Transforming the Beehive? Naomi Diachuk and Brenda Cutress

Naomi Diachuk’s and Brenda Cutress’s reviews portray Parliament as an institution that is reluctant to change.


Naomi Diachuk

Making Policy, Not Tea: Women in Parliament
Arthur Baysting, Dyan Campbell and Margaret Dagg (eds),
Oxford University Press, $29.95

‘Walking into a Different Culture’ could easily be another subtitle for making Policy, Not Tea.

Here are New Zealand women, most of whom have made tea at some stage in their lives, but who have also striven in the wider world. On entering Parliament they discover the bastion of bastions of the Old Boys’ Club, or ‘bear pit’ as Marilyn Waring (Waipa) describes it. We refer to the august body as Members of Parliament, but ‘parliament’ is a word passed down from the French and therefore very European. Not particularly suitable for a country situated in the South Pacific where problems are normally debated until consensus is reached. Polynesians have no set speaking times for first, second and third readings of ‘bills’. The House of Representatives also appears a misnomer, why else would we presently have there only sixteen women, too few Maori (Whetu Tirikatene‑Sullivan, Southern Maori, would prefer to see ten Maori seats), and no Pacific Islanders, Indians or Chinese?

In this election year another publisher, McIndoe’s, has at least two books out to grab our attention. But Top of the Greasy Pole and making Your Vote Count must surely come second best to Oxford University Press’s Making Policy, Not Tea for women candidates and the host of women represented in the don’t knows of the election polls. These women will rediscover the difference in philosophy between the two main parties, and candidates should take Margaret Moir’s (West Coast) advice and talk to some MPs to establish how the long hours affect their family life.

In Making Policy, Not Tea, a swag of present-day women parliamentarians voice their opinions, expectations and findings. They were interviewed only once, the editors choosing to retain the spontaneity of the original conversations, rather than the strictures of the usual media‑cubed time space allocated to such interviews.

Given that women MPs are a minority, we should be able to recall most of their names. We certainly have strong feelings about Ruth, Jenny, Helen and Whetu (who has been in the House since 1967 and was the first to produce a baby while so employed). We recall Christine, from Mt Eden, and Katherine, from Waipa, renowned for ‘living on a benefit for a week’, or was it a month? If names and party affiliations escape you, there are biographical details in the appendices. Split into ‘political experience’ and ‘other details’ (useful for school projects), they confirm how well women serve their communities in all spheres. Many of the women interviewed have gained formidable tertiary education qualifications and accomplished multiple roles in the workplace. The first appendix is joined by a chronological order of Parliaments, showing who was in which Government and for which party.

The list begins with the Coalition Government in 1931 when Elizabeth McCombs won Lyttleton for Labour in a by-election created by the death of her husband. The 1930s, ’40s and ’50s had no more than four women MPs. Things didn’t improve until 1981 when there were six Labour members plus Ruth Richardson (Selwyn) and Marilyn Waring (for her third and final time) for National. Today, women make up 20 per cent of the House. That figure is a long way from that of 1931 but, according to Margaret Shields (Kapiti), the tone of Parliament will not alter substantially ‘until we have enough women going into politics to form a critical mass’. She comments that it’s all very well for a country to gain a woman prime minister, but that without other levels of activity the strides made are lost when she either resigns or is defeated.

A kaleidoscope of happenings for the women MPs are split up under such chapter headings as ‘The Media’, ‘Muldoon Years’, ‘Lange and Douglas’, ‘Issues’ and ‘Gender Politics’. In the chapter ‘Starting Out’, crunch time came for many of the women when they realised the rest of us were getting a raw deal in health or child care (they’ve finally got a crèche in Parliament), housing or employment; or simply because women were under-represented in everything except maternity wards and the five-yearly census. Robert Muldoon also spurred on many to take up arms.

