Rethinking Women and Politics: New Zealand and Comparative Perspectives.” Edited by Kate McMillan, John Leslie & Elizabeth McLeay.
Victoria University Press, Wellington. 2009. Reviewed by ALISON McCULLOCH
Second-wave feminism has been dead for some time now, though precisely when it took its last gasp remains unclear. Some locate the seeds of its destruction as early as the 1978 Radical Feminist Caucus at Piha, marked as it was by splits around questions of race, sexuality and class. “The women’s movement,” Sandra Coney wrote in 1993, “exists only in pockets, as rape crisis centres, refuges, groups against pornography and women’s centres.”
She and others were critical of the movement’s failure to analyse what went wrong, and in that same article, Coney wondered if those past mistakes could ever be learned from. “It is probably impossible for the old soldiers to do this,” she wrote, “because of bad histories and because they are still wedded to the old ideas.”
One place we might expect to look for analysis of the women’s movement’s successes and failures, and for theoretical help advancing the cause, is the university. One of the lasting products of second-wave feminism has been women’s studies departments and courses, as well as disciplines like feminist philosophy. But on that score, a recent collection of feminist scholarship from Victoria University Press – Rethinking Women and Politics: New Zealand and Comparative Perspectives – makes for depressing reading. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a useful and for the most part worthy collection that includes some enlightening papers. But it also offers more proof, as if we needed any, that Coney’s 1993 pessimism at the prospect of a renewed activist movement likely still holds.
The collection reflects the role of academic feminists as more chroniclers than participants, confined to measuring things like female representation in Parliament, local government, universities, boardrooms and the media. It’s important work, since if feminists are going to agitate for change, they need to know how things stand. But it’s also more evidence of what has become a widening gap between feminist theory and theorizing, and feminist practice; between the academy and the street. (Speaking of the street – or the grounds of Parliament in this case – and in the interests of full disclosure, I believe I’m one of the four women depicted on the cover of the book taking part in a 24-hour violence-against-women vigil near the Beehive in 1984. I say “believe” because I don’t remember the event, although I was definitely doing this kind of thing back then, and I would be more than happy if someone else wanted to claim ownership of the woman on the left with the curly hair and big glasses.)
Perhaps it’s not for feminist academics to lead or even involve themselves in public feminist activism, though I would argue that it is. (And indeed some feminist academics have and do play such roles.) But mightn’t the demise and continued absence of such a visible feminist movement pose a risk to the life of the very academic disciplines it originally helped create?
This collection helps make the case that the professionalization of feminism may have been one more nail in the activist coffin. In her insightful article, (Women, Politics, and Protest: Rethinking Women’s Liberation Activism in New Zealand), Sandra Grey breaks the life-cycle of the women’s movement into three stages – the visible activism of the 1970s; the “outsiders move inside” of the 1980s, when some feminists shifted inside existing political institutions; and, finally the “unobtrusive mobilizations” of the 1990s, when women began to work in “submerged networks”. (Academics do love to coin phrases.)
For her paper, Grey carried out a “protest event analysis” that showed, as one might expect, a sharp drop off into the 1990s of public feminist activism. Explanations for this change include the exhaustion of activists, the success of the women’s movement (or the perception of success) rendering it no longer as necessary, the co-option and assimilation of feminism by state and other institutions, tensions in the movement, and a society-wide decline in political activism. Grey also notes a lack of public debate around feminism, a debate, she argues, “that must not just take place only in academic journals.”
But is that debate even happening in academic journals or, in the case of this collection, books? At a time when, as Sue Kedgley wrote last year, many of the most basic demands articulated in the Working Women’s Charter have not been met, Rethinking Women and Politics puts more of its focus on female under-representation in positions of power – local government, national government, cabinet and universities – than it does on issues like reproductive rights and abortion (still very much alive and contentious, but not discussed in this book despite its being one of the core demands of second-wave feminism), or poverty and class issues.
