An­gela Bar­nett talks with six Kiwi lead­ers and lu­mi­nar­ies about bust­ing down bar­ri­ers


An­gela Bar­nett talks with six Kiwi lead­ers and lu­mi­nar­ies about bust­ing down bar­ri­ers

Could we con­tem­plate the situation where a woman get­ting equal pay is the bread­win­ner and the hus­band stays at home and looks af­ter the chil­dren? I don’t think so. Former PM Robert Mul­doon, 1971

The first time I fought for change for my gen­der was in a night­club in 1994. All the fe­male bar­tenders were told we had to wear short shorts that only just cov­ered our back­sides. Out­raged, I gath­ered up all the girls to protest and they agreed. But the next night I was the only one who didn’t turn up in the shorts. Ev­ery­one was wor­ried about los­ing their jobs, which was fair enough. I was fired for be­ing a rab­ble-rouser.

Mak­ing change, I re­alised, is dif­fi­cult. And to re­ally have im­pact women need to link arms. To­gether.

I would never have had the gump­tion to stand up for my­self if mil­lions of women hadn’t stood up and rab­ble-roused be­fore me, right back to the 1890s.

Be­low are sto­ries from six women who have fought for change, made change, are change by their mere ex­is­tence, or change the world with their con­tri­bu­tion.

All of them have ca­reers that would make the suf­fragettes cheer.

Four have MNZM’s to their names and the other two are on their way for sure. And all of them, like the suf­fragettes, have so much re­silience, per­se­ver­ance and courage.

An­gella Dravid CO­ME­DIAN

An­gella Dravid didn’t grow up in­tend­ing to be a co­me­dian. Her fa­ther had a sci­ence back­ground and taught Dravid “to con­stantly ques­tion my uni­verse and per­spec­tive on the mean­ing of life. He wanted me to be a sci­en­tist but I never be­came one.”

The Billy T award-win­ner and Jono & Ben star wanted to be an artist. Or an ar­chi­tect. But found her­self in her early 20s, af­ter three years in prison and bail hos­tel, in a job she didn’t like with a story that needed to get out. Com­edy be­came the av­enue.

She’s the fifth fe­male to win the cov­eted Billy T award. “As a woman, I feel the need to be the best and fun­ni­est to fit into a still male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try. I think it prob­a­bly is the rea­son for a lot of women suf­fer­ing from im­poster syn­drome. But I wouldn’t have pro­gressed as far as I have if there weren’t al­ready sup­port­ive and pro­gres­sive in­dus­try peo­ple around. The New Zealand com­edy scene is very con­scious of fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion and equal­ity.”

Com­edy, to Dravid, is “break­ing the ice with small jokes.” Af­ter do­ing her show, shar­ing her story about leav­ing an un­happy mar­riage (al­beit un­con­ven­tion­ally by go­ing to prison) she’s had other women come up and tell her “thank you for shar­ing that” and she’s had a few women reach out through so­cial me­dia, say­ing they’re go­ing through a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence.

Prison was where Dravid first felt the warm arms of fem­i­nism and “the sis­ter­hood”.

“I was sit­ting there with a few oth­ers, wait­ing and ev­ery­one was ask­ing each other the same ques­tion, ‘What are you here for?’ As soon as I said what hap­pened [she had at­tacked her hus­band, three decades older than her, with a photo frame] women said, ‘Good on you [for shar­ing]’.” Dur­ing her time she helped other women, writ­ing or proof­read­ing let­ters to their lawyers — women who didn’t have English as a first lan­guage. She also taught English and maths to in­mates. “I have a sim­i­lar up­bring­ing to a lot of those women, we never talked about it but we had an un­der­stand­ing.”

She gets asked if she would con­sider do­ing stand-up in pris­ons. “I think peo­ple de­serve com­edy no mat­ter where they are, and peo­ple in prison have a good sense of hu­mour. They’d be the best au­di­ence.”

Dravid be­lieves fem­i­nism is im­por­tant but mis­un­der­stood. “I don’t know if ev­ery­one un­der­stands the real his­tory of the word. The first fem­i­nists [the suf­fragettes] sac­ri­ficed their lives and risked be­ing ban­ished from so­ci­ety. Some peo­ple use it neg­a­tively and I feel like there’s a lack of un­der­stand­ing about what the word is. Fem­i­nism is women want­ing to be treated the same as men. Which is not that big a deal. It’s pretty much just ba­sics.”

Dravid would love the New Zealand suf­fragettes to see a pho­to­graph of Jacinda Ardern. “I don’t think they would’ve imag­ined a fe­male Prime Min­is­ter and I’d like to give them a photo al­bum of all the amaz­ing things women have achieved be­cause of their re­silience.”

