The Trump effect on feminism:
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has done more than astound the world – it has galvanised people into action. Wendyl Nissen reports on the response from New Zealand’s women’s movement and talks to different generations of fem
Wendyl Nissen investigates the recent surge of activism
Have you been on a protest yet? If you were living in the United States, you may have held a placard supporting immigrants, the environment or women’s reproductive rights, or you might have joined the many marches supporting the women’s movement that have been held following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
In fact, in the US, the protest is being referred to as the “new brunch” because liberal Americans now get up on the weekend, grab a coffee and
head off to one of the plethora of protests against the Trump administration.
In his first week as President, Donald Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office and signed more than a dozen presidential actions, which suspended affordable healthcare; put severe restrictions on immigration, which many say was a Muslim ban; revived construction of two major oil pipelines, brushing aside environmental concerns; authorised a wall between the US and Mexico; considered revisiting the use of torture; started investigations into voter fraud (but only in
Protest is being referred to as the “new brunch”.
the states where he lost); and, most significantly for many women, stopped funding international planned parenthood organisations, denying millions of women abortions, contraception and sexual health services.
Here in New Zealand, women turned out to protest Trump’s unique brand of misogyny, and many of those women would admit that it’s been a while. A while since the women’s movement felt it needed to put on a show of force, and as one placard so aptly displayed in the US – “I can’t believe I still have to protest this f ...... s…”
For many New Zealand women, the appearance of reality TV star Donald Trump in the race for President of the United States started off as a bit of a joke, but then became a terrifying reality. For me, it made me very concerned for my daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Would the women’s movement cope? As a feminist, I wondered what effect Trump would have on the gains we have made and issues we still have to address.
So I decided to write this story and put in calls to two leading vanguards of feminism, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. Part of me wanted these old-guard feminists to tell me it was all going to be all right. To map out a plan of resistance, to take control and organise women around the world. And part of me, if I’m honest, just wanted the privilege of talking to two women I have admired all my life.
But unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Germaine’s publishers: “Many thanks for your email, but I’m afraid Professor Greer doesn’t grant interviews for print publication.”
Which is fair enough. At 78, she’s been writing books and columns and giving talks and lectures for the best part of 50 years. Perhaps she feels it’s time to not be the go-to feminist for every journalist around the world.
Gloria Steinem’s person came back with a shorter response: “Unfortunately Gloria needs to decline.”
Which, again, is fair enough. At 82, Gloria is still active in the women’s movement and spoke at the women’s march in Washington on January 21, where she said: “We are here and around the world for a deep democracy that says we will not be quiet, we will not be controlled, we will work for a world in which all countries are connected. God may be in the details, but the goddess is in connections. We are at one with each other, we are looking at each other, not up. No more asking daddy.”
No matter. Right here in this country we have women who have fought hard and long for the women’s movement during the second wave of feminism, such as writer, politician and food campaigner Sue Kedgley, who is in her 60s, and local body politician, writer, historian, and women’s health campaigner Sandra Coney (72). They are active in local government these days. We also have some younger women who are part of what is now being called the third wave of feminism – politician Chlöe Swarbrick (22), and musician, writer and activist Lizzie Marvelly (27).
So I talked to these inspirational women in a series of interviews that I found at times surprising, sometimes challenging, but mostly empowering. Then I read Fight Like a Girl, written by Clementine Ford, an Australian in her mid-30s who is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker and also very active on social media (I’ve since recommended Fight Like a Girl to all my friends).
But first, let’s start in a pre-Trump world and find out how the women’s movement is going.
All the women agree that we still have a long way to go on issues like the gender pay gap.
“I can distinctly recall,” says Sue, “when the 1972 Equal Pay Act was passed here and we all thought, ‘Well that’s great, we can tick that box,’ yet the pay gap just keeps getting wider.
“It’s ludicrous that nearly 45 years later women still don’t get equal pay.”
How can that be when it was made into law? “Secrecy,” says Sue. “Until there is some kind of disclosure about who earns what, there will continue to be situations where we find that a woman will be training up her male replacement for her job and discover he is being paid two-thirds more than her.”
Women also leave work to have children and return to find their male colleagues have climbed the ladder in their absence, and many women work part time or in lower paid jobs such as caregivers.
The women also agree that violence against women is still a big problem.
“The level of violence women experience is a major issue,” says Clementine, “and it doesn’t appear to go away even when crime rates drop. It’s not just extreme violence, it’s the guy slapping your arse at a nightclub and people say you’re over-reacting and to toughen up.
“Generations of women have been undermined enough to the point where they can’t even complain about a basic sexual harassment issue, so who will be confident enough to make a complaint about the serious stuff?”
When working as a journalist, Chlöe had covered the Roast Busters story in 2013, where a group of young men based in Auckland allegedly sought to intoxicate underage girls to gang rape them.
