I am woman, here me roar,
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much
To go back to pretend.
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor,
No one’s ever going to keep me down again.
Oh, yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain.
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I’ve gained.
If I have to, I can do anything.
I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.
How we belted out Helen Reddy’s anthem to women’s liberation at the close of the first United Women’s Convention in 1973. Linked shoulder-to-shoulder, we surged around the auditorium, sisters in struggle, fists pumping the air on the final triumphant line.
Whether we wore Indian muslin, blue jeans or jersey-knit suits, women came together under the banner of unity to build a movement dedicated to improving the situation of New Zealand women.
A quarter of a century later, in the final weeks of the millennium, “I am woman” has become the theme song of a television advertisement for urinary incontinence pads. In the advertisement, the “pain” and “price” women have paid is now incontinence following childbirth; “the gain” that made it worthwhile, a baby and motherhood.
This emblematic imagery encapsulates how deeply muddled we are about feminism and women at the end of the 20th century.
The great “gain” the women in the advertisement celebrate – baby/motherhood – has been within women’s grasp since the beginning of time. It has been a source of women’s achievement and joy, but also their burden and oppression. Custom, social policy and economic dependence have combined to lock women into it.
The women’s movement sought to free women from synonymity with their biology. Men reproduce too, but are not defined by it. Helen Reddy’s song for the movement doesn’t mention motherhood: her “woman” is a sister in a giant movement triumphantly marching towards self-actuality. When we yelled that we could do “anything”, none of us had motherhood in mind.
At the close of the century, motherhood is represented as a feminist achievement. Paid work and career are givens: motherhood is the new iconic symbol of female identity. The new century’s woman will be career woman, “babe” and mother too.
Instead of Reddy’s “anything”, women are to do everything. The old and the new; the chosen and the imposed. Of course, that women do everything is not a new proposition.
In the early years of what is commonly dubbed the “second wave” of feminism, the cover of the inaugural issue of the American feminist magazine Ms featured a many-armed woman busily engaged in a multiplicity of tasks. Not coincidentally, the first issue of the New Zealand feminist magazine Broadsheet, which came out in the same month as Ms, featured a similar image of robot-woman busily doing many things simultaneously.
Back then, women had difficulty undertaking activities outside the home – such as career, study, or artistic pursuit. There was social censure when women entered the public world beyond the domestic sphere. Social policy was built on the model of the breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother that had been central to the social security reforms of the First Labour Government.
In the middle years of the century, government policies which supported home-based women, such as free maternity care and the family benefit, had strong approval from women. Women’s ambitions and those of government – for a healthier, better-educated and larger population – converged. Family women were seen as the key to community stability and social cohesion. The struggle for such things as reproductive control and equal pay – which would gain greater independence for women – was left to the agitation of a few mainly union, feminist and left-wing women.
Today, motherhood is the role that has to be slotted in.
Women work until the labour pains begin and plan a return to the workforce before the post-partum bleeding is complete. Birth by surgical removal is inexorably on the rise. That this is women’s “choice” has been proffered as an explanation. Busy women, in thrall to their corporate ambitions, seek to control birth in the same way that they organise their lives. Additionally, they fear damage to the birth canal which has a new exclusivity as sexual playground.
The truth is that women enter childbirth with their energy sapped by their need to vacate their jobs for the smallest period of time for fear someone else will grab them. Government maternity services policy has appropriated feminist arguments about the wellness of birthing women by cutting hospital stays and postnatal support. Breastfeeding is on the decline as women cannot access the most basic of lactation advice. Recent research showed that 15% of new mothers could not even get their babies to “latch on”.
Women’s “mothering” has expanded as a result of recent less-state policies. The social welfare functions of the state are increasingly devolved to women. Institutions have disgorged their mentally ill and intellectually disabled. Outpatient treatment of the sick is the trend among health services. Families, wanting to preserve parental possessions from state asset-stripping, argue to keep mum or dad out of institutional care. Policies of “community care” really mean care by women, whether unpaid and informal or as grossly underpaid homecare workers.
Despite this expansion of women’s traditional role, women’s biology is now invisible in social policy. Attempts to engage with the state over particular issues have been resoundingly unsuccessful. Paid parental leave is an obvious example. Despite the use of a gender-neutral term to disguise that this was really a women’s issue, it failed to be accepted as social policy. Only political embarrassment persuaded the National Government to introduce a meagre childbirth tax break.
