LINKING ARMS FOR IMPACT
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.”
Helen Clark FORMER PRIME MINISTER
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
Patricia Grace (NGATI TOA, NGATI RAUKAWA, TE ATI AWA) WRITER
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.”
Georgia Nott SINGER/SONGWRITER
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