Michelle Dick­in­son SCI­EN­TIST, AKA NANOGIRL

Michelle Dick­in­son, or Nanogirl, gets a lot of re­quests from girls want­ing to study her for school projects. A teacher ex­plained why once, “all the other fe­male sci­en­tists they’ve heard of are dead. You’re the only one alive.”

She’s more than happy to be a liv­ing hero but wishes she wasn’t un­usual in her pro­fes­sion. Dick­in­son (MNZM) takes sci­ence into schools, blow­ing up things on stage and en­cour­ag­ing both girls and boys to look at sci­ence with cu­rios­ity and ex­cite­ment. She does it be­cause she doesn’t be­lieve she would have got into engi­neer­ing if she were a stu­dent to­day. “It’s be­come so com­pet­i­tive. I don’t see kids like me — kids from un­e­d­u­cated par­ents with quite a poor back­ground. I want to help them un­der­stand the sys­tem so they can get in too.”

Dick­in­son’s al­ways been ser­vice-ori­en­tated, vol­un­teer­ing through­out her life in her week­ends. Bat­man was an early role model, us­ing tech for good, and she wanted to be a su­per­hero her­self. Her fa­ther al­ways en­cour­aged her to pull things apart and build things. “He never said ‘no you can’t’ and this has shaped me as the per­son I am.” She sees many par­ents clos­ing the sci­ence door on their kids with­out re­al­is­ing it. “I was teach­ing ro­bot­ics re­cently in a pub­lic space and this lit­tle girl peered over and said, ‘Hey Mum, can I do this?’ and her mother said, ‘No, that’s not for girls.”’ Yes. That hap­pened in 2018. As an engi­neer, Dick­in­son was used to be­ing the only fe­male. “I’ve been on a mis­sion to change it be­cause it’s lonely. You feel like you have to prove your­self to be there. Rarely do I feel like an equal. All women en­gi­neers feel it.” Gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in engi­neer­ing is not so bad now, she says, “but I put up with a lot of ma­cho stuff and booby cal­en­dars be­fore feel­ing like I had reached the point of se­nior­ity where I could say some­thing. That’s why I speak up now — not for my­self but the next gen­er­a­tion.”

Teach­ing at the univer­sity, Dick­in­son would hear par­ents walk daugh­ters through the engi­neer­ing de­part­ment on open days say­ing, “You don’t want to be one of those girls. ‘Those girls’ be­ing decked in hard hats and high-vis.”

She’s not so keen on la­bels. “The chal­lenge with la­bels is they only mean what they mean to you. I’m a staunch fem­i­nist but no­body knows what it means. For me, it means equal­ity for both gen­ders. I’m also a hu­man­ist and be­lieve in bring­ing out the best in peo­ple.”

Would this sci­en­tist su­per­hero have also been a suf­fragette? With­out a doubt. “I’m so grate­ful for their per­se­ver­ance and how many times they were knocked back. It would have been easy to quit but they qui­etly con­tin­ued and be­lieved in their mis­sion. Know­ing there are oth­ers who also won through per­se­ver­ance and gen­tle­ness helps.”


If the New Zealand suf­fragettes could have pic­tured a fe­male sit­ting in Par­lia­ment they would have been thrilled.

He­len Clark (MNZM) needs no in­tro­duc­tion. When she was elected into Par­lia­ment in 1981 as the mem­ber for Mount Al­bert there had been only one woman elected in Auck­land be­fore and that was 40 years ear­lier, back when women who mar­ried had to leave the pub­lic ser­vice.

“You be­come acutely aware that you’re break­ing new ground and the ex­pec­ta­tions of women were ex­tremely lim­ited.”

It never oc­curred to Clark that she could be Prime Min­is­ter. Ten years ear­lier, the then-Prime Min­is­ter, Robert Mul­doon, had said, “Could we con­tem­plate the situation where a woman get­ting equal pay is the bread­win­ner and the hus­band stays at home and looks af­ter the chil­dren? I don’t think so.”

Af­ter be­ing in Par­lia­ment for eight years, and go­ing through an un­happy pe­riod, a friend sug­gested go­ing for the top job but Clark wasn’t ready. “Of­ten women say they’re not ready and men never ask that ques­tion — maybe we tend more to per­fec­tion­ism [she laughs], but I do think we have to lean in. It took time and a long fight to get to the top.”

Clark not only got the top job but was the first woman to lead a party into gov­ern­ment.

“All the bar­ri­ers I had to break were bar­ri­ers of gen­der as I was the first. Be­ing in a po­si­tion to crash through a glass ceil­ing, you do cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for oth­ers. Jacinda be­comes PM at 37 — I was be­com­ing a min­is­ter back then. So you lay a plat­form and a tal­ented per­son like her can come in.” But, she points out, there are less than 6 per cent of gov­ern­ments world­wide with women lead­ing. She can’t imag­ine a world where women didn’t get the vote but, she says, there’s still a lot of the world that dis­crim­i­nate against women. “There are 155 coun­tries that still have one law on their statute book — women can’t bor­row money, set up a bank ac­count, open a busi­ness. There’s tol­er­ance for fe­male mu­ti­la­tion or forced early mar­riage and child­bear­ing, af­fect­ing count­less mil­lions of women. Saudi women only just got the right to drive and to go out with­out a male chap­er­one.

