The Progressive Sisterhood: In 1984 Labour's women MPs launched a round of consultative assemblies - Women's Forums - to identify the priorities of their proposed Ministry of Women's Affairs (now the Ministry for Women). Unfortunately, this well-meaning exercise in participatory democracy very nearly ended in disaster. Progressive feminist reforms turned out to be much more easily engineered from above than below.
IT WAS ONE of the Fourth Labour Government’s more progressive initiatives, and its most productive outcome, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, endures to this day. It was, however, an initiative that also ended up spinning out of control in ways that its instigators neither anticipated nor appreciated. Indeed, so aggrieved were Labour’s feminists at the outcome of their well-meaning experiment in “participatory democracy” that its most important political lessons remain unacknowledged and, for the most part, forgotten.
The election of the David Lange-led Labour Government in July 1984 provided the first opportunity for Second Wave Feminism to show what it could do with the full resources of the state at its back. Labour’s women MPs: Anne Hercus, Margaret Shields, Helen Clark, Fran Wilde, Anne Fraser, Annette King, Margaret Austin and Judy Keall, along with the party’s president, Margaret Wilson, were determined to make rapid progress for women after nearly a decade of government by, of and for Rob Muldoon’s “ordinary blokes”.
Pushing them forward was the Labour Women’s Council – a body which had grown rapidly, both in size and influence, since the late 1970s. The consciousness-raising effects of the violent misogyny experienced by women during the 1981 Springbok Tour further strengthened the feminist impulse within Labour’s ranks.
Significantly, these new recruits (many of them from women’s groups active on the nation’s campuses) brought with them the non-hierarchical, loosely-structured and “facilitative” political praxis of feminism’s second wave. Born out of the New Left’s embrace of “participatory democracy” in the 1960s, this welcoming political style was founded on the optimistic assumption that, subject only to their consciousness of patriarchal oppression being raised by their feminist sisters, all women were natural allies.
That this assumption was far too optimistic had been demonstrated decisively in the United States by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. What had, at first, looked like a slam-dunk victory for second wave American feminism had been stopped in its tracks, and then turned around, by the aggressive counter-attack of conservative women led by constitutional lawyer and right-wing activist, Phyllis Schlafly.
The sheer scale of the conservative backlash against American feminism should have been taken as a warning by Labour’s feminist MPs. It wasn’t. The Women’s Council simply refused to believe that New Zealand was prey to anything like the reactionary forces that plagued the United States.
In the context of the burgeoning strength of the feminist, anti-apartheid, Maori Sovereignty and anti-nuclear movements, the notion that New Zealand women might prove susceptible to Schlafly’s conservative arguments seemed preposterous. David Lange’s easy victory over Muldoon likewise appeared to confirm that the country was moving left – not right.
Buoyed by these convictions, the new Labour government, guided by its women MPs, was persuaded to set in motion a series of “Women’s Forums”. Open to all citizens, these consultative assemblies were intended to set the priorities for and structure the agenda of the new Ministry of Women’s Affairs foreshadowed in Labour’s 1984 Manifesto.
The first forums appeared to bear out the most optimistic assumptions of the Labour Women’s Council. Representatives from women’s NGOs like the YWCA and the National Council of Women, backed by women trade union delegates, eagerly advanced the stalled reform agenda of New Zealand feminism. A radical edge to the ongoing discussion and debate was contributed by the activism of Maori and lesbian women.
And then things began to go very seriously wrong.
In the words of gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Alison Laurie:
“Now, the election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984, which is when Fran Wilde comes to Parliament, brought about the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. And prior to setting up this new ministry, the government had held women’s forums throughout the country which lesbians attended, and many women were alarmed by the presence of busloads of Christian fundamentalist women who carried Bibles and copies of the National Anthem, and who voted against abortion, lesbian rights and also against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the elimination of the discrimination against women.”
On one issue, however, radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians found themselves in perfect sororal agreement: pornography. They both wanted it banned.
It wasn’t enough. Participatory democracy, far from demonstrating that all women were sisters under the skin, had proved the opposite. Outside the funky enclaves of progressive inner-city activism; beyond the purview well-educated, Broadsheet-reading career women; there lay a vast hinterland of deeply-entrenched and easily-activated prejudice. Nor were these unsuspected masses of conservative women restricted to the rural and provincial bastions of the National Party. Feminists were just as few-and-far-between in the suburbs. Certainly, there appeared to be many more churches in these localities than consciousness-raising circles.
Shocked to the core, and fearful that if the forums were allowed to continue the progressive feminist agenda might end up being rejected by, of all people, conservative women, the Labour government hastily shut them down. Yes, progressive women had found themselves surrounded by a noisy and single-minded sisterhood. Unfortunately, it was the wrong sisterhood.
