‘A Tragedy for Women’ – Dame Anne Salmond Slams Neo-Liberal Philosophy

Dame Anne Salmond has declared that it would be the ‘ultimate defeat’ if women have to act like men in order to be leaders.

The renowned writer and anthropologist was the key note speaker at the Women of Influence Forum 2018 forum held in Auckland on Tuesday.

Read her address in full below:

As Virginia Woolf, the great Bloomsbury novelist, once noted acerbically, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

In her book A Room of One’s Own, drafted for a lecture at Cambridge, Woolf evoked the attitudes that until 1948, ensured that women could not graduate from that great University:

To write, or read, or think, or enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime.

As a Nuffield fellow at King’s College, Cambridge in 1981-81, I learned what Virginia Woolf was talking about. At King’s High Table, I was often mistaken for a wife who had got lost. Fortunately, by then I had spent a lot of time on marae, and was not particularly shocked by local fables about the ritual uncleanliness of women.

Thus it was with anthropological glee that I watched as during that year, St. John’s College went through an anguished debate about whether to go co-ed, flying back fellows from leave or raising them from their deathbeds in an effort to stop this abomination. As the history of the College records:

The Secretary of the Council, an astronomer (and normally one of the more accurate members of the Fellowship) attempted to count the in some cases palsied hands of the 87 standing (or almost standing) Fellows present, and delivered the result to the Master.

Carried, the Master declared, by 57 to 28, and therefore by the necessary two-thirds majority, but only just.

Still this was a sufficient number to carry the motion, and there was much loud guffawing in the King’s College common room at the discomfiture of the old guard at St. John’s – although King’s had just admitted its first female fellow the previous year.

Strangely enough, almost a century earlier, similar scenes had been enacted at the Legislative Council in New Zealand. In 1893, after a series of unsuccessful efforts, Kate Sheppard and others dramatically rolled their 270 metre Women’s Suffrage petition across the floor of Parliament.

Soon after, a bill that gave women the vote was passed in the Lower House by a large majority. With a roar of approval, Māori women were included in the measure.

Stung by this challenge, the Premier, Richard Seddon, lobbied the “brewing party” and almost mustered the numbers to stop the bill in its tracks in the Upper House. Infuriated by his tactics, however, two members who had originally opposed the bill voted for it, and it was passed by 2 votes.

In this way, New Zealand became the first country in the world to enact women’s suffrage.

Anonymous is still, perhaps, a Māori woman, however. In a much less well known campaign, in that same year Meri Mangakahia was fighting for women’s rights in the Māori Parliament. In an impassioned speech in May 1893, she declared to the Paremata:

“I will explain the reason that I really want Māori women to have the vote and for women Members to stand in the Māori Parliament:

  1. There are many women in New Zealand whose husbands have died and who own land
  2. There are many women in New Zealand whose parents have died and who have no brothers, and who own land
  3. There are many intelligent women in New Zealand who marry men who do not know how to run their land
  4. There are many women whose parents have grown old, and who are intelligent women with land of their own
  5. There are many male chiefs in this island who have appealed to the Queen over the problems affecting them, and we have never received any advantage from their appeals. For this reason I ask this House that women members be appointed. For perhaps the Queen will consent to the appeal of her Māori women advisers, since she is also a woman.”

At this time, the Māori population was in free fall, with very low fertility and high mortality rates, and many of the freedoms of Māori women were being curtailed as part of the colonial process. While Māori women retained their land rights, even when the Native Land Court was introduced, until 1888 if they married under European law, they found that their lands passed to their husbands.

The story of the freedoms of Māori women is an important one for us all to understand in New Zealand. Over time, rights once taken for granted can be lost – and this applies to democracy in general.

In the beginning, in Te Ao Māori, male and female were a single being, undivided. In his beautiful account of the origins of the cosmos, for instance, Te Rangikaheke from Te Arawa wrote: “Kotahi anō te tupuna o te iwi Māori; ko Rangi rāua ko Papa” – “There is just one ancestor of the Māori people, Rangi and Papa.”

As they were thrust apart by their children, Rangi wept for Papa, and his tears became the first lakes and rivers, giving life to the land. At the same time, Papa’s mists rose up to greet him.

This principle of complementarity is reflected in our landscapes. The west coast is the tai tama tāne, the male coast where storms crash in from the Tasman, and the tai tama wahine is the east coast, calmer and safer for sea travel. Likewise in the human body, male and female alike have a female (left) and female (right) side. The tikanga of gender balance in Māori are multiple and many.

On the marae, this is reflected in the counterpoint between the karanga, the keening call summoning ancestors to a hui, always performed by women, the first voice to be heard on a marae; and the whaikōrero or speeches, followed by the waiata, where men and women sing together.

Likewise, descent can be traced from all four grandparents, male and female; and men and women alike can be leaders, as one can see from Land Court records, tribal histories and early European accounts. In the ancestral inheritance of land, women often inherited from their mothers, and men from their fathers.

