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"Celebrating Women" 1993 Suffrage Centennial Year Lectures

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 31 August 1993
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

Suffrage Centennial Year, as I'm sure you've noticed, has come in for some mockery. Necks have been observed to redden at the very idea of some of the events.

But no matter. The Centennial has promoted greater awareness of the history of women in New Zealand. That should be of lasting value. Perhaps the problem the mockers have had, is that the Year's values are intangible. You know - if you can't touch it or measure it, it doesn't exist and at least some of the focus of the Year's activities has been on ideas, character and similar non-material things. Among the benefits that I believe Suffrage Centennial Year will leave behind is a more reliable social compass, a deeper understanding of our own history and therefore, a sharper view of how we are developing as a people.

One of the tangible outcomes of our turning the spotlight onto the women of New Zealand is the number of books that have been - still are being - produced about the lives of women hitherto little known. [Matamata]

Like any Centennial, this one was intended to help us take a hundred steps back from the present day, to see where we have come from. But the only lasting value will come from planning the next hundred steps that we should take - onward, as our national motto used to proclaim.

The focus becomes, what social choices have we yet to make? - what decisions should we take? - and will they enrich or demean us?

I suggest that there are three steps at least, that we need to consider, before we begin to pace out the following 97.

The first is to continue defining what it is that women in New Zealand still need to achieve - no small task, that one.

The second is for women and men to learn better, more effective ways of talking across the cultural boundaries that so often divide the genders.

The third is what I suppose could be labelled a classically-feminist recommendation, that the bias in our society that favours men's values at the expense of women's, be extinguished.

I'll get to steps two and three in a bit, after looking at the first. If the women's movement were, quote, "to succeed," what would this success look like? What would we have attained? In essence, what is our vision for and of the future? Given that there are several visions of New Zealand's future on offer at any one time, which one should we strive to make real, and where should we start the discussion?

In the event that such a consensus could ever be reached, would the prescription we arrived at in 1993 or even 2003, still be valid 20 years, 50 years, 100 years hence? Maybe, maybe not.

I don't need to go back to 1893 to make that comparison. Let me go back to my own youth - less than 50 years back. What did success, achievement, fulfillment look like for a New Zealand woman at the end of World War II? [To the 2nd United Women's Convention, 1975; International Women's Year]

As the Centennial reminds us, the formal beginning for such a discussion was in 1893.

That was when women gained the franchise - "one worthwhile step for women, but not a giant leap for womankind," to tinker with a phrase. Hopes were sky high that it would lead inevitably to a broader emancipation, but this has turned out to have been a wish for the moon.

As we have been frequently reminded recently, the sky didn't fall (men) - the world went on turning on its axis as before. [1919, 1933, WWII] The main historical lesson from women's gaining the right to vote seems to be that formal recognition of a principle does not necessarily lead on to "cultural" recognition.

Which takes us back to the question, just what is it that women really need recognised? What is the best way to formulate the feminist goal in a way that does not create false impressions and intellectual pitfalls? Just what sort of equality do women need? Men don't seem to know. Do women know or agree?

In the past, there have been many definitions and prescriptions of and for "what women want" - equality of opportunity, equal rights, equal pay for work of equal value and so on. Shifting alliances of people agree on specific goals. 100 years after women were formally recognised as legal persons, we are still striving for the widespread recognition of the truth and the wisdom of the idea that women and men are of equal status.

Equal status is a useful specification, because it allows for the biological differences between women and men, without unbalancing their equal worth.

The idea of equal status recognises that there won't always be equality of function between the two sexes. Women's bearing and caring for children for example, will be non-career priorities for many at some stage. But just because functions are different, does this have to be extended to mean that one gender is "stronger" or "weaker" than the other?

What's needed is a broad cultural awareness that men are not superior to women, women are not superior to men. The understanding that we all need is that the genders are complementary. The skills, perceptions, talents of both are valuable and needed.

The choice is not "either female values, or male ones." Rather, the choice we need to make is about how, as a country, we put a proper and equal value on both. In the terms of what was probably the only Marxist formulation of any worth, such an awareness is not a thesis, or an antithesis, but a synthesis.