We learn how, as women MPs, they coped collectively in Parliament, but within party lines, of course! Margaret Austin (Yaldhurst) and others were thorough in combating the rudeness and one-upmanship of their male colleagues. John Banks used to call Sonja Davies (Pencarrow) ‘Granny’ whenever she got up to speak. We read again of Marilyn Waring’s absolutely awful time, but of Ann Hercus (Lyttleton), the first woman Minister of Police, and who once received a turd in the mail, there is no personal text, only a photo and other people’s commendations. Current ministers obviously have the upper hand when talking policy, but Helen Clark (Mt Albert) is frank, and quoted at length, about proceedings when she was a minister in the Lange Cabinet and on the passing of various bills since she was elected in 1981.

We learn, too, of the women’s personal experiences while living in a totally male culture, which includes the discipline of the House Bells for divisions and the prestigious Standing Orders Committee that Christine Fletcher attempted to get on to. She was told that no one had a contribution to make until they had been in Parliament for at least two terms. She remarks that the mindless rules of her boarding schools are not unlike those of Parliament.

The male culture only knows responsibility if goals are set. It takes no account of a female system that sees what needs to be done, and is therefore attainable for the greater good. Helen Clark insists that government needs a social commitment. She says Tory women tend to think that because they’ve made it as individuals, then all other women can do so too. Most of the women quoted do, however, acknowledge support from their husbands and families, and often their grandmothers for initiating them into politics.

Politics is often seen as a power game by those outside Parliament, yet as Margaret Austin says, the ‘essence of a job is service’, and serve is what the women interviewed appear to do to the best of their ability. Hopefully, the Beehive will shortly be renamed ‘Teapot’, indicative of what Sonja Davies says we need – ’50 per cent of Parliamentarians as women’.

So far, true representation of our population hasn’t been tried. Nor has feminism or Christianity, according to Panmure’s Judith Tizard.


Naomi Diachuk, previously Naomi Lange, describes herself as a fledgling Auckland writer.


Brenda Cutress

Women and Parliament 1893‑1993: 100 Years of Institutional Change
Carol Rankin,
Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, $7.95

One of the many positive responses resulting from the celebration of women’s suffrage is State sector organisations’ participation in projects reflecting on the increasing role of women in these organisations. Women and Parliament is one such project. Carol Rankin, the first woman appointed (in 1985) to the position of Sergeant-At-Arms to the House of Representatives, is well qualified to write this interesting monograph.

In this short, well‑researched and easy to read book, the author includes copious fascinating facts, anecdotes and insights, of which the majority of readers will be unaware. For example, only two months after women gained the vote, 109,416 of them had managed to register in the November 1893 election. This figure comprised 41 per cent of the 202,082 electors who voted. It is illuminating how Maori women, due to a drafting oversight in the Electoral Bill, almost obtained the right to enter Parliament in 1893; a right that was not, in fact, obtained until 1919. The book’s appendix contains extracts from the suffrage debates. one hundred years on they seem almost amusing, but at the time how angry, disappointed and appalled women must have been at some of the remarks.

Women and Parliament reveals that, as in so many other areas where women have strived to achieve equality, the struggle to attain equal rights in Parliament has been long and difficult. Women and the other women who work in Parliament have endured hostility and indignities over the years. It is surprising to learn that so many changes, taken for granted today, occurred comparatively recently. Although women were reporting from Parliament last century, they were not admitted to membership of the Press Gallery until 1965, women visitors to Parliament were denied admittance to the floor of the House (as opposed to the Gallery) until 1972 and a Parliamentary crèche was not established until 1992.

The author concludes by stating that how well the institution of Parliament has adjusted to the changing role of women depends on the reader’s perspective. My interpretation is of an institution that has been slow and reluctant to change. It is regrettable that an institution which should have been at the leading edge of advancing the rights of women has lagged behind. The booklet confirms what so many women know: whenever advances are sought in the social, political or economic status of women, the struggle will be long and hard, requiring patience and endurance.


Brenda Cutress is a Wellington lawyer.


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