“There were people actually coming out and saying that ‘boys will be boys’ and I don’t think this country ever really had a grown-up conversation about that. I think we have a big cultural problem where women’s boundaries are not respected and that’s frightening.”
Sue believes the sexualisation of women is still a problem, with five-year-old girls being invited to make-up parties where the sole exercise is to practise “putting on your face”.
Lizzie feels that most issues are women’s issues, whether they are about the economy or education, but her main worries are affordable childcare and marginalised people such as women of colour, transgender people or the disabled.
While some of the women I talked to point to a lack of women CEOs on boards or in local government, Clementine believes this is a “white middle-class women” issue.
“That addresses a very particular kind of privileged women and if they get to be on the board does that mean that gender equality is solved? Of course not.”
Then Trump came along. For most of the women, he first came on their radar when 10-year-old tapes were released which had him skiting about how he likes to grab women “by the pussy”. He went on to say that when you are a star “you can do anything”.
“For me that was the point of no return,” says Sue. “Here’s a man with utter contempt for women boasting of his misogyny.”
She said the best response to this was a woman in Canada who sent out a message on Twitter asking women to fight back and expose men who are sexual predators. She went on to describe her experience as a 12-year-old with an uncle in the back seat of a car.
“The response was astounding, as millions of women tweeted about their experience,” says Sue. “So exposing this collectively was very powerful because previously it had been a bit buried.”
It seems that with Trump in power, resistance is forming. The day after his inauguration there were 700 marches in the US and around the world (even in Antarctica) with millions of women taking part with the clear message sent that “pussy grabs back”. It is thought it was the biggest protest since the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. From the very British slogan “I’m really quite cross” to “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn” to “Free Melania”, the placards were both witty and demonstrative.
Here in New Zealand we had marches in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.
Chlöe cautions that 53 per cent of white women voted for Trump, but that wasn’t being spoken about at the marches. “To declare all women are in solidarity doesn’t recognise the nuances and struggles different women face, such as women of colour or transwomen.”
For Lizzie, the march in Auckland was her first, and she describes it as “one of the most effervescent, supportive, happy experiences, at the risk of oversimplifying the terrifying situation. The sense of sisterhood and solidarity was amazing but I also think it was important that we didn’t all go home thinking, ‘Well, I’ve ticked that box.’”
Sandra agrees. “It’s one thing to get out and march and sign an online petition… Those are one-off things that don’t require any commitment or long-term organising. You can’t just say we don’t like it and then overturn it. There’s going to have to be organisation to do that and the ability to fight for things one by one, and that will take people doing a lot more than posting things on Facebook in the middle of the night.”
The sense of solidarity was amazing but it was important we didn’t all go home thinking, ‘Well, I’ve ticked that box.’
Sandra has been on “millions of marches” – her first in Ponsonby Road, Auckland, about a heritage house that was being pulled down. She was also a big fan of “embarrassing people from the outside” by putting up posters, protesting outside people’s houses and once setting up a soup kitchen to embarrass visiting royalty.
“There are too many women sitting pretty or too busy.”
Sue has been on a lot or marches too. Her first was at the age of 19 at university, marching to Parliament against the Vietnam War. “President Johnson had made a flying visit to New Zealand to promote the Vietnam War and thousands of us chanted in unison outside parliament, ‘Hey hey LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?’ It was a memorable event,” she says.
Clementine went on the women’s march in Melbourne and agrees that going back to grassroots forms of campaigning is important. “We need to have meetings with each other and start donating money to organisations who are better prepared than us to do something.”
Sue says huge marches are supposed to make governments nervous, but that remains to be seen. However, for women who are feeling hopeless or alone, there can be a sense of solidarity. And she makes the point that in the days of social media, it is much easier to be connected to a cause.
“The women’s movement in New Zealand came out of the movement in the United States, but it took about two-and-a-half years to get here. These days something can happen over there and two-and-a-half minutes later we’re onto it.”
Clementine agrees it is so easy to connect with each other through Facebook and Twitter, but there are also some pitfalls.
“There is a lot of infighting on the internet because we’re kneading out some of the knots in the movement, but people need to recognise that if the only thing you are doing online is calling out people who exist in your movement in online spaces, then you need to think about what you are doing.”
In Clementine’s book she talks about the number of men who go onto her Facebook page and post incredibly violent misogynistic messages that include sexual violence and abuse.
In many cases women who receive such insults, including Chlöe and Lizzie, will click on the man’s profile to see a picture of him with a family – the kind of man who would never say these things in public but feels that the internet gives him the right to do so.
In one case, Clementine contacted the employers of a man who was abusive to her and shared his message with them. He lost his job.
All the women have noticed an increase in misogynistic abuse on their social media accounts recently. They all credit the support of other women on those accounts to help them get through it and, as Clementine says, the abusive men “are pretty bloody predictable and their presence has resulted in women bonding together to support each other to be confident and shout back.
“Now if you’re going to hurt one of us, then 100 more of us are going to come online and push back. That’s really amazing and very inspiring to see in action.”
