Ever since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1793, there has been a women’s movement in the English -speaking world. Mary, you will remember, was famous for arguing that women’s apparent inferiority to men stemmed from their lack of education, not their nature. She argued for a social order founded on reason, not gender.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, a contemporaneous philosopher, also known ironically as the father of freedom for his views on the education of boys and men, decried Mary’s argument. Women, he said, should be educated for the pleasure of men. He said a lot more too, but I will not bore you…
Born in the 18th century (though there are respectable arguments for earlier beginnings, such as the movements that sparked the Salem witch trials in the USA), feminism, the belief in the full equality of women with men was not even given a name until 100 years after Mary’s death. Then, it was linked at the end of the 19th century with the work of women to get the vote in New Zealand and, later, in other English-speaking countries, and subsequently around the world. I believe Switzerland was the last of the established democracies to give women the vote, in 1971.
Kate Sheppard who led the movement to get the vote for women in New Zealand, was a feminist. The reason for getting women the vote was to bring about social change towards equality in the areas of social, political, legal and economic life. Kate believed in equal pay for women workers.
Other aspects of feminism were evident in New Zealand after both the first and second world wars, when women workers were forced back out of the workforce as the men returned home. Women got the right to stand for Parliament in 1919, and many did so, although none were elected until Elizabeth McCombs took over her husband’s Lyttleton (Christchurch) seat after his death in 1933.
The resurgence of the 1970s saw a feminist torch burn brightly for a long time in New Zealand, and turned many women, and me, into lifelong feminists.
So many movements, so many fights for change. But it is true to say that, while at every point enduring changes were made, the fight for equality for women in all aspects of life has been a gnarly one.
Each call for change brought a backlash, not only from men but always in the interests of men. Mary was denigrated for generations, the fight for the vote was downplayed – that men gave it to women, not that they worked for it (trudging from one end of the country to the other, collecting the signatures of a quarter of the women in the colony) – misrepresenting the nature of the movement and so on. Women were ‘man-haters’, feminists were radical idiots, feminism was unnecessary. A whole generation born after 1980 refused, for a long time, to contemplate the need for feminism. It became very unfashionable indeed to declare oneself a feminist.
Backlash politics have proven very effective in the fight for equality for women. I now see this as the equivalent of climbing Everest. Over time, various base camps have been established. The right to the vote is one, equality in financial dealings and the right to a pension is another. These have built on each other until, a partial route up the Everest of equality has been established. But being halfway up a mountain is not a destination!
In 2012 a woman called Laura Bates started a website blog called ‘Everyday Sexism’, dealing with the daily sexist slings and arrows affecting women. At first, she got huge backlash: “Again and again, people told me sexism is no longer a problem – that women are equal now, more or less, and if you can’t take a joke or take a compliment, then you need to stop being so ‘frigid’ and get a sense of humour”. But, as the number of stories and contributions from women all over the world increased, her arguments became much more influential. The backlash was muted as the scales, once again, turned in favour of women’s equality.
And from this sprang the #MeToo movement, which is women’s everyday experiences of sexual politics writ large. There is already backlash, of course, and this will only grow. But a new basecamp has been established on the long march to sexual equality. Here is New Zealand, this is best viewed in the remarkable fight for equal pay for women’s work, overcoming the endemic undervaluing of what we do. Thanks to the work of the unions, and women such as Christine Bartlett, last year’s New Zealander of the Year, change is underway.
Ten years ago, I thought the backlash would go on for fifty years, and that I would die without seeing any substantive improvements in women’s position. I am well pleased with the establishment of this first busy base camp of the 2000s. I am now confident that, however slowly, and however many setbacks and barriers are experienced, that the final stages of the climb to sexual equality will happen in our fair nation and hopefully around the world.
No political system or creed can justify the treatment of women as second-class citizens or as the slaves or property of men. This inexorable principle will guide the women’s movement into the future. The summit will be achieved one day: we will “knock the bastard off”.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).