Going Backwards: Table-Talk 2 At Ika Seafood Bar and Grill, Tuesday, 19 May 2015

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United Women’s Convention 1979

Photo by Marti Friedlander

 

“BUT WE’RE GOING BACKWARDS!” Came the anguished cry from the table in the corner. Amidst all the sororal warmth generated by Amanda Bailey’s pulled ponytail, the speaker’s uncompromising judgement arrived like a blast of cold air from the world outside. A necessary corrective to the perky inclusiveness of the many Third and Fourth Wave feminists in the audience. The women seated at the corner table had been present at the birth of Second Wave feminism in New Zealand. It lent their intervention a special force.

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As a bloke, I did not consider it my place to enter into the public phase of “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?” – the second of Ika Seafood Bar and Grill’s “Table Talks”. No matter how many times the panel (Human Rights EEO Commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue; Senior Lecturer at University of Auckland, Dr Michelle Dickinson; First Union Secretary, Maxine Gay; and Labour Party List MP, Jacinda Ardern) reiterated the view that men-can-be-feminists-too, I still recall Second Wave feminists arguing that the best thing men can contribute to discussions about feminism is their silence.

Effective political memories (with the obvious exception of those gathered around the table in the corner) were in rather short supply on Tuesday night (19/5/15). Poor Jackie Blue admitted to being a young university student at the time of “Women’s Liberation” and missing the whole thing! (Although, to her credit, she is rapidly making up the lost time.) Maxine Gay, by contrast, who has been a fighter on the feminist barricades since the 1970s and 80s, was for some reason reluctant to acquaint the twenty-somethings present with the often brutal history of liberal versus socialist versus lesbian separatist versuscultural feminism. Inclusiveness was not a conspicuous virtue of the Second Wave.

Dr Michelle Dickinson’s (aka “Nanogirl”) contribution commenced with the bleak news that although the numbers of young women entering the sciences has been rising, the number who actually make use of their scientific training (especially in Dr Dickinson’s own field of engineering) remains worryingly small.

Significantly, the only viable route out of this situation was deemed to be through the good offices of sympathetic business leaders – most of whom are, predictably, men. A number of these individuals were mentioned, and it would be churlish to disparage their efforts in any way. But the fact remains that it is now only in the business world; only in the place where the values of the marketplace reign supreme; that womankind’s quest for full sexual equality is being realistically contextualised. Grasp that, and the full extent of feminism’s retreat is made apparent.

It took the Labour List MP, Jacinda Ardern, to spell out the consequences of this depressing reversal. Paired with National’s Nicky Kaye in what was called “The Battle of the Babes” for Auckland Central, Ardern was faced with a hard choice. Either, take offence at the blatantly sexist framing of the contest and forever afterwards be stereotyped as a humourless feminist harridan. Or, by taking it in good part, risk being dismissed as Labour’s bimbo. Quite rightly, she reasoned that the latter stereotype would be more easily overcome than the former and played along. More than 30 years after Helen Clark poured out her heart to a female journalist about the extreme sexism she’d encountered in the male-dominated Parliament of the 1980s, Ardern’s testimony made me wonder exactly how much has really changed.

Indeed the whole evening’s discussion – ably chaired by TV3’s Lisa Owen – had about it a decidedly self-referential quality. Just as it had on the occasion of the first “Table Talk” – about the beleaguered (now cancelled) Campbell Live – the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill had turned into a large left-wing echo-chamber. I got the strong impression that only the women at the corner table understood that the evening’s discussion – for all its undoubted passion and sincerity – was taking place in the belly of the beast: a monster whose ideological victory was as complete as it was unacknowledged.

As the Australian sociologist and feminist Professor Raewyn Connell puts it in her paper “Understanding Neoliberalism”:

“With a few exceptions neoliberal leadership is composed of men. It’s treasured figure, ‘the entrepreneur,’ is culturally coded masculine. Its assault on the welfare state redistributes income from women to men and imposes more unpaid work on women as carers for the young, the old, and the sick. Its attack on ‘political correctness’ and its rollback of affirmative action specifically undermine the gains of feminism. In such ways, neoliberalism from the 1980s on offered middle-class men an indirect but effective solution to the delegitimation of patriarchy and the threat of real gender equality.”

