Women past and present, Kim Worthington

Women Equality Power: Helen Clark: Selected Speeches from a Life of Leadership
Allen and Unwin, $45.00,
ISBN 9781988547053

Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage
Bronwyn Labrum (ed)
Te Papa Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780994146007

If there was ever a year in which to publish a collection of Helen Clark’s speeches, 2018 was it. This was, after all, the year in which New Zealand celebrated the 125th anniversary of the granting of female suffrage, the first nation in the world to do so. This not only gave women the right to vote, but ultimately led to women being able to enter parliament (although this took a further 30-odd years) – and finally become leaders of the nation. It was also the year in which one of Clark’s Labour Party mentees, Jacinda Ardern, became our third female New Zealand prime minister, gave birth while in office and, after a very short period of maternity leave, resumed her professional role. This is not irrelevant to both books under review – Ardern writes the foreword to Clark’s collected speeches, is mentioned more than once in Clark’s later speeches, and in Women Now. 2018 was also the year in which the #MeToo movement gained its most traction worldwide, something that is referred to several times in both books under review.

Women Equality Power: Selected Speeches from a Life of Leadership is roughly divided into two parts. The first opens with Clark’s maiden speech to parliament as the representative for the Mt Albert (Auckland) electorate in 1981 and includes 34 other speeches delivered in the 27 years Clark remained in parliament (nine of these as prime minister), concluding with her valedictory speech of April 2009. The second half of the book collects 30 speeches and lectures given by Clark in the nine years that followed her departure from New Zealand politics to take up the role of Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – the first woman to lead the organisation. These later speeches are far more overtly focused on women’s issues than those in the first part of the book (although issues to do with gender equity are threaded through the whole), as a sample of titles suggests: “Women and Power”, “Inclusion and Equality: Why Women’s Leadership Matters”, “Yes She Can: Women and Leadership”, “The Effect of the Global Financial Crisis on Women”, “Gender Equality and Women’s Leadership”, “The Role of Women in Transforming Societies” and the concluding speech, “Breaking the Glass Ceilings: Reflections on the Future of Women’s Leadership”.

The first part of the book offers a valuable insight into almost three decades of New Zealand politics, albeit, of course, from one (Labour Party) perspective. Clark’s unwavering commitment to the fundamentals of the Labour Party are evident from the very first speech to the last and fully justify the inclusion of the word “equality” in the book’s title. In the former, she speaks of “the injustice of prevailing social conditions”, asserting that “It is a basic tenet of my philosophy that a society can be judged on how it treats its weakest members – the sick, the disabled, the young and the elderly” and “We [the Labour Party] believe the state must act to correct the imbalances in our society that favour the rich and the powerful.” These egalitarian ideals are repeated in almost every speech, including the rather more personal valedictory one (which includes one of the few mentions of her husband, Peter Davis): 

Deep in our nation’s roots is the ethos that Jack is as good as his master – and these days Jill is as good as her mistress. … I deeply detest social distinction and snobbery, and in that lies my strong aversion to titular honours. 

In her “Official New Year’s Day Address” (2000) Clark says:

My hopes for the future are simply expressed. Would it not be wonderful to live in a world where no child went hungry and homeless, where all communities experience peace and decent living standards and show tolerance towards others, where the environment is truly clean and green, and where affirmation occurs through cultural and creative expression.

Given our current “housing crisis”, especially in Auckland, there is something awfully proleptic in Clark’s 1982 assertion: 

in most parts of Auckland, house and rent prices have soared beyond the reasonable reach of working people. The government’s lack of a housing policy now adversely affects those who have cared for their state houses with pride over three or four decades. 

And that was then, almost 40 years ago.

What the book documents is very important for historians, political scientists, policy analysts and sociologists (etc). The earliest speech was written a year after the nationally divisive Springbok rugby tour, and traverses the tumultuous decades that followed: the refusal to allow nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters, France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific and the Rainbow Warrior bombing, “Rogernomics”, the introduction of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, the deaths of Princess Diana and Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu (two of the collected speeches are tributes to these women), Waitangi Day tensions and the development of the Waitangi Tribunal, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and military intervention in East Timor and Afghanistan. All of these are the topics of individual speeches or foregrounded in several speeches. Key policy introductions and law changes – such as the extension of maternity leave and annual holiday leave, 20 free hours of early childhood education and “Working for Families” tax breaks – are reiterated in speech after speech. Increasingly, over the years, another central issue becomes evident: environmental concerns and the importance of “sustainability” more generally.

The collection deserves a place in every academic and public library. But it is not, for the most part, engaging reading. I can’t imagine a “lay reader” who is unable to put the book down – it is more likely to fall out of their hands as they drift off. There is no speech here that would go down in history as “great” (unlike those of Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy or Ghandi, say). The earlier speeches are carefully directed to “middle” New Zealand: sensible, simple in grammar and diction, and persuasive by appeal to reason rather than rhetoric. As the years go by there is some increase in the use of rhetorical questions but, by and large, whether advocating law change as a speaker in the House, or reporting on party success as prime minister (such as at times of election and re-election), what we read is earnest and solid, even stolid. Repeated key messages to voters and colleagues are a crucial part of every politician’s spoken repertoire, but to read them collected in writing, speech after collected speech, page after page, becomes pretty tedious.