Equal status is also a useful description of what is still missing from the New Zealand scheme of things in 1993 - the recognition that differences between men and women's lives should not excuse false beliefs about their relative social worth. But indeed, they are still used that way, to justify differences in social rights and responsibilities.

There is a quote from Lesley Garner, a British journalist who was commenting in London's Daily Telegraph one week before I assumed office as Governor-General. She said: "What we still need to do is to infiltrate the mainstream with feminine values. Allow women to think and behave like women. There is no point in having women...managing directors or editors if they think and behave exactly like men. Their whole value lies in their difference".

Up to the present day, the pace at which societies and cultures have learned has always been much slower than the rate at which lessons are absorbed and acted upon by individuals. A logical question then, is how can individual women and thoughtful men speed up this general, educational process?

Of course, but you have to beware of the perverse consequences of this truism.

In the past, observations about the differences between women and men have been "heard" as saying that women are "different from the standard, which is whatever men are." The male standard is the norm, the female departs from it. And then, "different" changes to "worse"; "dissimilar" to "not equally valid."

This is a generalisation and while generalisations capture similarities, they can also obscure exceptions.

Despite this danger, it is still worthwhile to think in these broad terms. As a contemporary American writer and linguistics professor, Deborah Tannen, has noted: sometimes "the risk of ignoring differences is greater than the danger of naming them. Sweeping something big under the rug doesn't make it go away; (rather) it trips you up and sends you sprawling when you venture across the room."

"The desire to affirm that women are equal," she continued, "has made some (people)...reluctant to show that they are different, because differences can be used to justify unequal treatment and opportunity. Much as I understand and am in sympathy with those who wish there were no differences between women and men - only reparable social injustice - ... research ... and experience (say) it simply isn't so."

Then, she went on to identify one of the main stumbling blocks to achieving women's and men's equal status as the barrier erected by the two genders' different "cultures." The resulting cross-cultural communications gap has prevented progress towards Lesley Garner's "infiltration of the mainstream with feminine values."

Deborah Tannen asserted that because "there are gender differences in ways of speaking, ... we need to identify and understand them. Without such understanding, we are doomed to blame others or ourselves - or (our relationships) - for the otherwise mystifying and damaging effects of our contrasting conversational styles."

I put this forward as a valuable and vital insight.

For one thing, when you think about it, it implies that removing some of the barriers to women's rights need not involve hostilities. Conflict is a stupid way of settling issues at the best of times, but fighting about unrealities like our own or someone else's misperceptions, is really a mark of density.

If Deborah Tannen is right, many of the problems in attaining equal rights and responsibilities for women, and greater support and better interpersonal relationships for men, are removable with the better translation of women's point of view to men, and vice versa - not only in the public arena, but also at the personal, domestic level.

This is a big step away from the conspiracy theories that hold that men deliberately and consciously oppress women. This is not to deny that there is some genuine male chauvinist piggery about, but I am also certain that there are many men out there who wonder how, after making a sincere effort to try to communicate their goodwill, they are still perceived as being malign manipulators. Genuine goodwill is in danger of dissipation through exasperation.

So studying the way women and men differ - or to be more precise, how women and men's communications styles differ and understanding these differences, for the mutual advantage of both genders - is my pick as a vital second step towards the acknowledgment that men and women are of equal status.

It's a step that calls, however, for breakthroughs in our rate of "cultural" learning. To say this another way, we need to learn how to speed up cultural development - how to accelerate progress to a goal that nearly everyone already acknowledges; that somehow, women and men should be equal.

This educational process would be best begun with the realisation and acknowledgement that women and men in our society, in many respects, live in two parallel cultures. They almost touch, but not quite - the cultures are headed in the same direction, but there has always been a distance between them.

The problem has always been that we assume that women and men do or ought to talk and think in exactly the same way and have more or less the same priorities.

The hard evidence is that this is wildly inaccurate. When men and women talk, as often as not, they talk right past each other. Many of men's and women's basic assumptions about sex roles - about the way individuals should co-exist with wives, husbands, children, employees, employers and so on - our basic assumptions are different.