One of the things Chlöe had to weigh up when deciding whether to enter the Auckland mayoral race as a candidate last year was the online abuse she would receive and still receives.
“It’s a very odd playing field because I’ve had all of this vitriol online but never once have I
encountered it in real life.”
The increasing visibility of transgender people has seen the rise of gender politics as a new area of activism that has recently found a lot of awareness – some say to the detriment of the feminist cause. Germaine Greer, in particular, told the BBC in reference to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition from man to woman: “I think misogyny plays a really big part in all of this – that a man who goes to these lengths to become a woman will be a better woman than someone who is just born a woman.”
Greer was glitter-bombed in a protest against these views at a 2012 book signing in Wellington by a group known as the Queer Avengers. Sandra Coney was sitting next to her as part of a panel discussion. “It certainly is a very prominent movement – I don’t mind who goes after their own rights, but what I don’t like is when they are piggy-backing on women,” Sandra says.
The younger feminists disagree.
“I am for inclusivity in the movement for transgender people, disabled people,” says Clementine, “but what I don’t like seeing in the movement is a blanket dismissal of women over a certain age because they come from the second
I’ve had all this vitriol online but never once have I encountered it in real life.
wave. Every movement spawns out of the environment around it and a lot of women who came out of that second wave were dealing with completely different levels of sexual violence than now – it was legal to rape your wife, for instance. So given that one of the tenets of feminism now is to recognise people’s limited experience, let’s have constructive conversations with older feminists about this.”
But despite the determined efforts of Trump and his Republican party to roll back women’s rights, one of the positive things to come out of this presidency is a belief that a new feminist movement has begun, that women will find a new energy and determination to march, protest, post online, organise meetings and perhaps tidy up some of those issues that were still needing to be addressed before he came along.
The feminists I spoke to have some predictions for the future.
Sandra Coney says a new wave of strength in the movement would be great, but worries that unlike in the 1960s and 70s there aren’t many places where you can dip your toe in the water.
“I got asked to be involved in the feminist movement when I was in my mid 20s and I said ‘No thank you, I have a very nice husband.’ Well, I went to a consciousness-raising event and never looked back. There was nothing like meeting other women, talking and going to meetings to open my eyes, and I’m not convinced that I see much action coming out of social media. I don’t see a lot of follow-through.
“I also worry that Trump legitimises a lot of behaviour such as misogyny, so it will suddenly become all right for a man to hate women and express that in public. But I think if someone started jumping up and down in New Zealand, saying ‘Let’s get rid of abortion,’ I just don’t think it would go anywhere because most people accept it. And we don’t have that fanatical religious thing on the scale where it is politicised, as they do in the US. So hopefully those really important things that have been won for women are quite secure here.”
Sue Kedgley believes this could be the wake-up call women need to jolt them out of a complacency that might have built up over the years.
“I think we will see a massive assault on women’s rights happen in
America over the next year, which will set the clock back, but if it provokes a backlash that emboldens women, then we might see another real round of activism across the world.
“But I’m honestly terrified of the Trump presidency – not just for women, but for all humanity.”
Lizzie Marvelly says she hopes there will be inclusion within the feminist movement and that it will encompass people who have different perspectives.
“I also pay respect to the older sister in the movement and I think we need to all try to work together and use the younger generation and our skills with social media combined with the old tactics, such as being organised. No one has taught us how to do that.”
Chlöe Swarbrick says that the photo of Donald Trump surrounded by an all-white male administration signing the Executive Order to remove funding for international aid for planned parenthood organisations was concerning because of the power men have taken over women’s bodies.
“This post-truth era where alternative facts are okay and you can use emotive rhetoric to say the truth doesn’t matter – which then says facts don’t matter – is frightening.
“We have four million people in this country and it’s not good enough to say, ‘It’s not my responsibility.’ We have a system for change, that’s why democracy exists. So I would like to try to get people to either disrupt the system, choosing an issue they really care about, or use the system we have in the way it is supposed to be used. The thing about government is it’s not going away unless there is some huge uprising or revolution, so let’s just hope something comes out of all this.”
Clementine Ford believes it is almost beneficial to have someone like Trump, whose views and actions are so over the top. “We can direct our energy into challenging the pomposity he represents. We need to realise the way he talks is just like ‘doublespeak’ in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, and that’s no exaggeration. Be alert, be prepared and be ready.”
I’m honestly terrified of the Trump presidency.
ABOVE: The January 21 protest march in London.
ABOVE: Lizzie Marvelly (in white sleeveless top) walks behind broadcaster Ali Mau (at front in sunglasses) along Auckland’s Queen Street on January 21, in a global show of solidarity with those marching in Washington DC.
ABOVE ; Gloria Steinem speaks at the women’s march in Washington on January 21.
ABOVE: Women, men, young and old joined the protests in Washington (top) and New York (bottom).