As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Wellington writer, reviewer, commentator and blogger Anne Else reflects on why feminist writing matters more than ever.
Feminism saved my life and the lives of my closest friends. I was never one of the brave ones – I wasn’t much good at direct action, from fronting protest marches to helping women go to Australia for abortions (after the 95 percent male New Zealand Parliament ruled legal abortion virtually out of existence, even in cases of rape).
What I could do was speak and write. I know feminist writing matters, because it’s how I first made sense of what was happening to me. At 20, home alone all day with a BA and a baby, I knew something was fundamentally wrong, but I didn’t know what. Then I started reading the new books.
It wasn’t long before I tentatively embarked on working out what I felt and thought about women’s lives here, including my own, and putting those ideas together in ways that I hoped would make sense to others. In 1971 I helped to found Broadsheet, the feminist magazine that ran for over twenty years. Everything I’ve written since, from books to blogs, has been spurred and underpinned by feminism.
It’s different now, we hear. Feminism is so last century. Everyone knows girls can do anything, especially in New Zealand (“first country to give women the vote!”). The dismissive chorus grew to a deafening roar when women took all four of the highest offices here – Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House and Chief Justice. (Five, if you count the Queen.) It lasted a whole year and a half. Then Helen Clark’s government lost, and except for the Chief Justice (and the Queen) it was the boys’ turn again.
So why are we still here? Because so are sexism and misogyny, shot through with racism and oppression. Yes, things have changed, but not only for good. It’s no longer a case of “down among the women”, as Fay Weldon so memorably put it (she grew up in New Zealand, so we can claim her as ours). Thanks to the triumphant resurgence of the New Right, intent on reshaping the world to suit the rich, it all depends which women.
In New Zealand now, the lucky ones at or near the top really can have it all, though they’ll still run into covert roadblocks. But there’s a world of difference between the “challenges” these women experience and the deadly soul-destroying slog faced by the swelling numbers at the bottom of the income bar graphs. The fact that they’re disproportionately Maori and Pasifika makes it so much easier to blame them for making bad choices.
I could easily have fallen down there – for years, most of us knew we were only a husband away from welfare (we used to call it social security, but these days that would be false labelling). When one in four New Zealand children lives in poverty, so do their mothers, but only feminists point that out. A solemn new academic book on child poverty scarcely mentions women.
Sometimes I wonder what else I might have written if I hadn’t had to keep doing this instead. But without feminism I would never have found the courage to write at all. So I keep trying to find fresh words for it, to break through the pretty pink fog of forgetting and back up the new young voices getting louder by the day.
Anne Else is a Wellington writer, reviewer, commentator and blogger who has authored or co-authored six books on New Zealand women and social history, including a memoir, The Colour of Food (2014). Anne blogs at http://elsewoman.com.