Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Janus Women’s Convention 2005
Dale Williams (ed)
The Janus Trust, price not available,
Hands up all those who immediately switch off as soon as they see those tedious, ever-so-70s words “w—n” or “f—–sm”? Yes, I thought so. How about yacht racing?
I’ve kept a lot of press clippings from 1993. That was the year Grant Dalton skippered New Zealand Endeavour in the Whitbread – and incidentally, the hundredth anniversary of New Zealand women winning the vote. Here’s a photo of the crew lining up along the rails of the boat to say goodbye to a row of women, each holding a toddler. The headline speaks volumes: “Favourite Dalton takes nothing for granted.”
If you asked Helen Clark’s government or John Key’s opposition, they would both insist that they don’t take women’s unpaid work for granted. But apart from Shipley’s best-forgotten Code of Social Responsibility, Key’s crew would have some difficulty coming up with any proof of this from National’s post-1990 record in government.
Clark’s crew would point to policies such as 14 weeks’ paid parental leave and 20 hours’ free childcare. These do make a long overdue start on bringing New Zealand into line with best international practice. But, as Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland notes in this book, only seven developed countries score highly on the human development index for equality between men and women – and New Zealand is not one of them.
Still, nothing like paid parental leave was around in 1977, when I came back to New Zealand after four years away. Even the choice about having children couldn’t be taken for granted. (We did still have the family benefit, though it didn’t buy much by then.) I arrived just in time to take part in the protests against the appalling Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Bill, which approved abortions for women with intellectual disability, but not for victims of rape.
So I missed the second big women’s convention, held on a freezing Wellington weekend in 1975. But I did make the 2005 convention, organised by a group of those originally involved, to commemorate it and explore the theme of “Looking Back, Moving Forward”. It was a fascinating, often moving and at times deeply disheartening experience – because as Miriam Dell pointed out, nearly every workshop topic at the convention reflected one of 30 years ago.
It’s extremely useful to have a lasting record, and to be able to read again what the major speakers said. And what a line-up of distinguished women they were, many of them holding the kinds of positions we could barely dream of three decades ago, from Speaker of the House to CEO of Telecom to (recently retired) head of the World Health Organisation.
As they compared the 1970s and the 2000s, one word came up time and again. That word was “choice”. But there was no blithe celebration of success in expanding choice for women. Margaret Shields, one of the veterans of 1975 and a prime mover behind the 2005 convention, neatly summed up the catch-22 that many speakers saw as the central difference between 1975 and 2005: “The diversity of choice women yearned and struggled for back in the 1970s is a living reality for young women today. Their biggest problem is the price tags and the sacrifices they must make to take up their choices.”
Doesn’t choice always involve some sort of sacrifice? Yes, it does. But when choosing to do something that’s absolutely essential to society – having kids – means facing high risks which are not inevitable, and don’t apply to men, there’s something seriously wrong.
In one of the most illuminating contributions, demographer Janet Sceats gives a solidly research-based explanation of what those risks are. She speaks of “a kind of double jeopardy”, because “although the structures of families have changed and opportunities for women have increased, the norms about gender roles in the family seem to have remained remarkably stable.”
These norms play out endlessly both at home and at work. There’s a smart 70s cartoon where a stunned-looking boss is saying to a male employee, “You’re leaving to get married?” The 21st century equivalent would be “You need parental leave?”
Most women today opt for exactly what their 70s predecessors said they wanted: the combination of parenthood and employment that men can usually take for granted. The result is that in all save the wealthiest families, who can hire enough extra skilled labour to fill the gaps, women find themselves “at risk of trying to be the ideal mother that society expects them to be and … the worker that society needs them to be – and this is something that perhaps feminists thirty years ago did not anticipate.”
I think that what we didn’t foresee 30 years ago was the swing to the New Right, raised by other speakers, such as the CTU’s Carol Beaumont. This deeply gendered shift, which turns having children into nothing more than individual choice, has even more to do with what women are up against than the politics of housework; and it will take much more than a few “family-friendly” policies to fix.
Sceats’s colleague Tahu Kukutai reports on research showing how the women who used to be called “working mothers” (duh) see their lives. All too often, they end up feeling they’re “falling short” on both counts. Other speakers detail just how entrenched the penalties for motherhood are, in terms of pay, opportunity and loss of autonomy. This is why, despite women getting so much education and taking on so much paid work, the gender gap in median incomes isn’t budging. This matters all the more now that the risk of becoming a (previously partnered) sole mother is so great. And, as the younger women all stressed, student debt and sky-high housing costs don’t help either.
(You’ll notice that I’m not quoting any statistics here. This is because I am fed up to the back teeth with writing sentences that go: “X per cent of women earned Y, compared with Z percent of men” or “X per cent of women were killed by their partners last year, compared with Z percent of men”. If you don’t know what’s happening out there, look at the statistics for yourself. The many excellent papers in this book and the compilation put out by Statistics New Zealand for the convention, Focusing on Women (2005), are good places to start.)
Yet women now see their endless juggling acts as “a matter of personal preference or choice”. That’s currently the big difference from the 1970s. If I had to pinpoint the one thing that linked the huge numbers of women who supported the “second wave” of feminism, I’d say it was the realisation that what we were dealing with was not merely personal. It was structural, and change had to come at that level. But it was easier to work that out when equal pay was still a novelty, and an astonishing range of jobs was still openly barred to “girls” of all ages. Now it’s all much more confusing.
One way to avoid double jeopardy is not to have children. Helen Clark, Sylvia Cartwright and Theresa Gattung are among the 62 per cent of the (still small numbers of) women in full-time professional and managerial roles who have no children. Clark has been regularly attacked for that. Very few of their male counterparts have felt they needed to make this particular “choice”.
This July, the whole issue hit the headlines again – but not because women put it there. An Otago emeritus professor, said by the Sunday Star-Times to be an expert in the “interaction of intelligence, class and race”, pressed the panic button about a pattern that has long been well-known: the more education women manage to get, the fewer children they are likely to have.
A hundred years ago, Truby King urged the government to bar women from higher education. The professor took another tack: he suggested putting contraceptives in the water to stop “uneducated” women having all those “unplanned” children. I don’t think he’s read Zoe Fairbairns’ dystopian 1979 novel, Benefits, where the government does exactly that.
Somewhat more intelligently, he also suggested making it easier for educated women (and presumably all the other undesirable breeders as well) to have both children and careers. Now there’s a novel idea. Where has he been for the last 30 years, while women endlessly lobbied for precisely that? Still no mention, either, of how fathers fit into all this, as sources of intelligence or as child-rearers – there almost never is.
Bizarre as it was, this media flare-up may be one more sign that some serious attention will soon have to be paid to what is, alongside climate change, the most basic problem for us all – not “just” women. Despite intensifying commercial efforts to keep young women (and men) fixated on what Rosemary McLeod calls “Planet Crotch”, it may not take all that long before a whole lot more of them figure out that the limited “choices” currently on offer are nowhere near good enough for them, or their potential children; that change for the better has been far too slow; and that it’s not just their personal problem after all.
There’s a riveting scene in Benefits where all the unpaid and underpaid caregivers go on strike. They take their charges to government and corporate offices, and leave them there. Right now, I’m starting to think it’s worth a try.
Anne Else is a Wellington reviewer.