While issues of gender equity are evident throughout, during the New Zealand political years these are almost always part of a broader emphasis on equality more generally. The later speeches and lectures (after Clark took up her role at the United Nations) are far more focused on the first and third words of the book’s title: “women” and “power”. This is perhaps unsurprising, as many of the speeches are “key note” addresses or lectures to organisations, conferences or summits, at which Clark was clearly invited to speak precisely because of her position as one of the world’s most powerful female leaders. The tone of the speeches changes, understandably, because of the changed audiences at such events: no longer middle New Zealanders, but academics, politicians and other world-leading influencers. 

The “speeches” often read more like essays, carefully organised according to sub-headings and bullet points. In all of them, Clark’s unfailing commitment to equality – understood in its widest sense – remains at the forefront. Issues to do with “[s]exual and gender-based violence”, in the earlier speeches addressed primarily to New Zealand, are now extended to the world. The claims made are often direct and declarative: “I do believe that having a critical mass of women in leadership and decision-making positions is positive for human development in all countries – whether developed or developing” (2012); “poverty, inequality and environmental sustainability are inter-linked global challenges and need to be tackled concurrently” (2012); “promoting gender equality and empowering women as agents of change and leaders of the development processes which shape their lives [will result in] a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient world” (2015); “No country will reach its full potential without empowering women” (2016). 

There are many problems that attend the written publication of speeches – which are originally, of course, spoken. Linear sentences on a page can’t in any way replicate the affective qualities of the spoken word: intonation, pauses, tonal emphases, modulated volume. Reading speeches is thus inherently problematic (setting aside the question of whether the speaker actually wrote the speeches herself, or to what degree – something this short review cannot address). Moreover, the publication of “selected” printed speeches begs significant questions: who did the selecting, and on what terms? Academic Jennifer Curtin writes the introduction to this edition, but at no point is it made clear whether she selected the included speeches (she is not at any stage identified as “editor”), or on what grounds these selections were made. This is not intended as a series of nit-picking questions, but cut to the heart of the credibility and intelligibility of the collection. (When I told one of my colleagues I was reviewing this book, he asked whether it was a “vanity publication”.)

The conclusion to Curtin’s introduction highlights the clear link between the two books under review: “Kate Sheppard, Harriet Morrison and their suffragist sisters would no doubt be most satisfied with the result of their labours.” Women Now offers an innovative, interesting, and highly readable collection of short essays by a diverse range of 12 New Zealand writers on, as the subtitle suggests, “the legacy of female suffrage” to commemorate the 125 years since New Zealand women were given the vote. Ours was the first nation in the world to do so; women in Britain would need to wait until 1928 for the same right.

The first volume in Te Papa Press’s “Thinking About” series, Women Now promises much from future volumes. The brief to the diverse contributing writers was simple, as suggested in editor Bronwyn Labrum’s introduction: “each writer was given an object of significance to New Zealand women from Te Papa’s collection and asked to respond to the object in whichever way they chose.” I wonder, along the lines suggested above, about how these items were selected, and who did the selecting. It’s worth asking, too, how the contributing writers were selected and, while Labrum’s introduction makes much of the fact that two male writers were included, why only two? These are Ben Schrader and Morgan Godfery who write, respectively, in response to a “Women against the Tour” badge and a bronze bust of a Māori woman by Margaret Butler.

The tone and style of the essays varies immensely (although all are written in the first person). Some are pretty conventional – linear recollections prompted by the particular object provided: a tea towel, a bank note, a stamp, a poster. Others are more lyrical, like Grace Taylor’s thoughts in response to a “pussy hat” in which poetry and prose are juxtaposed in a searching discussion about “feminism” – the word and the movement. “Am I a feminist?” she asks. “If so, am I feminist enough?”; “Why does this empowerment feel so close to what we escaped from?”

Some of the essays are deeply personal, and moving. Tina Makereti’s, prompted by a poi made by Ngāhina Hohaia, reminds us that “An object tells a story, and the story it tells changes person to person, place to place.” Her response is to tell “the story that the poi tells me”, a story about abuse, loss, origins and hope – and the power we have to choose which stories “we give light to. But also the stories we refuse.” In response to an old packet of contraceptive pills, Fiona Kidman writes of the “terror” experienced by women, in relation to sex, prior to the availability of the pill: the results could deliver shame and grief in equal measure, possible rejection by parents, the lonely desperate giving of birth in cruel and unfeeling surroundings, the loss of children, bitterness and shame. She discusses New Zealand’s dated abortion laws, too, and concludes with a passionate appeal for “the right of women to control their own fertility”. This, she suggests, is about more than “personal freedom”. It is “also a measure of social justice and equality, and improved relationship between the sexes.” Holly Walker’s essay considers a “Women can do anything” badge with some bitterness and a great deal of honesty. Framed by an account of the birth of her second child, she writes of her mental health struggles while trying to “do it all” – be a new mother and an MP: “It did not go well. There was extreme anxiety. There was rage. There was self-doubt. Most frightening of all, there was self-harm.” What she has to say will surely resonate with all women who have struggled to be a good mother and maintain a successful career: “‘Having it all’. That old chestnut. The evil cousin of ‘Women can do anything’; now we must do everything.”

In the space available here, I’m not able to discuss all of the essays, although each deserves to be. Perhaps this is not a bad thing, as I will not give away all of the treats in store for the readers of this provocative collection.

Kim Worthington teaches English literature at Massey University.

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Posted in Essays, Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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