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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.

Where Are We Going?

page 12

Where Are We Going?

Three art students from the Women in Society course at Victoria University last year combined to carry out the research which this article is based on.[1] It is an introductory survey only, which we hope will provide the starting point for much more detailed investigations into the women's movement in New Zealand. We feel that this area is a very important oen as there tends to be much confusion as to exactly what the women's movement is; what are its aspirations, and exactly to what extent can it be called a united movement. We believe that in order for any movement to be effective it must constantly question its direction, and also examine the extent to unity there is within it.

With these questions in mind, we decided to direct our research to discover firstly, who were the effective, power holders within the women's movement? What was the class position of these leaders Who were they trying to influence and why?

Secondly we wanted to find out to what extend a radical feminist (as opposed to purely pro-women) [2] consciousness existed amongst its members.

In line with these aims we included in our study only organisations set up primarily by women with our explicit concern for female roles and status.

It is important to stress that we did not only look at feminist women's groups, but also at other groups whose orientation was towards helping women, though not with feminist aims in mind. Within those which qualified we chose seventeen (national bodies, were possible) but a few locally-based groups as well [4]. We then attempted to divide them into three categories - conservative, liberal and radical. Conservative groups we defined as those who saw their primary functions being to help women cope with home and family life, and to carry out voluntary welfare work. Liberal groups were those whose efforts were concentrated on reformist activities which they believed were able to be realised in society as it is now. Radical groups we defined as those who had either socialist/feminist aims. i.e. those who believe that women's liberation is an important part of a socialist revolution, and that one cannot occur without the other. Also there were the purely feminist radical groups who saw that the patriarchal nature of our society was the main enemy - i.e. men were the main problem, and that patriarchy needs to be overthrown before true women's liberation can be achieved.

Our views, at the time of writing, were that feminism must be radical in order to work for major changes in traditional female stereotyping, in order to bring about the equal opportunity and participation of women in every area of life More specifically that this must involve such things as women's self control over their reproductive system (though there was disagreement that this should include abortion), the availability of comprehensive child care facilities, the breakdown of the current sexual division of labour [5], and significant modifications to the isolated nuclear family unit of today. We also believed that the vision the radical feminist must reject capitalism itself for the true liberation of all women involves much more than their equal participation with men in an economic system which would continue to oppress them. Even though we obviously had our own interpretation of what the women's movement ought to be, we at tempted to be as objective as possible in asking our questions of the various women's groups

Drawing of a woman in an apron reading a news paper

The Organisations

In 1966 Betty Friedan's book. The Feminine Mystique' was published. Its appeal to discontented middle-class housewives was enormous and immediately a number of new women's organisations sprung up, beginning witht he Society for Research on Women. Today, there appears to be a definite split in aim's and outlook between these post-1966 groups and those established earlier. Significantly, however, the pre-1966 groups still include all those we interviewed with memberships of over 1000 [5]. In other words, involvement in the current movement continues to be largely in organisations dating from the 1920s and 1930s. Their function was most often to complement (and certainly not challenge) existing male organisations [6]. The National Council of Women itself, the 'official voice' of New Zealand women, has its origins in the late 19th century.

In order to define the nature of the movement more clearly, we attempted to get details of the age, marital status, education and occupation of all those on the governing bodies of the organisations we interviewed. Our findings showed that power lies overwhelmingly in the hands of middle-class, high-educated married women in the 45-60 age group. The vast majority have families, are supported by professional husbands, and are either full-time housewives or work themselves in business and the professions.

Several important conclusions emerge from this: The leaders of the largest and most influential organisations tend to be housewives with no other paid employment. Orientation towards the family is thus inevitable, producing an outlook which tends to perpetuate existing female roles. The young, the single and the employed - these sectors most capable of challenging the traditional 'wife and motherhood' stereotype - play very little part in the movement overall. Even radical groups are led primarily by 'housewives only', finding it extremely difficult in practice to break out of a role they see to be oppressive and limiting. Indeed, only such groups as Sisters for Homophile Equality which have rejected heterosexual relationships and the family set-up altogether have completely overcome this particular problem.

Equally significant is the absence of working-class women in the New Zealand movement, at least in leadership positions [7]. This stems partly from the fact that only housewives supported by professional husbands have time for the amount of voluntary work implicity in active involvement. Regular governmental grants to groups are exceptional and usually cover categories not specifically concerned with women [8]. N.C.W. itself is forced to depend totally on voluntary labour apart from 12 house paid secretarial work per week. In other words, the "cause" of women is considered unimportant and goes largely unrecognised by the bodies which hold power in society at present.

But the problem runs deeper still. With almost no exceptions, the current groups unquestioningly accept middleclass structures, aspirations and activities. These have little relevance at all for working class women and the Working Women's Alliance alone is involved with them. In this situation, the vision of the movement is tragically limited to the equal participation of middle-class women in the present economic system. The fact that working class women (and men) would continue to be 'exploited' by such a system goes largely unrecognised. The right of some women to participate, euq equally with men in injustice has been substituted for the total liberation of the female sex in every sphere of life.