The young women who joined in “Beneath the Ponytail: Women. Work. Progress?”, so inclusive in their definitions of feminism, but, at the same time, so concerned to escape the shaming label of “feminazi” that men of all generations are so quick to pin upon them, seemed to bear out Professor Connell’s bleak observation.

Was that what the Second Wavers at the corner table sensed also? That the push-back had somehow been reversed? That the enormous sense of empowerment, of emancipatory élan, that had characterised the feminist revolution of the 1970s and 80s, had, without anyone really noticing, been subsumed in something much, much larger?

It’s not as if the many gains of the Second Wave have been rolled back – not at all – but rather that, in some ill-defined way, they no longer matter. As if all the changes that were extracted with so much pain and effort could only ever have been effective in a more caring, just and equitable world – the world which the triumphantly masculine Neoliberal Revolution long ago destroyed.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. What we are all experiencing is the divisive nature of the neo liberal ideology

    This ideology owes its very existence and success in its ability to divide and dissipate any and all social movements bar itself..

    Indeed it matters not if it is Women’s movements, unions , social services , education or health – or any other movement that rely s on group cohesiveness.

    In fact – group cohesiveness is the ONLY WAY it can be overturned.

    Neo liberal ideology rely’s on the dissipation of that group cohesiveness , and using among other things a doctrine called ‘ Hegelian Dialectics’ .

    Hegelian Dialectics is a philosophy and theory introduced by a German named Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel. And although adopted later by Karl Marx ,…was adapted to global neo liberalism ( border-less common global economy – which leads to the one world govt scenario )

    Hegelian Dialectics basically works this way :

    Thesis
    …………

    This may the problem of how to eradicate trade unions and nullify their industrial and economic /political clout.

    Antithesis
    ………….

    This will invariably be but not always be a contrived and /or fabricated ‘ problem ‘ designed to highlight and use as a platform the need for ‘ reforms’ of a particular target group.
    This could take the shape of denouncing ‘ Govt waste ‘ ,’ Union largess ‘ or undue ‘undemocratic interference of Unions in the political process’….which deny personal ‘ choices’.

    The final stage is introducing the ‘Synthesis ‘. This is done after creation of the antithesis. A good example was the ‘Govt waste’ issue of the 1980’s….which led to large scale privatization of SOE’s and transferal of wealth from the public into private hands. As it still is happening today.

    Synthesis
    …………..

    The synthesis in this case is the lobbying and backing of such groups as the Business Roundtable to introduce legislation such as the ‘Employment Contracts Act’. Which later became the Employment Relations Act ( in an effort to placate the widespread disfavor by the public and ‘soften ‘ it a bit to make it more palatable and justifiable ).

    Thus – the solution is the Synthesis …which is reliant on creating the Antithesis …starting off with the Thesis (ie : unions have too much power )

    This sort of maneuvering works particularly well during times of economic hardship- hardship which invariably comes as the neo liberal dogma becomes entrenched – and is a result of the general malaise that this ideology introduces in the first place.

    There is no country on earth today whereby neo liberalism is practiced and there is at the same time social and economic parity. And it was designed to be just this way for a reason.

    And while lip service and placation towards any sizable political movement or lobby group is given….they will only get tinkering around the edges , platitudes or the most minimal recognition ….

    We have just witnessed this in the latest Bill English Budget….

    A $25.00 increase – done once again to placate any social unrest caused by the fact the last increase was in 1991….yet on the other hand…stringent ‘rules’ handed down such as when the child turns 3 ….that parent must ensure work is procured for at least 20 hours per week.

    It will not be until people realize just how these characters string the population along and start to gather large scale group unity and cohesiveness that opposes these dogmatic ideologues that we will see these neo liberal subversives back peddle.

    If the womens movement seems to be stalled…then , like any other collective group ,- it needs to be loud, strident , implacable , and unrelenting in its determination and so publicly visible that it becomes impossible for the media or politicians to ignore it.

    This is the same way any great social movement was won.

    This is group unity and cohesiveness. And it is the very thing that is the bane of the neo liberal right.

  2. Ah well, I’ve always postulated neo-liberalism as essentially the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest etc. No wonder the adherents of this practice knock back any gains that may have been made in egalitarianism over the years. I’m unfortunately reminded of the tired cartoon that depicts the caveman hitting the cavewoman over the head with his club and carting her unconscious body back to his cave to ‘own’ and ‘possess’. Such an image fits the neo-liberal model rather well dontcha think…? For wooden club substitute Koru Club.

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