Between 1984 and 1990 the progressive feminist agenda was advanced. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs became a useful and productive reality. LGBTQI New Zealanders were liberated from their legislative shackles. Pay Equity (briefly) became a reality. But never again were the preferences of ordinary New Zealand women so openly and democratically solicited.
Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful – but only when your sisters can be relied upon to vote the right way.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 19 February 2017.
I remember it all well Chris, well stated. It raises a few questions about the democratic principles of, and the actual intelligence of the "intelligentsia".
How committed are the current feminists to democracy? Would they too (as their predecessors did) cut down debate because they do not like the response coming back? Does the left wing "intelligentsia" actually have the force of reason and fair argument to persuade the populace of the legitimacy and correctness of their stance? Are their arguments really as clever as they think they are? Ara they as a group representative of the best ideas from the Left?
I have a feeling the answers to all those questions are in the negative if the Left were truly honest. A new narrative and approach to persuasion is required, it might start with a focus on everyday reality rather than a utopian ideal.
That observation Chris is one of the reasons why it is unwise to twiddle the knobs on NZ abortion legislation. There is a cry to improve it, make it easier, remove barriers that are too rigid and give the women using it more autonomy.
But the immediate response of outrage and the pliability of women who have fallen under male hierarchical control will result in similar busloads of pious doctrinaires as referred to in the post. There is a very strange ongoing campaign in Thames I believe, and always there are women who can be pulled into protests against any thoughtful change in The Rules, such as when choice of death meetings are held.
Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful – but only when your sisters can be relied upon to vote the right way.
Chris, isn't this the way of democracy. I'd love a dollar for every well-meaning polly I have heard bemoaning (when in safe company) the fact that the voters 'just don't get it'.
I think the current conundrum facing world wide feminism is what to do with the Islamic treatment for women.
If Islam was treated in the same way that Christianity was (in decades past) then there should be regular protests against Islamic teachings which subjugate women.
Things like the requirement to wear a burka, discrimination against Islamic women driving, right of husbands to beat their wives etc you would think would be a no brainer for Feminists to support.
However, you then come up against the Progressive philosophy of supporting religious causes - (other than Christianity) especially causes that oppose the dreaded 'white man.'
Sadly many/most progressive feminists have decided against supporting Muslim women to be allowed the same freedoms as Western women, and have taken the contorted position that it is obvious that Muslim women have chosen to enjoy (endure) the oppression they experience as it is their 'right' to do.
No mention is made of Female Genital Mutilation, honour killings, or the requirement for male chaperones.
It is hypocrisy at its finest and it seems odd that only conservative voices are making mention of Islam's treatment of Muslim women.
As a woman and mother feminism has a lot right in its analysis... But class is still the fundamental inequality.
"However, you then come up against the Progressive philosophy of supporting religious causes - (other than Christianity) especially causes that oppose the dreaded 'white man.'"
And you should also be worried about the VAST international conspiracy between SJW'sAnd feminazis!/Sarc
Personally, I'm more worried about the less than progressive policies of taking away women's reproductive rights, expanding Christianity into the legal system, and forcing us all to say Merry Christmas. Admittedly mostly American policies, but you know – vast international conspiracies.
"No mention is made of Female Genital Mutilation, honour killings, or the requirement for male chaperones."
On the contrary, progressive feminist groups are fighting against this very stuff. Regressive Christian groups are trying to impose it. Or something very like it. Incidentally, FGM is culture based not religion based.
I think that thinking feminist women from the 70's who have time to go beyond the rape culture blanket consider that much has been achieved by the feminist push of that time, but may not be able to state a long list of permanent changes, and the size of a 'sisterhood' today. There are important ways that the feminist movement has stalled in, and ceased monitoring the standards of behaviour by women as enabled by laws, and the spread of law that fairly supports women in their numerous roles in NZ so that it is a functioning society that is fair to all.
The rise of more equality and respect have advantaged all women, whether they acknowledge or even understand that. But most advantage has gone to those who can grasp it on an individualistic basis, with powerful, driving, professional women ambitiously commanding well-paid positions in politics as well as business. They may marry well and become part of the upper class or keep working with combined incomes providing an elite living style, though very busy. Sisterhood, I think soon evaporated, and those now agitating for better conditions and respect for women's work largely come from the lower-income, grassroots people who have had the chance to arm themselves with education and a clear overview of the split in female societal advantage.
Women at elite level can be as inclined as men to let unfair laws lie, when it comes to capturing advantage on a gender basis. The incredibly unfair way that the split of assets on divorce plays out requires some attention and balance. It used to be that after only three years of marriage a woman or man (equality provided for!) could seek half of property that was regarded as joint marital property. This can have a sting for poorer women, if on divorce they wish to keep custody of the children and directly working in their nurturing and upbringing, as the family home may have to be sold and the proceeds split between the parties. So the woman taking responsibility for the children is forced out of stable shelter by this supposed fair law. I consider that NZ as a country pays lip service to caring about and supporting its parents in their task of rearing the next generation of citizens. And this law underlines the lack of empathy the women of the comfortable middle and upper class have for those in poorer circumstances.
