Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. Yesterday, before I remembered it was International Women’s Day, I was reading an article about rape culture posted on FB by a blogging friend (one of the reasons I love the internet). I read it and was sad.

I complained to my husband, “I could have read this exact same article in the 1980s. Word for word.”

I sighed. “It makes me so angry.”

“That suggests that you actually thought things would change?” said my oh-so-comforting husband.

Sadly, I did.


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Today it is International Women’s Day.  A day when we should all consider where we’ve come from, and how far we’ve still got to go. I have been thinking about this a lot, as one of my nieces ventures into the real world, post-university.  In the 1980s, when I was in my 20s, feminism was not about burning our bras.  It was about opportunity, about being treated as equals in life and the workplace.  Feminism was new enough that we didn’t expect everything to be perfect instantly. We knew feminism was a work in progress. I was on the wrong end of discrimination of number of times.  As much as it disappointed me, it reassured me that I was on the right path, and that i needed to continue to fight.  We just wanted to see a growing awareness of the issues, and to see change – in legislation, and behaviour.  And we did, but slowly.

So now, young women like my niece take it for granted that they can go to university, gain entry into any course they like, take on any career they choose.  Feminism is I think much less mainstream, even at universities, than it used to be.  After all, there are not the day-to-day issues to fight over.  A recent Slate article commented:  “Let’s face it: feminists today are pretending to fight wars that were won long ago” and went on to cite equal rights legislation.  Here in NZ, women have held all the highest offices in the land, Governor-General (head of State), Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and CEO of the country’s largest company.  The evidence is there – women can achieve at the highest levels.

The thing is, many people do believe that feminism is a cause of the past, that there is no longer any glass ceiling.  And increasingly, I think this is the case of the younger generation.  We see it in those who have managed – despite the odds – to achieve at the highest levels.  Marissa Mayer, the controversial CEO of Yahoo, declared she wasn’t a feminist, but then outlined her beliefs, all of which match those of feminism – equal rights, women are just as capable as men, if not more so, in a variety of dimensions.  I also heard a woman, the former CEO of a major company, comment that there was no glass ceiling in New Zealand anymore.  (I was so incensed that I emailed into the public radio programme where this statement was made, and said that clearly she had never worked anywhere I had worked, pointing out that whilst I was the Chair of a small company, it had still taken years for my fellow directors to accept that maybe I had something to say.  That here in the second decade of the 21st century, I had frequently been subject to the “that’s a good idea, but we’ll wait till one of the men suggest it” syndrome around the board table.  My email got a “bravo” from the female panellists in the discussion!)

I know that that glass ceiling is still there.  It has a few holes where the occasional woman sneaks through, but it’s there nonetheless.  Whilst it may have been opaque in the 80s, and you only have to watch Mad Men to remember that it was made of brick in the 1960s, now that glass ceiling is relatively clear.  Except there are a few streaks from the occasional rainy day that make it obvious for those who look closely.  But youngsters who have never had to clean the glass, or who have not yet hit their heads on it, don’t even realise it is there.

And so I worry that complacency has set in.  Complacency that women can now do or be anything they want, and therefore don’t need to protect their rights.  (And as I write this, I hear a report that 30% of businesses have no women in senior management, an increase from the last time this was measured.)

This complacency is most obvious with regard to our sexuality.  Decades ago, women were not allowed to be sexual beings, or if they were they were labelled “sluts” and ostracised and abused.  Of course, we know this still happens, both in western cultures and much more repressive cultures.  But outwardly, we see that female sexuality has been celebrated, and whilst this is not a bad thing, the openness and freedom to be an equal sexual being has turned into a circle and has headed right back to where women were only important because of their bodies.  A disturbing (to me) trend has been reported that in US high schools young women and girls are increasingly pressured into performing oral sex.  They may think this is freedom.  But it seems to be to be the worst type of exploitation, when performed out of peer pressure or to gain popularity.  In the 80s and 90s, judging women on their bodies was considered to be old school, a throwback to the days when women were men’s to do with what they wanted, to the days (in the then recent past) when it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife.  It was obvious throughout society; beauty pageants were popular, advertising campaigns with women in bikinis draped over the bonnets of new cars were ubiquitous, etc etc.  Women were little more than their bodies, and we were judged by how you looked, not by the way your brain worked.  Jokes and put-downs were commonplace. And yet, when you look around society today, there is an incredible level of judgement about women’s bodies, not to mention the increasingly unreasonable standards of thinness, as women waste away in front of us, deform themselves with plastic surgery, trying desperately to adhere to society’s idea of “female beauty.”  Anyone see the Oscars, with Seth McFarlane’s joke about women giving themselves the flu to lose weight?  “Looking good, ladies” he laughed.  Chauvinism is alive and well and as public as ever.

