Superwoman/Wonderwoman, Marivee McMath

Superwoman: Where are You? Social Policy and Women’s Experience
C Briar, R Munford and M Nash (eds),
Dunmore Press, $39.95

Superwoman: Where are You? is a catchy title. Since Superwoman is the female counterpart of Superman, created both after and in his image, it expresses the dominant theme running through the book. In a patrilineal and patriarchal cultural system, the fortunes of Pakeha women are a function of their relationships with their menfolk and especially of social policy decisions made by (a male-dominated) government. Taken at face value, the title may also be seen to have had its genesis in that same system.

The book’s authors focus on how the ideologies of patriarchal systems are expressed in current social policy in New Zealand and serve to reinforce the economic dependence of women. The central themes of the book – the importance of women’s economic dependence on men and gender inequality – have ‘traditionally been regarded by feminists as major [obstacles to women’s] equality and freedom … The… economic power which men have over women [must be removed] if women are to have equal status and dignity.’

The book has been well researched and written by an entirely credible group of women. This is no mere collection of individual essays – each chapter is integrated around the selected themes. The end result is a coherent whole, and an important book which will undoubtedly find much use as a text.

Three perspectives of the book interested me: the feminist theoretical perspective; the theoretical potential of cross-cultural studies; and the potential for development of and contributions from Maori feminist studies.

As mirrored in the title, feminist theories have also grown from women’s experiences in patrilineal/ patriarchal societies where the practice of primogeniture denies titles to women (unless there are no sons). In such societies women are systematically disenfranchised by ensuring land is held by men and, until only recently, women finding it necessary to leave a marriage were denied the right to claim any of their own children. As explained in Celia Briar’s essay, ‘Women, Economic Dependency and Social Policy’, ‘materialist feminism’ – the perspective that appears to provide the framework for this book – ‘is … a theory which has gender inequality as its main focus but which also sees the exploitation of women by men (facilitated by women’s material dependence upon men) as a primary means by which inequality between the sexes is maintained.’

Some of the theoretical premises have been upheld by cross-cultural studies by Ester Boserup. According to Briar, Boserup found that although ‘men have continued to dominate and exploit women even in parts of the world where … [they] are recognised to be the main wealth producers’, her studies also revealed that ‘women who were seen to be wealth producers had greater social and sexual freedom and were more highly valued than dependent women in other societies.’

It is interesting, then, to note that Maori women have a different set of priorities. Briar explains that ‘for many Maori women it may seem more important that the Treaty of Waitangi should be honoured first, and that issues of gender inequality be fully addressed later. ‘The emphasis is different. Where, according to feminist materialism, gender inequality is the main focus, for many Maori women, the Treaty is a more important priority. No one would disagree with Briar’s conclusions that ‘Notwithstanding this first priority, Maori women are also affected by government policies … [which] treat Maori and Pakeha alike . . . and which ‘can have the effect of forcing many Maori women into economic dependence within a nuclear family unit’. It is well and repeatedly argued through the essays in the book, and especially in Phillida Bunkle and Jo Lynch’s essay, that these policies are products of a monocultural and patriarchal ideology.

What about the priorities set by the ‘many Maori women’? Why do they want to see Treaty issues dealt with first, and to leave issues of gender equality until later? Questions like these lend additional justification to Kathy Irwin’s plea, also cited in Briar’s essay: ‘Maori feminist studies need to be encouraged and supported … studies in which Maori women are the central focus. Research about the experiences and needs of Maori women is an urgent priority of the programmes of Maori development and the women’s movement so that our invisibility is ended and our testimony placed on the record.’

We are also reminded by Briar the opinion that ‘in traditional Maori society, sex roles were genuinely ‘equal but different” and men and women were interdependent.’ Briar and Craig both cite Kupenga, Rata and Rene, who write that ‘Pakeha did not accept women’s autonomy. Maori women’s history reflects the attitudes of Pakeha society – ‘an increase in gender inequality in Maori society has … been seen as the result of colonisation’. Comments recorded at the time of early European contact with the peoples of Mangaia, in the Cook Islands, and recently translated from Maori by Michael Reilly and published in the Journal of Polynesian Society, lend support to this argument.

Furthermore, in contrast to English‑speaking societies, which are both patrilineal and patriarchal, many Maori societies might be considered ambilineal one may trace descent through either male or female links. Rights of inheritance, as well as rights to one’s children, have a different history. Women in Cook Islands Maori societies, for example, have the right to inherit titles and to have control over land and at least some of their offspring. Although residence tends to be patrilocal (on the husband’s family lands), this is not absolute, and, in any event, their children (male or female) can claim rights to either parent’s family lands.

If Maori women in New Zealand have the similar right to inherit control over land – and if control over land lies at the base of economic development and economic independence for Maori society – then of course the Treaty is a first-order priority. Its recognition provides the means by which Maori women could achieve economic parity.

It is not difficult to imagine how the introduction of Christianity together with its patrilineal/ patriarchal ideology, disenfranchisement with the loss of control over the land, and the imposition of English with its sets of gender-specific personal pronouns might have worked together to erode Maori women’s position within Maori society – and introduce or exaggerate gender inequality. The effect of gender-specific personal pronouns on women in English‑speaking societies has been well demonstrated in publications by Adrienne Alton-Lee and Margaret McLaren in this country and by Dale Spender overseas.

Although the book was written by ‘a group of Pakeha women’ and was intended ‘to provide a critical analysis of … Pakeha social policy’ as seen from their perspective, the authors are also both aware of and concerned about the extent to which Maori women are doubly disadvantaged by such a system. I agree that there is a need to support the development of Maori feminist studies as outlined by Irwin.

With reference to Aotearoa, it would be interesting to read somewhere about the alternatives ambilineal and matriarchal/patriarchal cultural systems offer – and how the erosion of these systems since colonisation has served to disadvantage our Pacific sisters. An understanding of the process of their disenfranchisement and newly imposed poverty might further enlighten us about our own struggle for enfranchisement and escape from poverty.

One of the potential values of cross-cultural studies is that the researchers involved have the opportunity to learn as much – maybe even more – about themselves and their own culture as they have to learn about the other. Jean Hera’s essay about her search for her own death culture appears to be an example of this, as her journey seems to have been stimulated by her experience of Maori death culture.

Theoretically, the examination of women’s role in Pacific societies offers us the possibility to test some of the hypotheses developed in feminist theories based on assumptions about patriarchal systems as well as the effect of language on gender relations.

As I recall, in the beginning there was only Superman and later Superboy and Supergirl – but never a Superwoman. Superman’s role, of course, was to uphold the values and laws of white, middle‑class American society. Though I doubt it was intended, the title might be taken to mean, if only implicitly, that to survive successfully in our society, women must be or become like Superman. My own personal icon has been different. I can recall responding to what I felt were ‘superhuman’ expectations, with the statement, ‘ … give me a break, I’m not Wonderwoman!’

An alternative title, ‘Wonderwoman: Where Are You?’, is one I might have preferred both on alliterative and ideological grounds; that would be a real challenge to patriarchal societies. On the other hand, perhaps that title would be particularly relevant for a book which examined some of the post-colonial issues affecting women in Maori societies.


Marivee McMath studied anthropology at Otago University and has conducted research in the Cook Islands and New Zealand. She currently struggles to find time to write between meeting family responsibilities and running a small business.



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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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