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New Zealand Social Studies Teachers' Conference

Issue date: 
Sunday, 9 May 1993
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

Mrs Buck, Mrs Shipley, Mr Norrish, Ms Ayers, teachers.

I know I'm being anachronistic, but to adapt the first half of a famous quotation, gaining the franchise was indeed "one small step for women." It was not however, a giant leap for womankind.

The point being that formal recognition of something is not as important as, for want of a better term, "cultural" recognition.

Which in turn raises the question, just what is it that women really need recognised? What is the best way to formulate the feminist goal with some precision?

In the past, there have been many definitions and prescriptions - equality of opportunity, equal rights, equal pay for work of equal value and so on.

But what all these seem to boil down to, is that 100 years after women were formally recognised as legal persons, we are still striving for the recognition of the truth and the wisdom of the idea that women and men are of equal status.

I suggest that equal status might be a useful specification, because it allows for the biological differences between women and men - we do after all, seem to think differently and have different priorities - without unbalancing the equal worth of both genders.

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 and should be non-career priorities for many at some stage. But just because functions are different, should not be extended to mean that one gender is intrinsically "worth" more or less than the other.

There is a quote from Lesley Garner, a British journalist who wrote for the Daily Telegraph exactly one week before I assumed office as Governor-General: "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 Cabinet ministers or managing directors or editors if they think and behave exactly like men. Their whole value lies in their difference".

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

Suffrage for women was a measure of formal, legal recognition for equality of status, but informal recognition - the sort of recognition that can be denied by cultural assumption, colonial economics and so on - has been slower to arrive.

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. The next logical question then, is how can such "cultural learning" be speeded up?

By what means will women finally obtain uncontested agreement that they are of equal status with men?

How can individual women and thoughtful men, scattered around the world, speed up this general, educational process?

Considering who you are and what you do, I trust these questions are rhetorical.

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

Every so often, you still hear the idea that "if women ran the world, there would be fewer wars and less poverty" and that there would be a range of sundry other improvements as well. However, the concept has always struck me as a bit woolly - utopian at best, silly at worst.

Equal status implies partnership. Full partnership between the sexes requires, not compromise over differences, but their reconciliation. By reconciliation, I mean the process of women adopting the best of the male way of looking at, and dealing with, the world, and - what has been missing from the history of humanity so far - men adopting the best of the female way of valuing, and dealing with, relationships and community.

1993 is a commemoration of a considerable achievement, but as I mentioned, the country has yet to make many of the "cultural" adjustments that should have accompanied the vote.

In talking about "cultural" adjustments, I am referring to social attitudes and, in particular, to expectations.

Expectations are two edged - we either live up, or we live down, to them. This seems to be a fact of life - humans are social creatures, and frustrating others' expectations of us, upsets relationships. Women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of pressure.

One of the signs that women are indeed living in a new age, will be when more of us begin to feel more comfortable in not living down to some of the social expectations we have inherited.

For example, must a woman always have to move if her husband's company moves him? Are men's careers always the ones that must take priority? Evidence of another social expectation: when will the arch-ness of the connotations of the word, "house-husband", disappear? Everyone can come up with dozens of such examples.

To break through this last barrier 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. However, women themselves are well-placed to make sure that this effort succeeds.

After all, we are the ones who become mothers, which ensures that we are every child's first educator. And rumour has it that women are the great majority of social studies teachers. So, the means exist and I know the education effort has started.

Even so, I hope success comes sooner rather than later. Another 100 years for example, the bi-centenary of Women's Suffrage in 2093, would be far too late.

Without further ado, I now declare the 1993 New Zealand Social Studies Teachers' Conference open.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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