“We’ve had th­ese for­mal rights, but we’re still picked-on and de­graded — and that’s not right. So there’s a new con­scious­ness hap­pen­ing.”

Clark’s looked up her name on the 1893 pe­ti­tion but didn’t find any an­ces­tors. When asked how she would ex­plain to a girl what the New Zealand suf­fragettes did, she says, “You wouldn’t en­joy the choice you have over your life to­day if your great-great-grand­par­ents hadn’t fought for it. And it all started with a group of de­ter­mined women. We all stand on the shoul­ders of those who went be­fore.”

I’m a staunch fem­i­nist but no­body knows what it means. For me, it means equal­ity for both gen­ders. I’m also a hu­man­ist and be­lieve in bring­ing out the best in peo­ple. Michelle Dick­in­son We all stand on the shoul­ders of those who went be­fore. He­len Clark


Back in 1893 it was no doubt hard to imag­ine that a woman, and mother to seven chil­dren, would give up a re­li­able teach­ing ca­reer to write books. And so many leg­endary books: nov­els, non-fic­tion, short sto­ries, and chil­dren’s books.

Pa­tri­cia Grace’s work is of­ten de­scribed as ground-break­ing, as the first Maori woman to write a book — in English. Grace (MNZM) is not so com­fort­able with that ti­tle. “Maori life was be­gin­ning to be de­scribed, in fic­tion, by Maori writ­ers for the first time.”

Even though she wasn’t try­ing to be pi­o­neer­ing, her work has been re­garded as such. A women’s col­lec­tive asked her to write a chil­dren’s book in the early 80s based on Maori cul­ture “be­cause there wasn’t lit­er­a­ture around that de­picted the dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties of our coun­try.” Grace quickly wrote The Kuia and the Spi­der / Te Kuia me te Pun­gaw­erewere (1981), which won the Chil­dren’s Pic­ture Book of the Year Award.

Potiki, pub­lished in 1986, won the New Zealand Book Award for Fic­tion. It stirred the cul­tural pot and Grace was ac­cused of in­cit­ing racial ten­sion. “Peo­ple dis­ap­proved of the Maori lan­guage in it. Many Pakeha peo­ple were up­set by it be­cause it brought up land and other is­sues fac­ing Maori peo­ple. I was rock­ing the boat. On the whole it was well re­ceived, but some re­ac­tions at the time did take me by sur­prise.” Be­cause, Grace says, she was sim­ply writ­ing about life in Maori com­mu­ni­ties, which in­cluded “is­sues to do with land and lan­guage — ev­ery­day things for Maori, noth­ing out of the or­di­nary.”

When asked if the book was widely read by Maori, she said that many young Maori have read

Potiki over and over and “one young per­son told me that he had read it 32 times”.

Grace was never raised with any lim­i­ta­tions in terms of what she could do. “I don’t re­mem­ber think­ing I had to do ‘girl’s things’, and I didn’t. I loved my bike, sports, fish­ing, climb­ing trees, vig­or­ous games and play­ing in the hills, creeks and in the sea.” She was in­spired by her par­ents and the sto­ry­tellers in her ex­tended fam­ily — both women and men, and by read­ing widely. “How­ever, I don’t re­mem­ber hav­ing great choices put be­fore me when it came to choos­ing a ca­reer.”

She be­lieves that the move, the strug­gle, to ob­tain the vote for women was vi­tally im­por­tant in that era. “Prior to coloni­sa­tion, Maori women had their own mana. Their mana, their sta­tus, was to do with their whaka­papa and their po­si­tion in the fam­ily — not to do with gen­der. Many women had ju­ris­dic­tions over lands and were de­ferred to in mat­ters of tribal af­fairs. They were or­a­cles. Yet their rights had been taken away from them. So Maori women were very much in­volved in the suf­frage move­ment and were or­gan­ised at a na­tional level to pro­mote this cause.”


She’s known as one half of the award-win­ning mu­si­cal duo, Broods, but Ge­or­gia Nott is also a strong voice, en­cour­ag­ing more women to work cre­atively in the mu­sic in­dus­try, not just be­ing popped on stage like a star. Her solo al­bum, The Venus Project, was made en­tirely by women.

“As much as women are lifted into the spot­light there’s still an at­ti­tude that men are bet­ter at ‘mak­ing mu­sic’.” She says the ra­tio of men to women in the mu­sic in­dus­try is very un­bal­anced; of­ten she’s the only woman in the stu­dio, or on tour. “I don’t want to feel sur­prised when I see a woman in my in­dus­try.”

