AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past, with Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson and Tusiata Avia
Feelings. FEELINGS! I have them.
One of the things I really like about Auckland Writers Festival is the way it puts me in touch with the whakapapa of NZ feminism. I remember having a great old chat with older queer women in the audience for Gloria Steinem a couple of years back about second-wave feminism and how it’s different from contemporary feminism. Sitting in the audience for Writing the Suffrage Past I got talking to my neighbours again: I had (I think) an older lesbian couple on one side, and (I think) a teenage girl and her mother on the other. The intergenerational vibe was also set with an introduction from Claire Mabey, who, like our Prime Minister, is hapū.
The four writers were Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson, and Tusiata Avia. Canton is a NZ-Chinese theatre artist; Espiner is Māori journalist and medical student; Olsson is a Swedish novelist; and Avia is a Samoan-NZ poet. Each writer had been given access to the “Are we there yet?” exhibition about NZ feminism at Auckland Museum, and had written a piece inspired by something from the collection. An image of their chosen piece was displayed on the screens as each writer gave their talk.
Olsson was up first. The object she had chosen was a photograph from a protest with one woman holding up a sign that read “I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit”, which got a laugh of recognition from the crowded room. She spoke about a recent Oxfam report which has found that we must achieve gender equality if we are to end financial inequality. It is not enough to integrate women into existing financial structures; the structures themselves must be changed.
Olsson read out a piece she had written that was a conversation between herself and one of her female ancestors who had been sent to prison. Prison was not sad: it was safe. The women all looked the same, so they felt safe.
Next up was Espiner, who began by speaking her mihi. The objects she had chosen were issues of Broadsheet, NZ’s seminal feminist magazine that ran from 1972 to 1997. She spoke with great humour and affection about growing up with a radical feminist lesbian mother, and how what now looks like a feminist utopia felt, to a child who just wanted to fit in with her peers, like a terrible affliction. She would choose Women’s Weekly but her mother always threw it out of the supermarket trolley: ‘Broadsheet reflected our reality’.
Espiner is studying medicine and spoke about how healthcare has often been deeply misogynistic, citing in particular Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s”. Some progress has been made towards equality in the medical world, though: ‘the feminisation of medicine and surgery has been positive and valuable’.
Espiner honoured her mother for being a Pākehā woman who understands Māori sovereignty: ‘Doing the right thing when nobody is looking is the definition of an ally’. She ended by addressing her mother Colleen Smith directly: ‘I’m sorry for being a shit, you were right about everything’.
Next up was Canton. Her object was a black and white photograph of an unnamed servant maybe a century ago. She invited us to reconsider the way we view the suffrage movement in NZ. We tend to picture middle-class white women with their ‘spunky Elizabeth Bennet charm in the face of adversity’. But what about the no-names?
Canton used an over/under formula to invite us to think about which women are over- and under-represented in our feminism. Under: working-class women, rural women, Māori and Chinese women; disabled, queer, migrant, and indigenous women; women of colour, queer women of colour, poor women, fat women, old women, trans women. Over: cis-gendered and white women. Canton said that, even at the risk of splintering the movement, we must acknowledge that not everyone is equally benefiting from feminist achievements. As with the previous writers, she sat down to enthusiastic applause.
The final writer was Avia. Her object was a photograph of women on a protest in 1977 holding a sign on which is a photograph of a woman who has died from a backstreet abortion and “this woman died, we care” is written. Like Espiner, Avia grew up as the daughter of a lesbian feminist. She performed for us a poem she had written about being home sick one day when she was 11 years old, reading her mother’s issues of Broadsheet, and seeing the photograph on the sign. Avia looked for the photograph again in the museum’s collection for this event, because she still remembered it after all this time. Avia said of her poem: ‘Only I could have written this piece, but I don’t think it’s particularly special. It’s a glimpse into a huge female experience.’
Avia is an extraordinary performance poet and, despite the fact that she had recently fainted backstage, this occasion was no exception. She sat and spoke calmly but we were hanging on her every word. The poem was about backstreet abortions, and it was visceral. ‘I flinch for forty years.’ We groaned and grimaced. The photograph of the dead woman shows her lying on the bathroom floor naked. Avia called the V of her legs ‘her final vanishing point’ and said ‘I have not misremembered her aloneness / I never forgot that’.
This was a really powerful session that gave me a great sense of community and of the whakapapa of mana wāhine in Aotearoa. In a similar vein, I recommend the podcast On the Rag from The Spinoff about Kiwi feminism. (I am a massive fan and keep secretly hoping they will invite me to join them.)
Words and photos by Elizabeth Heritage
Books by each of the writers participating are available nationwide.