OK, most of us have known that for years, but maybe we haven't yet really understood it: something that supports this point of view - we don't take any action as a consequence. We certainly haven't taken on board that these differences often completely frustrate men and women even when they earnestly try to understand each other.

So my second step consists of raising awareness of these differences, where and when they exist.

Both men and women will be changed by this process. Indeed, one of the signs that "cultural recognition" of women's equality is really beginning to take place, will be that women's behaviour changes, as well as men's.

The sign that men are living in a new age, will be that they are more prepared to deviate from a traditional definition of the proper role of "the man of the house" - SNAGs will become more respected than lampooned.

To illustrate the size of the change that's required, must a woman always have to move if her husband's company moves him? Isn't it certain that some women already have "better" careers than their husbands? The problem is, that most men still "know" their status is absolutely negligible if he's not the one out there, finding and bringing home bacon. But equal status says that such male "knowledge" has to be re-examined.

Besides, what are the alternatives to living as a SNAG? When are men going to cotton on to the idea, that not every male has to be a bloke, confusing isolation with independence and self-strangulation with strength?

One of the signs that women are living in a braver new age, will be when we are more comfortable in sloughing off some of the social expectations that we have inherited.

Women need to become just a little more competitive and assertive in character - perhaps not to the extent of males in thrall to winning a place in whatever hierarchy is flavour-of-the-androgen-soaked moment - but women at least, should be more comfortable with female tall poppies.

It is both a strength and a weakness that women feel constrained to meet the expectation that they should, always, be "co-operative and supportive." This has also meant that they should not try to excel at the expense of "fitting in," that a "good" woman always has to meet others' needs before her own, and so on.

[Recent story in the Herald: Modern girl - prince]

Women, like men, need to spend time celebrating individual achievement, particularly women's excellence. Too often, this quality generate wariness amongst other females that a woman is abandoning her circle; it is viewed negatively. I freely admit that this is another sweeping generalisation - of course, there's no universal "women's approach." But, continuing to speak stereotypically, such individualism has traditionally been more a male way of relating to life, a male way of living in the world. We still hear "Who does she think she is?" When it comes to achievers, the male version of the same query is rarer.

Men's and women's ability to see and in some cases, adopt, the other's world view, would begin to change social attitudes and then outcomes in many life situations that we already acknowledge as unfair.

With more contact between our masculine and feminine cultures, we should be readier to accept that a man's and a woman's points of view are not "one-down" or "one-up" on each other, but complementary. Each has something the other lacks.

It would, above all else, be a healthy change. Everyone would benefit. But on its own, it will not be sufficient to achieve truly equal status for men and women: even after learning how to communicate across a cultural divide, there remains the bias against women - against their independence, against their equal status - built right into the way we live.

[Another recent clipping - Evening Post: No place at the top for the working mother]

Which brings me to my third necessary step. It is the classical feminist prescription of identifying and overcoming the persistent inequalities that are the result of the social hierarchies we have preserved in our society.

And until everyone finally does recognise that women are disadvantaged within the current social framework, hierarchy will often continue to sink into patriarchy - not all of the limits on women are created solely by a communication gap. Speaking more in exasperation than in anger, the playing field still has a marked tilt to it, and women still make up the side that has to play uphill.

What's the evidence for this? Well, just to begin to illustrate, here's an interesting snippet - the definitions of matriarchy and patriarchy in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. You'd think they would be nearly identical. Instead, patriarchy is "a system of society, government, etc., ruled by a man and with descent reckoned through the male line." The roots of the word are from the Greek words for father as "head of the family," and "ruler."

Matriarchy, on the other hand, is "a form of social organisation in which the mother is the head of the family and descent is reckoned through the female line."

Well, it's nice to be given the headship of something, but what happened to the rest - to society and government? Where did the leadership of those vanish to? That they have vanished, is the evidence that a third step is needed - a third step towards a bi-centenary of women's suffrage that would really be something to celebrate.

Dale Spender made the point a few years ago, that schools cannot teach what society does not know. What she wrote about was the "invisible woman," and, "education in its broadest sense - ...what we know in our society and how we come to know it."