And increasingly now there seems to be ever more celebration and promotion of women as mothers, as the bodies that gave birth to the next generation.  There are still nasty comments about women who don’t have children –Julia Gillard has been the subject of these in Australia – when men are never subject to such judgements.  The pervasive myth that you’re not a “real woman” unless you’ve given birth.   And then there is the hysteria that surrounds talented women who become mothers (eg Angelina Jolie).  It’s as if there is now a cult of motherhood, of perfect motherhood, which brings incredible pressure on women to live up to.

And when in doubt, people attack feminists.  Marissa Mayer seemed to think that feminism and feminist was a dirty word.  “…the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder …I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.”  Clearly, young women don’t relate to the concept or the name. And sadly, the attacks against feminists have changed little – comments made about them being bitter lesbians, or fat and ugly.  Oh yes, we’ve come a long way in the last 30 years.

The complacency that discrimination just doesn’t exist, the complacency in the belief that as women we can act any way we want without negative consequences, has brought us to back to this.  The feminism I knew was to ensure that women had choices in how they would live their lives, and that the consequence would mean that men too would have the same choices.  But I look at western societies today, the societies where my nieces and the daughters of friends are growing up, and I fear for them:

Will they feel free?
Will they feel they have a choice about how they live?
Will they feel forced to conform to their societies’ norms, simply because they are women?
Will they feel they have a right to control their own bodies?
Will body images distort even further?
Will they realise when they are being pressured into doing something they don’t want to do?

And last, but not least,

Will they even recognise discrimination when it occurs?


* With acknowledgement of Loribeth who inspired the use of this title, and the song.

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Recently I read a book set in China at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th.  It followed much of the life of a young girl, through her foot-binding and the inevitable higher marriage. It was designed of course for the reader to cringe, as they described the pain of the binding, the attempts to walk on breaking bones, and the resultant hobbling of so many women. A modern woman, with the soles of her feet firmly (and flatly) on the ground, I of course find it almost impossible to imagine. I cannot understand why someone would get the idea in the first place that this might be a good idea, and do it to the first woman, let alone how it could grow to be such a widespread practice.

But as I both rail against the idea that women were so crippled and controlled through this barbaric custom, and shake my head at the fact that this practice was perpetuated by women, I can understand why. I can understand that the cultural acceptance of foot-biding had become so prevalent that the mothers felt that it was better to force their daughters through this excruciating pain rather than leave them to live the life of poverty and servitude (beyond even that of a typical woman and wife in China at the time) that was inevitable for those with big (ie natural, unbound) feet.

But it got me thinking. Have we really come so far?  I wear high heels occasionally. I like the way they lengthen my legs in proportion to my body, and that my legs and ankles look slimmer in high heels. But I don’t like them that much. For a start, I don’t like towering over my friends, although I don’t mind towering over male colleagues. I don’t like the fact that high heels in effect hobble me; that I have to be careful walking across the street, or going down stairs. I don’t like that they take away the power I feel in being fit and nimble and ready for anything.  I want to walk easily on this earth, as well as lightly.  I don’t want to feel like the weak female.  And yet, high heels make me feel exactly that.  I mean, look at this example of women being unable to walk (or even stand) without assistance, and this (not that I have any idea who this woman is).   I think modern women like high heel shoes because they give us a degree of power (sexual power, that is).  But if we were honest, they take away so much more.

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I’m angry

I haven’t felt this for a long time. But I remember noting a while ago that Afghan men can starve their wives, and noted it down as a potential blog topic. I was stunned, but didn’t feel able to put my emotions into words. But more recently I’ve learned of the Canadian police officer who said that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” to avoid being raped or victimised, and the world-wide protests that are being planned by women in response. And today I shed tears as I watched the 60 Minutes interview of Lara Logan, who was attacked and raped by a mob in Cairo.

And now I hear that a Hasidic newspaper edits two women – including Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State – out of a photograph of the White House Situation Room. I’m listening to a radio interview as I write this, and a male commentator said “what’s the point of getting upset about this?” He sees the absurdity of it. But he can’t understand what it feels like to be one of the erased. To know that there are people in this word who consider I count for nothing, simply because I am a woman. I hear men saying “but there is no glass ceiling” or that “feminism has achieved its goals.” I guess when you’re not exposed to something personally, you don’t feel it.

