo of a stricken-looking man wearing a cooking pot on his head. He was holding a variety of kitchen utensils in one hand and a sign saying “HELP” in the other. Now, there’s nothing new here. But I’d just read Margot Roth’s selected writings and, to use her phrase, I had to fight to overcome nausea.

Roth – feminist writer and activist – is now 95 years old. She has been writing about gender stereotypes and the damage they do since the 1940s, in various newspapers and magazines, from the New Zealand Herald to the Women’s Studies Newsletter to Broadsheet; this unassuming book, put together by seven women who form the Margot Collective, showcases work from 1946 to 2015. In 2016, this year of pussy-grabbing, we need her more than ever.

Roll on the Revolution takes in an extraordinary breadth of subjects, including domesticity (that “tortured and tortuous” word “family” is a particular irritant), women’s magazines, gendered language, women’s absence from mainstream media, rugby fanaticism and, of course, violence against women. In each of these short pieces, Roth’s thinking seems vividly realised. It’s as though she’s been waiting all this time for us to catch up. She was already impatient with terms like “spokesman” in the 1980s, already rolling her eyes at being told by the New Zealand Women’s Weekly how to fold a fitted sheet (though, I notice that the Weekly is now telling us not to fold certain sheets; instead, “find a cardboard tube to roll them around and store them safely that way.” Thanks, WW!). She was already puncturing the myth that equality between men and women had been achieved and that nothing was left to be done.

It’s a cliché to describe a writer as “acerbically witty”, but this is true of Roth in a couple of ways. First, she’s fantastically economical with language. In a few brief sentences she exposes the inherent narrow-mindedness of petitions against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, of attacks on the 1993 Suffrage Year, of lack of funding for women’s refuges. You can picture Roth, looking over her glasses like a sharpshooter. Second, her wit has the added sting of contemporary relevance. You can’t read her 1985 column on violence, which mentions an Auckland rugby representative who knocked a waitress out cold and an “eminent New Zealander” who attacked a woman at a party, without thinking of the recent allegations against the Chiefs rugby team. You can’t read her critique of “tough, tender” Barry Crump without thinking of poet Fleur Adcock’s recent writing on Crump’s behaviour during their brief marriage. The recurring subject of domestic violence, and the ways in which women are subtly blamed, recall numerous recent cases in which women have been told they could have avoided assault had they tried. This resonance is, of course, double-edged; it makes Roth’s work fascinating, but it’s not anything to celebrate. Quite often, while reading this book, I was overcome by melancholy.

There are flaws that would be inevitable in any body of work covering such a variety of material over 70 years. Her 1946 plea to women to stop reinforcing stereotypes and get out of the house to “exercise their mental faculties” comes across as harsh and perhaps simplistic; a piece from 2008 on same-sex relationships censors the word “sex” – an odd editorial choice, here. And, sometimes, Roth’s writing is so busy with opinion it can be hard to keep up, like trying to watch five political debates simultaneously.

But Roth’s writing necessarily changes over time. Her early columns are vigorous, full of air quotes, ironic capitalisation and withering asides. She wouldn’t be out of place on Twitter. In the 1970s she returned to university and fomented the first Women’s Studies courses, and her work from this time becomes scholarly, quoting other feminists, educators, scientists, but it never departs from that core of intelligence, that coaxing of men (and sure, also women, but mostly men) to rise above a pervading culture. I’m sure she would agree – and I hope New World does now, too – that a good step would be to lift the token cooking pots from our heads.

Ashleigh Young is a Wellington writer and editor.

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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