She also re­fuses to play the role of the pas­sive star. “Male pro­duc­ers ex­pect me to sit on the couch and sing some melodies but I’m pac­ing around, say­ing, ‘Try this and try that.’ Men have the power to make women feel amaz­ing but they won’t get the best with­out let­ting a woman be as big as she’s meant to be.” Cre­ative peo­ple, says Nott, are pas­sion­ate and she’s al­ways had the sup­port of her brother, who “never tries to over­power my ideas. I’m grate­ful but wish other women who don’t have a Caleb could feel like I feel.”

The Venus Project was mu­si­cal proof she didn’t need men to help her. With no bud­get or record la­bel, it took her a while but she even­tu­ally found fe­males to per­form ev­ery role, from sound engi­neer­ing to pro­duc­ing.

“Writ­ing that al­bum was my ac­tivism, cel­e­brat­ing and lift­ing up cre­ative women. Do­ing things for oth­ers helps you fig­ure out how fem­i­nism fits into your iden­tify. As a woman or a man.”

Nott didn’t re­ally know what a fem­i­nist was un­til she left home. “I didn’t even know if I was one un­til I started to see how im­por­tant it was.”

But it’s not easy be­ing a fem­i­nist in the spot­light. “When women stand up and fight for how they want to be treated, peo­ple put a mag­ni­fy­ing glass on how they’re do­ing it and how they look when they’re do­ing it. Values are so much more im­por­tant than looks.”

Amen to that. There’s a line in one of her songs on Broods’ new record, “They love to tell you how you should let your­self ex­press, just as long as you don’t think too far from the rest.”

And as for plac­ing her­self in the late 1800s — would she be fight­ing for sig­na­tures to the pe­ti­tion to give women the vote?

“I’d like to say I would’ve been out there, fight­ing, not afraid of judge­ment but I don’t know if I would have. That’s why I take my hat off to them and feel so grate­ful and proud.”

Lucy Law­less AC­TOR, AC­TIVIST

Lucy Law­less (MNZM) is known as much for her Green­peace work as for her role in Xena. And she doesn’t care which ti­tle she has: ac­tor or ac­tivist. “I’m both. I do the best thing based on what­ever’s hap­pen­ing.” Both roles, she says, re­quire em­pa­thy.

But break­ing rules doesn’t come nat­u­rally to Law­less — even if her name is ideal for the role. “I’m not a law­breaker — quite the op­po­site. My hus­band woke up one morn­ing and there was his wife on top of an oil rig on CNN and he thought I was film­ing Top Of The Lake.” She ad­mits peo­ple don’t like it when she steps out of line. “My fam­ily thought I was be­ing a rab­ble-rouser but they’ve all come around. If you’re a bol­shy woman and ap­pear to be break­ing the rules, peo­ple give you a lot of stick.”

She’s been a sup­porter of Green­peace since she was 17 and a cli­mate am­bas­sador since 2009. But Law­less doesn’t just at­tach her star power to a cause, she gets in the roil­ing Arc­tic Ocean in a rub­ber boat to protest Nor­we­gian drilling or chains her­self to ships along with fel­low ac­tivists. She’s been ar­rested. She’s com­pleted com­mu­nity time and says she stepped up her ac­tivism af­ter be­ing “touched by the re­al­ity of cli­mate catas­tro­phe be­ing stuck in Hur­ri­cane Katrina”.

While film­ing in New Or­leans they got the “cat­e­gory five — get out” warn­ing. “It was to­tal grid­lock; there was no in­for­ma­tion and there was this thun­der­head of the cy­clone, like a mush­room cloud, com­ing at us. The hor­ror of not be­ing able to move made me re­alise that shit was get­ting se­ri­ous. I never wanted my kids to be in that situation.

“Once you’ve been touched by it, you’re duty-bound to do some­thing. We ac­tivists try to ed­u­cate peo­ple why cat­a­strophic cli­mate events are hap­pen­ing more fre­quently and dev­as­tat­ingly. Peo­ple don’t care. They care about celebri­ties’ ba­bies but they don’t love the world enough.”

Law­less ad­mits she never re­alised how much she’s ben­e­fited from all the suf­fragettes’ strug­gles. “There was a cam­paign in the 80s, ‘girls can do any­thing’. I was the first gen­er­a­tion who was born into that idea. In my house it was re­in­forced by my par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions and to my shame I’ve taken it for granted. I haven’t helped the cause, ex­cept to live a cer­tain way.

“I have a daugh­ter and two sons and I don’t want any of them to be left out of any op­por­tu­nity. A healthy so­ci­ety is when ev­ery­one is en­fran­chised.”

If you’re a bol­shy woman and ap­pear to be break­ing the rules, peo­ple give you a lot of stick. Lucy Law­less

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