Although the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has made heroic efforts to infuse social policy with a gender perspective, there is a deeply entrenched resistance to doing so within government circles. Affirmative action is accepted for Maori (perhaps, cynically, to devolve responsibility for social disadvantage to Maori themselves), but women’s policy has long ceased to be fashionable. Having women’s policy implies that more needs to be done, and this might cost money. It also contradicts the convenient right-wing fiction that the new market economy has worked for women. The huge growth in part-time work is applauded by the National Government as “family friendly” – suiting the family “responsibilities” of women – rather than the reality: the de-skilling and under-employment of women.
Having fought under the banner of more opportunities and choices for women, the multiple roles women are expected to play are now judged to be their “choice”.
The rhetoric of feminism has been brought to the service of the market. The level playing field of economic competition takes no account of age-old prejudices, socio-economic class or biological (or ethnic) difference. What you do is what you choose of your own free will. Participation in the market is the only route offered to success. A high income is the precondition of freedom.
Previously, one aim of social policy was to channel women into the nationalistic roles of keeping homes and reproducing and rearing children. Policies in education, health and social security rewarded women who were compliant and obstructed or punished women who were “deviant”.
Much of the agitation of the late 1960s and 1970s was aimed at re-ordering social policy to support women in having more choices in how they led their lives. Examples of the gains made are women’s access to contraception and abortion, equal entry into university courses, and financial support for sole parents.
For the first 70 years of the century, social policy shaped the lives of women. From the late 60s women worked to align social policy with their liberation goals. In the last decade, social policy has become gender-neutral. Reproduction, once seen as a positive benefit to the nation, is now seen as an individual choice and thus not deserving of significant state support.
Some paragraphs might now be devoted to demonstrating that women have not reached anything like equality, let alone liberation. But perhaps one statistic alone shows starkly the distance to go.
Women in full-time work earn 79% the earnings of their male counterparts, a gap that cannot be explained by differences in male and female employment patterns.
Women need to keep fighting but they are stumped by the rhetoric of the market. The women’s liberation movement was pluralistic and inclusive, but the only strand that has survived as an organised lobby was the reformist, equal rights arm. It never sought a revolution in gender relations nor to upset the machinery of capitalism. It simply sought equal opportunity for women and a larger voice in the running of the state. Technically, we have achieved these.
In addition, women are now divided amongst themselves more extremely than ever before. There have always been class differences among women, but there is now a small elite of women who are prospering through their own efforts, rather than through advantageous marital alliances with rich men. Meanwhile, the great mass of working women has become poorer. The widening gap between well-to-do women and poor women is part of a larger trend towards a widening gap between the rich and poor of either sex. What is happening in society at large is also occurring in microcosm among women.
The generation of feminists who sang “I am woman” is now getting on in years. The feminist movement – as an organised radical force – collapsed after nasty power-plays and internal arguments about tactics. Free-wheeling from the start, there was nothing to stop it flying apart when the rot set in.
That generation of feminists has either retired into personal solutions or sought other routes. Of the six local speakers at the 1973 United Women’s Convention, four – Phillida Bunkle, Margaret Wilson, Margaret Shields and Marian Logeman (Hobbs) – have engaged in parliamentary politics but have found it difficult to advance feminist goals.
Young women have never been exposed to authentic feminist thought, only the version promoted by the market which amounts to an ineffectual bolshiness (the “babe with balls”) or earning lots of dosh. Feminism is depicted as a supermarket pick-and-mix of success, power, money, glamour, fun and sex.
At a recent seminar I was involved in organising, which pitched young women against some old hands on the theme “Is the future female?”, the young women saw corporate success as the way to go. The irony that we have a government and a major opposition party led by women seemed not to shake their belief that by joining business elites women could make changes for other women.
Neither the vision of a Theresa Gattung presiding over workforce “down-sizing”, nor a Margaret Bazley demonising welfare “dependency”, nor the foreign ownership of much New Zealand business, seemed to shake this belief that the elevation of individual women would have benefits for women as a group.
The twenty-something generation are children of the market. They have grown up with the valorising of individualism, and they carry their own personal dead weight in the form of student debt. This single social policy ensures that they do not look beyond their own need at larger issues and they are dissuaded from political organising by the need to compete.
The women’s liberationists of the 1970s emerged from the suburbs and the universities. In the 1990s, the suburbanites have disappeared into the workforce, spending their out-of-work hours in “quality time” with their kids. Feminism in the universities has been overtaken by post-modernism, which posits language as the site of struggle and subversion and which rejects social activism as futile.
Feminism is paralysed by its own success in elevating a few women, and by the wider cultural belief that social activism is for whingers, suckers and a few deranged huggers of trees.
It is hard to see a way out of this bind as we enter the new millennium.
Sandra Coney is an Auckland writer on women’s and health matters. Her book Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls was reviewed in our June issue.