Political Roundup: The state of feminism in 2017

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Prime Minister Bill English and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Feminism is more mainstream than ever before. And as a society we’re talking more about gender issues, inequality and sexual politics. But what does “feminism” mean in 2017 New Zealand? And is it being incorporated into the Establishment.

By Bryce Edwards

Feminism is hot. And gender issues are everywhere in New Zealand politics in 2017. This isn't a new thing - but a continuation of a recent revival of gender politics.

At the end of 2015 I argued that we were seeing The Rise of gender politics and feminism: "It's becoming increasing popular to identify as feminist, even if you're a man, and especially if you're a politician. This year has seen a surge of concern about gender inequality, discrimination and the degraded position of women in many aspects of New Zealand life."

The trend has only continued since then. There has been an explosion of activity about gender inequality, concerns with sexism and misogyny in public life and politics, a renewed questioning of the abortion laws, awareness raising about "rape culture" and gendered violence.

And of course we have seen the downfall of high profile men over their controversial remarks about gender-related issues - for example, Saatchi & Saatchi's Kelvin Roberts and Massey University's Chris Kelly.

Prime Minister Bill English recently got in trouble with feminists for his reluctance to define himself as a feminist, together with his stated uncertainty about what feminism now means. Deputy PM Paula Bennett was also criticised when she said there are days when she's too busy to be concerned with feminist issues.

On the back of International Women's Day everyone's being asked: Are you a feminist? And even broadcaster Mike Hosking says he is - see Rachel Smalley's Are you a feminist? The question many politicians won't answer.

And, why not identify with and celebrate feminism? There's certainly plenty of achievements to celebrate. With the smashing of glass ceilings, women are now achieving in the elite areas of art, commerce and politics.

But there's obviously still a long way to go. For a look back at progress over recent decades, with an additional analysis of the state of feminism and gender relations today, see Joelle Dally's Making policy, not tea: Second-wave feminists say gender equality still a battle worth fighting, and Sandra Coney's speech, International Women's Day, 47 years on, how far have we come?.

Questioning feminism

While feminism has become more fashionable and mainstream, there have also been questions asked about the state of feminism and the direction that gender politics is headed.

One of the most provocative critics of feminism is American gender equality campaigner and author Jessa Crispin, currently visiting New Zealand to promote her book: Why I Am Not a Feminist. Her book is receiving plenty of publicity - including a feature in the Sunday Star Times magazine by Sarah Catherall - see: Steering clear of the 'F' word: US visiting writer Jessa Crispin talks tarot cards and modern feminism.

In this, Crispin explains the disappointments of contemporary "third wave" feminism. According to Catherall, Crispin complains that "feminism has become banal and mainstream".

Essentially Crispin is critiquing feminism from the political left, and accusing the feminist movement of selling out, and becoming obsessed with self-change and the empowerment of elites, rather than the systematic change of wider society so that all women - and men - can benefit.

She says that women at the top are just as much a problem as men at the top.

The magazine also lists a number of ways in which Crispin defines modern feminism, including the following:

• "A narcissistic reflexive thought process: I define myself as a feminist, so everything I do is a feminist act, no matter how banal or regressive - i.e., no matter what I do, I am a hero."

• "A fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor."

• "A method of shaming and silencing anyone who disagrees with you, inspired by a naïve belief that disagreement or conflict is abuse."

• "A protective system utilizing trigger warnings, politically correct language, mob rule and straw man arguments to prevent a person from ever feeling uncomfortable or challenged."

Crispin spoke to RNZ's Kim Hill in the weekend about her analysis of feminism - see the follow-up report: Jessa Crispin: Why She's Not a Feminist. According to this item, "Crispin says contemporary feminism has lost its way - and the divide between the movement's rhetoric and the real-life experience of women is only getting bigger."

And she says in the interview that "While 'taking someone down' for misogyny may feel empowering, it only contributes to a culture of fear and resentment" - you can listen to the whole 43-minute interview with Kim Hill. And you can attend Crispin's talk tonight at Wellington's San Francisco Bathhouse.