I am shaking my head in wonder. I feel as if I’m back in the 1970s, when these things were more prevalent – when it was common to hear people say “she asked for it” if a woman was raped, when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. I remember the debate. Men claiming that it wasn’t rape, that it was their wife’s duty, or simply the sanitised language used, describing it as “forcing themselves on their wives.” It’s rape. I heard someone say Lara Logan wasn’t raped, they “just used their fingers.” That’s rape. She felt raped. I see women still being blamed for being the victims: it is apparently their fault that they are sexually attacked if they are so presumptuous as to want to work in foreign environments, or want to wear particular clothes. Seriously? Poor men, their willpower is so weak that they can’t be blamed if they rip the clothes off a blonde reporter, or rape or victimise a women showing legs and cleavage. Poor men, who are so threatened by women in power that they have to pretend they don’t exist. Misogyny seems alive and well, wherever we are. Is this really 2011? Yes, some of these things happen in, how shall I describe them, less enlightened societies, or amongst fundamentalist religious groups. But some of these things are happening in western societies, and here in New Zealand, men don’t always get it.

I know that I can’t make sweeping judgements about men, or about women’s positions in societies based on these incidents. I know that most of the men I know are staunch supporters of women. But still. I see these things and I battle against being treated in my business environment simply because I’m a woman, and I can’t help wonder if every man sees us this way, deep down. It makes me feel unsafe, insecure, and just plain damn angry.

As a teenager I became aware of feminism and why it was so important. It’s been some time since I felt that I could be seen as nothing but an object for men’s pleasure, or as a servant to a man under the guise of the word “wife,” or as, simply … well … nothing. Lara Logan said she felt like nothing more than dirt, just dirt, after her attack. And I wonder at the young women today who don’t think feminism is important.

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A strong woman

In honour of International Women’s Month, and inspired by Lisa’s daily series on women who have inspired us, and by Lali’s post on Geraldine Ferraro, I wanted to add a New Zealand flavour to these discussions.

Helen Clark was New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister. We had already had a female Prime Minister in her predecessor, Jenny Shipley, who took the position when she became leader of the National Party in the middle of a three-year term in government.

In power for three terms, or nine years (1999-2008), Helen Clark became known as a formidable politician, managing a very tight ship during her time in government. Whilst I did not agree with all her policies, I have considerable admiration for her abilities.

She entered parliament in 1981, and became leader of her political party in 1993, pulling it back to the more traditional left. When she won the election in 1999, she was to lead the government for nine years, and eventually became the Labour Party’s longest-serving party leader, and the country’s 5th longest serving Prime Minister. New Zealand likes strong leaders, and there was no doubt Helen Clark was a strong leader.

She led the country at a time when our most senior positions – Prime Minister, Governor-General, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and CEO of our largest company – were all held by women. This made me feel immensely proud, though at the same time I was acutely aware of the difficulties still facing women in breaking through the glass ceiling on a regular basis.

As a woman, she did not have an easy time of it, though on reflection New Zealand political reporting is rarely nasty. She speaks with a very deep voice, and bad hair days and a bad teeth life, dogged her. Appearance is still, unfortunately, more of an issue for female politicians. She was married, but had not changed her name. She preferred to go by Miss Clark, rather than Ms Clark. (This decision always surprised me, given her feminist credentials). She had no children. Whilst this was rarely commented on in terms of policy matters (unlike some of the comments made about Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard) that I can recall, her personal life was often commented on, though perhaps also more in terms of Wellington insider-gossip rather than in the media.

Lali wrote a blog about Geraldine Ferraro tearing up in a Vice-Presidential debate. I remember Helen Clark doing this only once. Whilst I cringed that she had teared up (though I know I would have done the same), I had considerable sympathy for her in the circumstances. She was present at a marae (Maori meeting place) in her official capacity, but her right to speak and her seating position was challenged because she was a woman. Debate following this – in my recollection – focused more on Maori protocol than on her reaction to the blatant snub. It was one of the few times she showed a crack in her armour, but in my view it made her more likeable and real.

In many ways I felt I could relate to Helen Clark. She was one of four sisters (I am one of three). She grew up on a farm, as did I, and played sports and the piano, as did I. In her years as Prime Minister she was a supporter of the arts, but was equally often found tramping, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro or ski-ing or climbing in Europe or South America. She was fiercely independent, and an early feminist. Here was a woman after my own heart. She took a great interest in conservation, and my brother-in-law – who worked in Conservation – met her several times. In his relaxed manner of treating everyone equally, he would deliver Helen and her husband a hot cup of tea first thing in the morning, in the middle of the dense green New Zealand bush, to start their day. He said she was always warm, relaxed and funny, very different to the more serious Prime Ministerial persona we came to know so well on television and radio. I read somewhere that she once said that she adopted this persona because – woman or not – she was determined to be taken seriously. It worked.

When her party lost the election in 2008, she immediately stood down as leader. Shortly afterwards she was appointed as the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and, the first woman to lead this agency, she is the third most senior person in the United Nations organisation.