Aims/Activities and Attitudes

Drawing of a venus symbol chained to a ball

Within this limited framework, there is nevertheless considerable diversity of outlook amongst the groups we interviewed. Seven of the seventeen, and all the largest, have openly conservative aims. Their primary functions are to help women cope with home and family life, [9] and to carry out voluntary welfare work.[10]. In no way do they threaten current norms and values, since their activities stem from the view that women are mothers by nature and the health of society depends on the strength of the family unit. Some admit to being 'madly anti-lib." [11] and all, in fact are working to preserve traditional female roles, their efforts can only damage the feminist cause.

Another seven groups came under our liberal classification.

Many are completely issue-oriented, without any long-term goals around which to organise their activities. The specific call for the suffrage diverted female discontent in the 19th century and prevented the development of a generalised feminist ideology. In the same way today, exclusive concentration on equal pay, abortion law reform or the politisation of women is masking the need for an all-embracing change in structures and attitudes to facilitate the total liberation of women.

Lacking an overall theoretical framework liberal groups adopt short-term solutions to women's problems too, without considering their full implications. The widespread support initially given the proposed housewives' wage is one notable example. Only now is there growing realisation that its main effect would be to reinforce women's role in the home, diverting attention from needs like childcare. Such vacillation completely undermines the development of a united womanhood held together by a central ideology.

The inconsistency between the aims and activities of the groups acts as a further impediment to the feminist cause. Most glaring perhaps is the contradiction between their theoretical stand for equality of the sexes on the one hand and their practical support for the family unit in its present form on the other [12].

Attempts to extend women's position in society without challenging the basic structures of her oppression can only fail. Women may win a few concessions, but they will still be seen primarily as woves and mothers and all other activities as secondary to that role.

3 groups only remain to fulfil most of our criteria for radical feminism, the three with the smallest memberships. [13]. Unlike the [unclear: conservative] and liberal organisations, they see the true liberation of women as impossible under capitalist society.

W.F. and She, however, emphasize the patriarchal nature of capitalism, defining men as the primary enemy and problem to be overcome. In line with this, She at least is working for a "woman-created, woman-defined, woman-dominated society" as the alternative.

W.W.A., on the other hand, emphasises (more correctly we believe) the economic foundation of capitalism which exploits both men and women, as well as the sexist discrimination which occurs at all levels. Raising women's consciousness and fighting for equality remain important objectives of the group. But since society itself, and not man, is the root of women's oppression, their long-term vision is socialism rather than matriarchy.

Both groups find it difficult to translate their ideals into effective radical activity. They are forced to operate within a system which they oppose, and thus realistically support reform measures introduced by liberal groups. But the tension "between desiring short term practical changes and having an overall long-term ideology" [14] is not easily resolved.


There seems to be no doubt that women in New Zealand are stirring. Preoccupation with women's rights and "women's lib", even if only expressed as opposition, is intense. 'International Women's Year' has been the cry of every "threatened" male for the last twelve months. Two and a half thousand women attended the United Women's Convention in June, and hundred of others were turned away. Most encouraging of all has been the emergence of a few radical groups, radical in either a purely feminist way (defining men as the primary problem) or in a socialist feminist way

In spite of these signs of hope, however, the outlook is pessimistic. The official women's movement excludes large sections of women, notably those of the working class. Their particular problems and contributions therefore go unnoticed. Those groups which are organized get very little in the way of practical support by government and the rest of society they are forever struggling for funds and recognition.

Even more important, the large and powerful groups in the current movement, and the overwhelming majority, do not have 'feminist' aims and attitudes. Consciously or unconsciously they are working against the liberation of women in our society. The conservative organisations are in open support of traditional female roles, [unclear: set ng] women primarily in terms of wives and mothers. The liberal groups, by their issue-orientation, lack of vision and inconsistency, condemn women to a similar role with perhaps a few minor concessions. As yet the appeal of the radical element is limited, and its membership small. As a result, its ideology and idea's is swamped by the general views of the movement.

We feel strongly that there is:

"an urgent need for the New Zealand feminist movement to see itself as distinct and separate from the reforming zeal of the women who desire to better the lot of other women while maintaining them in the same basic role structure." [15]

The possibility of a new movement guided by feminist and socialist principles and working for the widest liberation of the female sex seems unlikely under the present set-up. Indeed, until the separation of pro-woman and feminist groups occurs, piece-meal, short-term and minor reforms can be the only expectations of the women's movement.

Groups we Approached:

  • Working Women's Alliance
  • Wellington Feminists
  • Sisters for Homophile equality
  • Country Women's Institute
  • Women's Division of Federated Farmers
  • Catholic Women's League
  • Association of Anglican Women
  • Abortion Law Reform Association
  • Business and Professional Women's Org.
  • Equal Pay and Opportunity
  • Labour Women's Council
  • Maori Women's Welfare League
  • National Council of Women
  • National Organisation of Women
  • Society for Research on Women
  • Women's Electoral Lobby
  • Young Women's Christian Association