The other f-word, Rae Julian

Rethinking Women and Politics: New Zealand and Comparative Perspectives
Kate McMillan, John Leslie and Elizabeth McLeay (eds)
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736109

Rethinking Women and Politics is based on a series of papers prepared for a Wellington workshop in May 2007. Rather than defining politics as the sphere of governments, it adopts the feminist mantra of the 1970s, “the personal is political”. Its chapters track the women’s movement since that time, mapping progress and shortcomings in various areas of concern, while seeking to analyse the processes of change. A key reference point is the type of central government in power at each stage. An underlying question asks what happened to the energies and achievements generated by the women of the 1960s and 1970s. Why has feminism become an f-word?

Elizabeth McLeay suggests in the introductory chapter that “the position of women in the world of politics several decades after the second wave of women’s activism could be characterised as showing promise at best and, at worst, as deeply disappointing.” She also questions whether the right to choose – another mantra of second-wave feminism – was ever fully reached through all of the attitudinal and legal changes that were necessary for choice to become a reality?

These questions are answered to some extent by the contributors. Sandra Grey uses literary sources to demonstrate that “during the late 1980s and early 1990s many organisations shifted from grassroots and decentralised organisations to more professional, hierarchical or bureaucratic operational styles”, attributing this move to their belief that Parliament could bring about desired changes.

Prue Hyman is more optimistic about the survival of feminism but points out that the domination during the same period of the economic New Right, with its market policies, outweighed the effects of targeted polices such as equal employment opportunities. She describes the growth and diversity of feminism across a wide spectrum – from conservative and establishment-focused, to liberal, and further to the radical groups that worked outside the system through protest and concrete action to combat rape, violence and discrimination – as inevitably leading to disunity.

Anne Else, like Hyman a second-wave feminist, follows the same theme, exploring the changes in government from 1984. She follows the women’s vote, which largely supported Labour in the early 1980s, then fell away as the effects of macro-economic policies became clear. National, however, received less support from women than men throughout the 1990s, attributed by Else mainly to Helen Clark’s leadership of the Labour Party, seen as showing more concern for social issues. This trend continued into the 21st century, until by 2004 “only one third of women voted National”.

Jennifer Curtin studies the increase in Labour women politicians and the achievements of four Labour women Cabinet Ministers in the 1984-1990 and 1999-2008 periods. She attributes  successes to the role of the Labour Women’s Council and the Labour Women’s Organisers, describing the council as a separate space for debate and a platform for challenge, as well as “an alternative reference group for women leaders”. The achievements of the first period – the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, rape law reform, permanent part-time work in the public service, parental leave, employment equity, early childhood and childcare improvements – she contrasts with those of the second. These tended to be submerged into wider, non-gender-specific social legislation. Curtin links this to the backlash against women leaders during the second period, accusations of a “nanny state” and the lack of outcry from the women’s organisations, culminating in Labour’s defeat in 2008.

An analysis by Tania Domett of work-life balance, a Labour policy promoted as benefiting women, yielded surprising results. She found it to be an “employer-friendly policy” promoted as assisting mothers to return to work but doing little to either relieve their home pressures or advance their careers. Without policies that include pay equity, part-time managerial positions, encouraging fathers to take up part-time work, and a new national focus away from “expanding markets and economic growth”, work-life balance is seen as a “band-aid remedy”.

It appears that by 2000, feminism had gone underground or become theme-focused, lacking support from the new generation of women. Nicola Wilson-Kelly and Bronwyn Hayward study the attitudes of a small non-representative group of young women who see feminism as a stereotype to which they do not relate, preferring femininity. They regard politics as masculine and have generally negative images of politicians.

Other chapters examine the position of women in various sectors of the workforce. Jean Drage reports on a very comprehensive survey of women in local government, showing that following the peak of representation in 1998, there has been a slight decline in women councillors and mayors. Although the number of women staff has increased over the period, women are only five per cent of chief executives and 24 per cent of second-tier managers. Jenny Neale indicates a number of informal barriers that prevent women from advancing beyond mid-levels in academia. Kate McMillan describes the New Zealand contribution to a global media-monitoring project, showing women were only 26 per cent of news subjects, possibly reflecting their low representation at board or editorial levels. She poses the dilemma – is the media seen as catering to the audience interest or does it create that interest?

The book suggests a number of reasons for the widespread negative reaction to feminism after the mid-1980s. On the whole, the arguments are cogently developed, and some are based on thorough research. Other chapters are reliant mainly on secondary sources: literature, media and other reports.

This is disappointing, as interviews with key feminists across the decades and some non-feminist women and men would have yielded additional and more accurate information, as well as providing more certainty. Clearly more research must be done if we are to understand fully the correlation between second-wave feminism and politics. That research must be followed up by action if the women of Aotearoa New Zealand can hope to achieve equality and real choice.


Rae Julian is a Wellington reviewer.


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