I remember seeing her the day after she left Parliament for the final time, 27 years after she first entered it. I was eating lunch at a popular but very casual Asian restaurant on the waterfront with a view of the harbour. Helen and a group of people walked in, and were shown to their seats closest to the water. She was laughing and looked relaxed. Those of us in the restaurant looked over, smiled, and in the New Zealand way, left her to her privacy, her lunch and her friends.

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I had dinner with a Saudi businessman earlier this year. He was friendly, handsome, articulate, a fluent English speaker with a PhD from a US university, and worked in education. He was urbane, familiar with western society, and entirely comfortable navigating his way through it. We chatted easily, and I asked about his family. He said he had a problem with his daughter.

“She likes wrestling with her brothers,” he said, disapprovingly, shaking his head. “She’s a tomboy.”

I laughed. “But she’s only seven, right? I was a tomboy at seven. I followed my dad everywhere on the farm, loved the animals and despised dolls. And I’ve turned out okay, even quite girly at times.”

“But,” he said, suddenly serious. “It’s different for her.”

Yes, it is different for her. And even now, months later remembering, I feel immense sadness at that. In normal circumstances here in the West, his daughter would grow up in privileged circumstances; she would have all sorts of opportunities open to her. I believe too that one of the greatest benefits a child can have is having parents who value education. But because she is growing up in Riyadh, because she is a girl, she can’t dream the same dreams I had, of travelling the world, playing tennis (I wanted to be Billie Jean King), working for a living, being successful in her own right. She can’t even dream of being respected. Not in the way we are. He was disapproving of a seven year old girl for being lively, spirited, outgoing, and feisty. All the traits I admire in children, and especially in little girls.

And I wondered how he could sit having dinner with a western businesswoman, Chairperson of the company that had brought them to New Zealand, the company they want to do business with for the next five, ten, fifteen years and beyond, and see me so differently from how he saw his daughter. And not see the injustice. Not feel it.

Perhaps he does recognise the injustice. But if so, how can he still subject his daughter to it?

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I get very annoyed that almost thirty years on from my entry into the world as an adult woman, feminism still is an issue, even if most of the young women today don’t know it. I am frustrated and disappointed that the glass ceilings still exist 20 years on. That my capable friends in the diplomatic service are still seen as pushy or whiny when they speak up for themselves or others, when their male counterparts are seen as strong and determined. That a blunt, plainly spoken woman is seen as slightly inappropriate but that a man is congratulated for speaking his own mind and “being his own man.” (Don’t get me started on stereotypes about men in business. That’s a whole different post). That my sister-in-law, as soon as she has children, is seen first as a mother not as a Partner by her colleagues in the law firm. That my female friends are the ones who have to juggle or sacrifice their careers to cope with the family and home and their partners, and that their partners accept this and see it even now as the natural way of things. That I have had to work harder to prove myself with my board colleagues, even simply to be heard, than any of the male Directors. The glass ceilings are still there. And yes we can break through them. But it shouldn’t be such hard work. And when it is, we should know that, recognise that, and still fight for it. There’s too much at stake not to fight.

Yet at the same time, I look at my own life. Am I a hypocrite? I opted out of both diplomatic and corporate lives, not because I couldn’t cope, but because I couldn’t bear to have to conform (and hold my tongue) for the next 10-20 years of my life. At the time several of my (female) friends did the same thing. Capable, experienced, talented women, exiting corporate life to go into business for themselves. My teenage niece N once suggested that I was a cop-out for not staying and proving that women could get to the top of the pile. I didn’t really have an answer for her, because she sounded just like me in the 1980s. And I’m not sure I can face the expectations of the 20-something Mali, or destroy N’s own expectations. Except to say that I stuck at it for almost 20 years, and that corporate success isn’t the only measure of success in business … and is no measure of success in life.

These days I am self-employed, which means (in my sometimes indulgent form of self-employment) that I don’t work full-time. So my husband takes most of the financial responsibility of our marriage. My contributions are more intermittent – the ups and downs of self-employment mean I have good years and lean years. With more time, I now undertake the majority of the traditional female domestic chores, (though if I do say so myself I cook because I’m damned good at it and besides I prefer my food over my husband’s). I even iron. Gasp.

But at the same time I am doing well in my non-traditional career. I am Chair of the company now (and it’s doing really well), I have good clients, and invitations to join other Boards. I have time for personal interests, including volunteer work (which has become extremely important to me) and of course blogging and, after years of travelling internationally for work, I like being home for my husband, for my relationship, my family and friends, and yes, for me.

I don’t think it’s hypocritical. After all, wasn’t feminism all about the freedom? Freedom from tradition? Freedom of choice? Freedom to be, not a man or a woman, but just the person you are and want to be.

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