A local commentator on gender issues and inequality, Narelle Henson, also recently wrote a column titled: Why I'm not a feminist.

Continued below.

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She explains how she has "all the credentials of an A-grade feminist" but says she has "ended up feeling so completely unrepresented by the modern feminist movement. It's not that I'm ambivalent towards it. I quite vehemently feel that at every turn it is undermining my contribution to this world."

But what's more, Henson says "these days feminism seems to rely on making women feel like the hapless victims of men - unreliable, awful men. It's all so sexist and so disempowering."

A few days ago, Henson continued her story, saying Feminists are fighting a losing battle. This is in reaction to a column by Rosemary McLeod - see: Farewell Jane Roe, complicated champion of abortion rights.

Henson argues that contemporary feminists "have hijacked a movement that used to be about equality, which a lot of women can relate to, and transformed it into a movement that is all about man-hating, which virtually no women can relate to." She argues that it's quite possible to be in favour of gender equality and women's' liberation without calling yourself a feminist.

And she cites surveys overseas in which only 20 per cent of Americans, and only seven per cent of British, call themselves feminists - despite the fact that belief in gender equality is now so widespread. She suggests the numbers are likely to be similar here.

Feminist capitalism and women at the top

Certainly a major feature of contemporary New Zealand feminism is an elite-orientation towards getting women represented in business and places of power. This is best represented in the recent Listener cover story by Michele Hewitson: Theresa Gattung: The feminist capitalist who stole a march.

A former CEO of Telecom, and entrepreneur involved in the My Food Bag business, Gattung has become a poster-child for modern feminism due to her accomplishments. According to the article, she describes herself as a "feminist capitalist", and celebrates how fashionable feminist capitalism has become.

Gattung is concerned with "why so few women are billionaires and CEOs" - the so-called "diamond ceiling", and has thrown herself into projects such as bringing worldwomen17 - a non-profit venture to encourage more businesswomen - to Auckland from March 17-19. See also, the Listener's Why aren't more women getting to the top of business?.

There are huge gender disparities at the top. And with World Women's Day this week, this was one of the main focuses in feminist debate and media coverage. In particular, see Holly Ryan's Women on boards - NZ lagging behind, and Max Towie's All-male boards revealed.

And other elite areas of business are having a light shone on them in terms of how women are faring - see John Bowie's Which woman tops the list of New Zealand's most powerful lawyers?.

Although the origins of the World Women's Day were based in the socialist movement of the early 1900s, and was specifically a "working" women's day, it's now become something for businesses to get involved in. To see more about the activities of local feminist capitalists, see Idealog's Businesses get behind International Women's Day.

Women at the bottom

The current gender conversations aren't all about women getting to the top. In fact, probably the most important gender issue for years has been the struggle to get equal pay for women in industries that have historically been severely underpaid.

For the best analysis of this, see Catherine Trundle's Treat Her Right: Why it's time for us to start caring about care work.

In this, Trundle says feminism is often about the necessary "calling out" of "overt sexism", but this shouldn't be the main goal of a progressive struggle: "there is always something about such public outcries, which tend to fall into silence as quickly as they erupt, that make me pause.

I'm reminded of the crucial fact that this is not the main problem we face. The greater issue is one that underpins the workings of our whole society and in which, willingly or unwillingly, aware or unaware, we are all complicit.

This is the question of how we value, reward and notice the work that women do." See also, Ben Mather's Government Should Focus on Caring Work Like they Focus on Cows.

If you're looking for the bigger picture and how to make more systematic change, there's a new book out this week by Victoria University of Wellington's Prue Hyman - see: New book explores the economics of gender inequality in New Zealand.

All of these gender issues need a much bigger debate as there are so many important factors involved. And hopefully the discussion will get wider, rather than narrower.

Finally, for a satirical take on Paula Bennett's part-time feminism, see Katie Parker's opinion piece on RNZ's The Wireless website: Diary of a Most Days Feminist.

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