In Women and the Politics of University Careers, for example, Jenny Neale focuses on that relatively small group of elite women in privileged positions – women academics – and their struggles for recognition, promotion, and improved working conditions. As Ann Ferguson argued in her 1994 paper analyzing academic feminism, these struggles are “interest group politics for us women professionals defending our position in the academy”. They are, she said, “one step removed from the political issues that affect the lives of ordinary women, such as domestic violence and rape, reproductive rights, disparaging and idealized media images and the eating disorders based on them, homophobic and racist attacks, child care and the basic survival issues for women, particularly single mothers.”
Admittedly, the academy puts restrictions just what kind of work feminist scholars can engage in – or at least can engage in and still advance in their careers. Quantitative work is acceptable, and theorizing may make it over the peer-review bar so long as you include lots of citable terms for phenomena that are otherwise fairly obvious to everyone, like Grey’s “exhaustion effect” (describing when “actors use up their stocks or resources and/or literally become fed up and give up”) and “WUNC” (something social movements, their activists or their constituencies make public displays of, and comprising Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment), or Neale’s “moving cohort theory” (describing, in the case of academic women for example, how the growth of “feeder groups” and the progress of women from entry level to senior level will increase the number of senior women academics). And as Prue Hyman points out in her fine paper on violence against women “the objectivity requirements of academia also lead at times to a passive voice and some timidity which can jeopardize healthy debate.”
But does that mean that feminist academics can’t be feminist activists? And weren’t feminists going to make sure the old rules no longer applied? Part of the official role of the university is, after all, to act “as critic and conscience of society”.
One paper that does tackle an issue related to women’s every day lives is Tania Domett’s Gender Equality and Work-Life Balance. Like much of the quantitative analysis in the collection, Domett’s reaches conclusions that most women won’t find too surprising – it’s women rather than men who are “most likely to utilize work-life balance policies in the workplace” (like part- or flexi-time work, for example), and that this harms their careers. Domett ultimately argues that work-life balance policies are a band-aid remedy that do nothing to challenge the gender roles that make those policies necessary in the first place, and she offers some suggestions as to how this might be overcome – including citing a Swedish campaign aimed at encouraging men to take parental leave.
Indeed, most of the authors here do reach conclusions that call for much more to be done to advance the position of women. And they do offer up some useful suggestions. Besides Domett’s, there is Ana Gilling’s suggestion that sex quotas for political parties be revisited and Jean Drage’s advice that local councils make better use of Equal Employment Opportunity policy to ensure more women enter senior management. (Interestingly, Drage suggests one reason for women’s reluctance to run in local government elections is “absence of an active women’s movement”.)
But there are also conclusions that resemble the broad wish-lists of the second-wave – together with the obligatory call of the academic for more research. We know who’s going to do the research, what’s not so clear is who’s going to do the grunt work involved in improving the representation of women in the media (is Media Women still around?), or forcing the state to advocate for marginal groups, or ensuring there are public spaces to carry out debate, or making sure more women get elected to local government office, and so on.
Back in 1994, Ferguson argued – of feminist philosophy at least – that there was a danger “of ignoring or co-opting the original feminist project of challenging social domination systems in order to empower women.” And she went on to advise that both feminist theory and feminist theorists needed to reconnect with a revitalized women’s and progressive movement. It would be nice if feminist academics played a leading role in revitalizing that movement. For one thing, they’d have a whole lot more to write about.
Alison McCulloch is working on a book about abortion politics in New Zealand.
“Why the Women’s Movement Ran Out of Steam,” by Sandra Coney. In “Heading Nowhere in a navy Blue Suit: and other tales from the feminist revolution.” Eds. Sue Kedgley and Mary Varnham. Daphne Brasell Associates Press, Wellington 1993.
“Radical Feminism in New Zealand: From Piha to Newtown,” by Alison Jones and Camille Guy. In: “Feminist Voices: Women’s Studies Texts for Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Ed. Rosemary du Plessis et. al. OUP Auckkland 1992.
“Twenty Years of Feminist Philosophy,” by Ann Ferguson: Hypatia, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1994), pp. 197-215.