On a divorce where there is valuable property apart from a house, probably mortgaged, it will usually be the man's property and assets, (as he is likely to be the biggest earner) to be split in half or as argued in law. But it should not be the situation that because there is inequality in general wage remuneration of the genders, it is put right on individual private property dispersion. I remember one farmer was being forced to sell his farm, though he offered to buy his spouse a house. He was driven to murder in that case. So the pendulum can swing too far, and fairness principles can be called for on both sides.
When it comes to agitating against foreign female culture like genital mutilation, there has been female action against it. It is true that such practices can get caught up in desire to respect other cultures and the way they hold their people together. Criticism of established rituals becomes highly emotive, especially when they are countenanced or practised often by women against women in that culture.
I couldn't agree more, Jimmie. The left has lost all credibility when it comes to islam. Not only from a feminist point of view, but also left wing causes like gay rights and animal rights are the antithesis of what islam stands for. The left is making itself look very stupid over the issue of islam, and their stupidity is dangerous to the future of this country as they wish to increase the numbers of muslims coming to NZ under the refugee programme. I was a decades long left wing voter, but the left now just look crazy and extreme to me, I hope they stay in opposition forever unless there is a huge shake up within the movement.
Grey, Nice commentary, the whole thrust of individualism in a neo-lib world has mitigated in favour of the career woman. And her sisters who raise children have seen the ability to do this valuable function eroded by the need to work to supplement the real falling income of their partners.
On the legal bits around the Marital Properties Act, the totally foreseeable consequences have been pre-nuptial arrangements and other legal side steps like trusts....nobody wins this battle easily.
Jimmie, the feminist response to Islam seems to be the same as for the whole "progressive" movement. They seem blinded by the concept that everyone needs to be respected and treated nicely, which in turn will lead to a positive outcome. Which as we know does not fly when faced with any fundamentalism. The latest polls coming out of Europe express a far greater level of concern for reality from the everyday citizen. The issue of Islamic immigration, local Sharia, crime and terrorism is on the surface, no longer hidden. This morning in the news I read that two Swedish policemen had broken ranks and said that Trumps allegations that Sweden had an Islamic question were backed up by their own front line experience. The best the European governments can now achieve is a peaceful resolution, which I suspect they will find hard to impose, hard to prevent modern "pogroms". That is the end result of years of controlled and "false" news.
Fuck me! What part of "progressive women are fighting FGM" and "FGM is culture based not religion based" do you people not understand?
Thirty seconds of googling found me several organisations that were fighting against FGM, not one of them funnily enough conservative in nature. Either neutral/nonpolitical or progressive.
Another thirty seconds turned up information from dozen countries condemning it, from the 'pulpit'And from various governments, including the extremist Islamic government of Saudi Arabia.
And that's without bothering to use academic databases.
Jesus wept, some of you people just get a bee in your bonnet and it won't shift.
On the other hand, if you bothered to do thirty seconds of googling you could find any number of conservator organisations in the US that are trying to deny women access to abortion and/or birth control.
Thanks you hit the nail in referring to the supplement of wife's earnings for falling incomes of partners. The chance to work and have a respected position in the workforce using personal potentials and skills, as opposed to be an at-home dependant was eagerly embraced and there was choice and the opportunity to improve the household's living standard with weekends available to improve the house and have time for family. But as women have reached out they have only caught defeat from the jaws of victory. Their opportunities and choice have turned into treadmills and ultimatums.
By the way, if we are to have more anonymous coming into the stream again can they at least adopt a number as their identity. There are two in this post at 2.26 and 10.54 apparently different minds but there is no handle to connect to. Is there some way of helping them to join in without fuss, but still have a very simple identifier that will show at the top? Or very easy, sign off at the bottom with something: an acronym, their pet's or favourite author's name, comedian, musician, philosopher?
Fredd Dagg for instance, preferably with gumboots on?
I took the point Chris was making as that the early Labour feminists were deluded to think they represented all women, so their progressive ideas fell on stony ground. The same applies today, to many other causes. No one political group ever represents all. There are however the apolitical causes to look to, such as AI. Great people.
Also I think the shame is that if a movement to advance humanity does come from a narrow sector it can set back its progress because of the reaction it inevitably gets, tainting its cause for a long time. Feminism is one example.
Another is the green movement. A tragedy that it got hijacked by the left. This created a large red neck reaction and still today many people turn off to green matters because it is tainted by the 'watermellon' greenies. If only there had been an equivalent to AI for the environmental movement.
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