International (Working) Women’s Day

It’s hard to know what to write on this International (Working) Women’s Day. The issues facing women living under patriarchy remain pretty much what they always are: there’s a basic structural power imbalance, leveraged against women, against people of colour, against people with disabilities, against the working class, against GLBTQ people. This is reflected in how our labour is valued (what jobs we’re allowed to have, how much (less) we’ll be paid, how high we’re allowed to rise), in whether crimes against us are (not) taken seriously, in the fact that people from those groups live life on a higher difficulty setting than others.

The gender pay gap is in the spotlight again, both in terms of blatant women-getting-paid-less-than-men-for-the-same-job discrimination, and also the issue of women’s work, especially “nurturing” care work, being paid less than comparable “men’s” jobs. And when you break gender pay discrimination down by ethnicity, it gets a lot worse if you’re not Pākehā.

The government’s consistent undermining of work rights, refusal to even consider the concept of a living wage,  disprorportionately affects women. The focus by our Ministry of Women’s Affairs (and other groups like the National Council of Women) is still on getting more women onto boards, as though benefiting a few overwhelmingly white, well-off, educated, middle-aged cis women is going to trickle down some equality to the rest of us.

It’s definitely a problem though, given that in a survey of 1,500 large US corporations, there were more CEOs called John – or David – than there were women. With any name.

Women still carry the majority of the burden for housekeeping and child-rearing, which impacts on their careers and financial independence:

About 35 percent of New Zealand women work part-time because they also need to do housework and care for children and other dependents. Even though New Zealand men participate in domestic work more than men in other industrialised countries, women in New Zealand do more than double the unpaid house-work and care.

The issue of our corrections system imprisoning trans women in male prisons has gotten some long-overdue attention – and the violence which is doled out to people who stand against the mainstreaming of once-radical events.

It’s still probably going to take me longer to repay my student loan than my partner – even though his was about double mine when he finished uni.

One could go on and on listing the ways that sexism, and other types of prejudice, impact women’s lives. There’s a concerted campaign online to push women out of gaming and the tech industry. In this year’s Academy Awards there were no women nominated for directing, screenwriting, or cinematography, and no actors of colour. New Zealand’s abortion laws are still stuck in 1977. Our Minister for Women’s Affairs thinks that beauty pageants, which still primarily exist to reinforce narrow stereotypes about women’s value, are great ways to build women’s confidence (presumably so they can get on boards.) Our Prime Minister retracted his promise to apologise to a rape victim after he found out her politics were leftwing.

There has been some progress, absolutely; but there’s still a very long way to go before any of the most damaging effects of patriarchy can be considered cured, or even particularly dented.

Louise Upston and beauty pageants

There’s a lot to unpack in our Minister of Women’s Affairs comments on beauty pageants and feminism, as reported in Stuff.

She praises beauty pageants for giving young women (sorry, “young girls”) confidence in their abilities- as though contestants like Louise Nelson, an RNZAF helicopter crewmember, couldn’t possibly find confidence in her abilities from anywhere else in her life.

Jack Yan, who I now regret giving my number 3 preference to in local body elections, says the Miss Universe New Zealand pageant is totally modern and cool these days – why, they don’t even have a swimsuit section! What they do have, though, is a fairly un-modern list of criteria for contestants:

  • You must be between 18 and 27 years old
  • You must “be female”, or if you were not “born female” you must have undergone surgery and be “legally certified” as a woman
  • You must not be married, and never have given birth to a child.

And, so obvious it doesn’t even need to be written down: you must be thin, and conventionally attractive. It’s still a goddamn beauty pageant after all.

Ms Upston then talks a bit about what feminism means to her, and why she isn’t a feminist. My interpretation of her comments is below.

I’m not interested in being a flag-waver
Because feminists are angry scary people who make a fuss!

I’m not interested in having colleagues who get there because they’re a woman, and they’re the token one.
Feminism is all about promoting women just because they’re women! I’m not one of Those Women!

Upston was a fan of old-fashioned chivalry, such as men opening doors for women
Look! I’m one of the cool chicks! I’m unthreatening! I understand women traditionally lack the skills to open doors!

It bothers me greatly that in 2014, the top career choices for girls continue to be hairdressers and air hostesses.
This obviously has nothing to do with us still expecting women to ~gain confidence~ by participating in beauty pageants!

Upston’s priorities include … promoting women to positions of leadership
But in a totally different way from that tokenistic feminist promotion of women!

I will give Louise Upston a bit of credit: another of her priorities is about ending domestic and sexual violence against women. But she apparently proposes to do that while ignoring root causes like “women are still treated like their value is derived from their physical attractiveness”, or having a good think about why “chivalry” is coded as  “men opening doors for women”. For all that feminism routinely gets criticised for focusing too much on different expectations of men and women, the anti-feminist crowd sure do like to reinforce the gender divide.

The chief problem is this: by waving a big friendly “I’m not one of those scary feminists” flag of her own, Upston signals she wants to write off the movement which has done all the hard work of identifying and challenging these issues. She only wants to do things which aren’t going to upset the status quo too much. So it’s probably another three years of “look how many women like Paula Rebstock and Margaret Bazley we’ve managed to appoint to boards! Progress!”

Ending sexual violence and gender discrimination isn’t something we can do by leaning in or talking about individual women gaining confidence. There are big, scary structural issues in play. Those issues are only reinforced by outdated rubbish like beauty pageants, and overturning them requires far more radical action than I think Louise Upston, or anyone in the National government, is capable of.