WORD Christchurch – 125 Years: Are we there yet?

WORD Christchurch 2018 – 125 Years: Are We There Yet?

An anthropologist, a human rights activist, a journalist, an academic, a musician and a broadcaster all walk into a concert hall to discuss the question ‘Are we there yet?’. At this sold-out session commemorating 125 years of women’s suffrage, the collective response was as to be expected: no. The talk was more centred around– as the whip-smart Kim Hill had suggested in her introduction – where ‘there’ actually is. After all, she added, ‘Feminism is like housework – every few years we need to do it all again.’

125-Years-SuffrageKeeping the house tidy last night were a range of feminists, spanning years and backgrounds, who came at the ‘no’ from different directions. Dame Anne Salmond took a wide view and covered the ground lost in an unequal system. After time overseas, she had returned to New Zealand some thirty years ago to find a country reshaping its institutions to the benefit of individuals. This ‘hyper individualism’ rippled out into society, where individual achievement was equated with fulfilment. Women had new freedoms but it had cost a lot: ‘Workplaces became more ruthless and transactional’; our capacity to care for others was endangered.

Trailblazer Georgina Bayer traced the momentum of the last 125 years, highlighting moments of quick transition and great traction, exemplified by the time when women held the five top constitutional positions in the country. This spoke to the importance of the visibility of women in power and petitioned us to think about Georgina’s own lived experience – to consider the role of bold individuals who have forged these paths.

At this point Kim skilfully steered the conversation by positing a problem: we have had the top positions, but we are still not there yet. So, what do we need to do? Attributing the following quote to Gloria Steinem, she suggested that it was ‘not a question of having a bigger slice of the cake, but that we have to remake the cake altogether’.

Part of this, perhaps, is changing the ingredients – moving beyond binary arguments, which is how journalist Paula Penfold began. She brought some stats and facts to the table via a listicle, where for every positive, a negative emerged too. The good news: at Stuff, the CEO is a woman, as is 50% of senior executive, but out of 143 CEOs in Aotearoa, only 4% are women. In terms of gender pay equity things are progressing but a recent report on pay parity states that we are unlikely to achieve this until 2044. Kim suggested there would be little chance for pay equity until private companies are transparent with what they pay people. Problems remain while they are hidden.

Next was the impressive, fluid and cohesive response from Sacha McMeeking. She acknowledged all those women who had gone before, who made it possible for her to be born into the ‘girls can do anything’ time. She was inspired to be one of those who forged human rights, but no longer believes that these alone can change the world. The time for grand normative debates has passed; we need to focus on creating social habits. Sacha pointed to economic injustice and violence: both are embedded issues that are not solely produced by gender – rather they result from our economic, justice, education and mental health systems, which need an overhaul.

Finally, Lizzie Marvelly – musician, columnist and the youngest on stage – took the mic. Her account of her experiences provided a depressing reality check of where we are at now. She had many ‘amazing opportunities’, many tainted by blatant sexism. Lizzie also pointed to inequalities in the stories women tell about women – we all know Kate Sheppard, but few of the Māori women who have laid the groundwork for us today.

Before handing over to questions from the (mostly female) audience, Kim asked about choice. Is everything a feminist act if choice is involved? Lizzie responded that if the choice isn’t about equality, then it isn’t feminist. Privilege, the need for care and how to allow for agency were all touched on in question time. But common to all panelists was the belief that we need more than rights; we need to address the structures; we need outcomes. ‘Multivariate problems call for a variety of solutions’. The cake must be remade.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Georgina Beyer appears in the session ‘Comfortable in Your Skin’ tonight

That F Word
by Lizzie Marvelly
published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775541127Li

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