This same principle was reflected in domestic life. According to early European observers – Samuel Marsden, Richard Taylor, Joel Polack and many others – Māori men cared tenderly for their children, taking them to formal gatherings where chiefly children asked questions and were answered by the elders.

In quote after quote, these observers note with surprise that Māori women and children were not struck by their menfolk.

So why did Meri Mangakahia have to stand up in 1893 and fight for women’s rights in the Māori Parliament? Just as rights can be fought for and won, they can also be lost.

With the introduction of alcohol, and European ideas about gender and physical chastisement, the whole system of gender checks and balances had been thrown out of kilter. Many Māori women still live with that bitter legacy today.

When the Māori Parliament was set up in 1892, women leaders could speak but not vote – although in the European Parliament, they had no speaking rights at all. Māori women signed up in the temperance movement, and fought for the vote and the restoration of their ancestral lands.

This struggle is still going on. I vividly recall Heni Sunderland’s frustration when at her home marae in Gisborne – my home town, where the ancestral proverb is “Tūranga tāngata rite” – Turanga where all people are equal – a paepae was set up and the senior women were told they could not sit there.

As she remarked tartly: “What they are saying to us is we are tapu men; we are so special that you women cannot come and sit here. I reacted badly, because I never ever saw it done to my Grannies, and I don’t see why it should be done to me, and why it should be done to my children, because that was never our way.”

So while we praise famous women, and pay homage to their bravery and leadership, like Heni Sunderland, we cannot rest on their laurels. Freedom is fragile, often assailed by the greedy and powerful, and this has been commonplace in New Zealand society.

When I look now at the lives of my children and grandchildren, I think that in the 1980s in New Zealand, we took a wrong turning. At that time, we began to adopt ideas about the autonomous, rights-bearing, cost-benefit maximising individual, operating in a world in which all organisations are like businesses, run for short-term profit to the bottom line.

As these notions took hold, we began to reshape our institutions – schools, hospitals, universities, government departments; and our working lives to this kind of fiscal yard stick. Some versions of feminism bought into this kind of hyper-individualism, in which individual gains were supposed to be the source of happiness and fulfillment.

While this philosophy gave women new freedoms, I see now that it also cost us a great deal. The workplaces and communities that we began to craft at that are much more ruthless and transactional than those of my young womanhood, in my opinion.

Working environments based on short term contracts, often poorly paid, where the risks and costs are thrown onto those who make institutions and businesses work in fact, and where managers are expected to minimise costs and maximise profits at their expense are now commonplace.

This is neo-liberal philosophy in action, and I consider it toxic, and a tragedy for women.

When young couples try to buy a house and raise a family, they face relatively high fixed costs, with incomes that are often insecure and relatively low. This is incredibly tough on relationships, and closely linked with many negative social indicators. In this kind of social and economic environment, it’s no surprise that productivity in New Zealand remains stubbornly low.

It’s particularly tough on women. If they take time out to have and raise children, the loss of momentum can be terminal to their careers. Workplaces are often set to suit the habits of those who have wives at home, looking after the children and cooking the meals.

Women may be forced to choose between their deepest dreams and desires – taking care of a sick child, or attending an important meeting. Worse, top- down management structures and styles are still often underpinned by chauvinism, with men being shoulder-tapped for privileges and promotion ahead of more or equally gifted women.

In balancing the scales between collective benefit and private gain in New Zealand, I think we have tipped far too far in the direction of self-interest. It shows up in our rates of suicide, family violence and many other negative social indicators.

In a recent study based on interviews with 1000 young people, for instance, they identified economic insecurity, unaffordable housing, student debt and insecure low paid work as significant contributors to their anxiety and stress.

Many want a kinder, fairer economy and society.

I agree. We need to return to more relational ways of thinking, in which the freedoms and responsibilities of men and women are more finely balanced. If women have to act like men in order to lead, this is the ultimate defeat.

In New Zealand at present, we have a Prime Minister who is sharing the care of their baby with her partner while doing her job. This is world-leading, and brilliant, and those who attack her for this ought to be ashamed.

Like Kate Sheppard and Meri Mangakahia, we have to call upon our courage and compassion. Unless we fight for our rights as citizens and women, and for those of our fellows, especially those who are most vulnerable, they will be lost. It has happened before in this country, and it can happen again.

We have a proud history of women standing tall in New Zealand. Many women leaders have picked up their paddle and steered the waka to safety – or been the first in the world to seize the vote or gain degrees, or smashed through glass ceilings, or led the way for the nation, inspiring us in different ways.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we have to keep on caring, and striving for a better future. And in so doing, in the spirit of complementary exchanges, we don’t have to mimic our menfolk, lovely though they may be.

Listen to the cry of Papa-tuanuku:

Piki mai, kake mai
Hōmai te waiora ki ahau
Kia tutehu ana te moe a te kuia i te pō
Ka pō, ka ao, ka awatea!

Climb here, draw near
Bring me the water of life
The sleep of this old woman has been troubled in the night
But now the dawn has come, it is day, it is light!



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