In history, she noted, women's absence from the record is startling. This absence is so remarkable, it should alert us to something: it is the sound of an archival Baskerville hound, as it were; a remarkably clear pointer towards a very large vested interest.

"Human beings invent or construct knowledge in accordance with the value and beliefs with which they begin," wrote Ms Spender. "What knowledge gets made, and what does not, why and how it is used, can provide much illumination about the people who have made it and the society in which they live."

So why, she challenges her readers, is so much of what we "know" about women "so frequently viewed as political when so much unmitigated nonsense is given the stamp of approval, placed in halls of learning, is revered and called 'objective knowledge' and 'accumulated wisdom.?" What unmitigated nonsense, I thought you'd never ask. Here are the two first entries from an iniquitously-long list. "Only men can be the great philosophers, the great artists, the great composers, the great anything." "'Women's' work isn't worth the same as 'men's' work."

How is it that women have been "disappeared" in the records, to the point that we can still be very easy to overlook in the modern world?

Wouldn't it be accurate to say, she asks, that, as a society, we are dependent on the knowledge that is made, "which includes the knowledge that we should defer to experts..."

Yet some of these experts have obviously got some things ridiculously wrong - conventional wisdom has many famous and drastic shortcomings. For instance, one of the most glaring is in economics. What is, and what is not, "gainful employment?"

The old definition is plain wrong. We accept without question that although we are all capable in many areas, our society places the most value on work, which is only that which other people will pay us to do. Really?

By default, as Ms Spender reminds us, this has come to mean that "Men...have defined what they do as work, and where women do not do the same things as men, they are classified as not working, regardless of the number of hours they spend...This demonstrates a male monopoly on meaning, for in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary...women have learned to deny the realities of their own (lives)".

This "male monopoly on meaning," that she has identified is a clear example of how men's and women's world views do not yet enjoy equal status. In the hierarchy, or the patriarchy, of ideas, men's are the more valued.

But the foundations of such a hierarchy of ideas are fragile. " doesn't take women nearly as long to learn that males are not superior, as it does to learn that they are. I know that thirty years of learning patriarchal values can be undermined in thirty seconds, and that the world never looks the same again. I know that women have been the victims of an enormous hoax - and that it won't work twice."

As I said earlier, I don't agree with the suggestion that there must always be a conscious conspiracy to create the inequality between the sexes that presently exists. For one thing, if we adopt a conspiratorial point of view, it becomes much more likely that we will try to overcome this inequality by starting to compete for dominance.

The errors of the past, with women denied equality, will not be erased by playing blame games - gaining moral superiority by being acknowledged the victim of injustice is not as important as getting on with fixing things. Here we can learn from current debates in Maori affairs. [Cf. Sir Tipene O'Regan: out of a "grievance" mind-set.]

The need is to look forward to what needs to be accomplished, not to look back with accusation. So the more productive alternative by far is to put into practice, after all these years, the precept that men and women are indeed the complements of one another.

One enormous caveat: turning talk into action is the hard bit - step three is the giant leap, to hark back to a certain paraphrase earlier.

To break through the last barriers to women's cultural suffrage will require many years of the same sort of public education effort that Kate Sheppard organised, 100-and-more years ago.

But as well as this, both genders have an obligation to act, and not to attempt change through words alone. Following examples rather than prescriptions is, and always will be, the most effective form of teaching.

Children have to see mothers able to advance in their careers, and fathers doing their share of the laundry, cooking and vacuuming.

Men have to accept that the absolute priority given to their careers is not justified or justifiable.

Employers have to accept as unremarkable, the need for fathers to stay home and look after the kids, sometimes, or to take them to school, or to the doctor, no matter that it is during normal working hours.

Women have to accept that competition is necessary for excellence. Such struggles are therefore to be sought out at times. At other times, the competition must be with oneself: occasional self-absorption has to be seen as part of women's natural order.

Both genders have to recognise and accept that women in positions of authority are not threatening, or unsympathetic, or un-womanly.

I'll leave the schedule there, because for such a short list, it's already a long one - it calls for enormous social change. Notwithstanding this, I hope success comes sooner rather than later. That it should take another 100 years for example, to the bi-centenary of Women's Suffrage in 2093, would be entirely too long.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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