Monday, 8 March 2010

IWD discussion: Christine Dann

Christine Dann
author of Up from under: women and liberation in New Zealand, 1970-1985

1. What (if anything) does International Women’s Day mean to you?
International Women’s Day does not have any official status or recognition in New Zealand, as it does in a number of other countries (and it is the United  Nations ‘official’ women’s day). In the 1970s and 1980s there were efforts  by women unionists in NZ to celebrate it, and to raise its status as a day  for honouring the work done by women, but little seems to happen around it here these days.

Perhaps this is because it has been up to the enthusiasm of unfunded individuals to organise events, and perhaps it is because New Zealand has another home-grown day for celebrating women as public citizens (Suffrage Day on September 19). Or both.

For me personally, it is a day when I am reminded to think about women’s labour struggles, past and present.

2. Is there a feminist or women’s movement in Aotearoa New Zealand? If not why not? If so, what is it doing?

There are no longer any women’s organisations (such as the Women’s Liberation Movement and the National Organisation of Women) campaigning, lobbying and protesting for women’s political, economic and social rights and participation across the board, as there were in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are support services (e.g. Rape Crisis, Women’s Refuge) which owe their existence to the women’s liberation activists of the 1970s, and from time to time there is some feminist activity within existing organisations and institutions e.g. unions, churches, political parties, the health service. But the ‘Second Wave’ of feminism, as the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was dubbed (the ‘First Wave’ being the militant feminism of the late nineteenth century) has well and truly washed up on the shore.

3. What are the biggest issues and challenges facing women and feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

The first and second waves of feminism in Aotearoa were effective in securing women’s ‘freedom to’ and ‘rights to’ be fully participating members of political and economic society. Unfortunately the freedom or right to fully  participate in a capitalist society which is run by a business-political  elite does not ensure that all women have freedom from poverty, violence, malnutrition, preventable illness and economic and physical exploitation. Nor does it ensure that women (and men) will have a physical/natural environment that is both pleasant and safe to live in now, and capable of sustaining their needs and those of their descendents adequately in the future.

In the thirteen years since NZ gained its first female prime minister, chief justice and attorney general, a few more women have entered the political, legal and business elites, while the majority of women have experienced a de facto cut in their pay rates and other income, and significant cuts in educational and social welfare support. Rates of violence against women remain high, and women largely remain segregated in the narrow range of  (relatively) low-paying occupations they were in thirty years ago. Where women are in non-traditional occupations, they earn less than men.

In the 1980s decisions were made at the highest level to stop teaching domestic and trade skills at secondary schools, and to turn NZ into an importing economy rather than a manufacturing one. Thus women (and men)were simultaneously deprived of training in useful home and work skills, and diverse opportunities for paid employment making useful goods. 
A few people (some of them female) have gained at the expense of the many, and the country as a whole is worse off socially, economically and environmentally than it was thirty years ago, despite the rise in money-denominated wealth.

If women as a whole are to do better in the future in NZ, then feminist activists must address the economic and political causes of this state of affairs, and propose and implement alternative economic and social arrangements. The globalist expansion of neo-liberal capitalism is in any case entering its end game, with the peaking of global oil supplies and other cheap resources on which it is based, and the subsequent increasing frequency and severity of debt crises and collapses. Global trade will contract - which will be good for the environment and for employment in NZ, as we stop pumping out milk powder to the world and start making more useful things for each other at home once again.

But planning and managing this transition to a sustainable economy, so that it is more positive for women than globalism, is a major challenge ahead. Interestingly, I am only one of a number of Second Wave feminists who are currently involved with some aspect of the growing Transition Towns movement in NZ (, which is a community-based, democratic response to the huge environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century. The local level is where we can be most effective, and the local level is going to be increasingly important for sourcing our needs as the global and national economy ‘powers down’.

20th century feminism was largely about creating opportunities and choices for women within existing economic and political structures. 21st century feminism will be about changing those structures from the ground up, and creating more genuinely equitable and sustainable ways to live for everyone.

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