Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University of Wellington Students Association. Vol 40 No. 15. July 4 1977
United Womens Convention '77
United Womens Convention '77
The third United Womens Convention, held in Christchurch from 4-6 June 1977 came soon after the publication of the report of the Royal Commission of Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion. The main speaker at the Convention was Dr Helen Marieskind, Professor of Public Health at the State University in New York. In her well-informed and clear address, she argued that the movement for women's rights had, historically, always been accompanied by agitation for better health care. She attacked the anti-abortion recommendations of the Royal Commission's report. She noted, for example, that when the Royal Commission recommended the use of the morning-after pill to women who had been raped the alternative to abortion they do not tell us that it is effective in only 60% of cases and that the drug contained in the morning after pill results in a high incidence of vaginal cancer in female off-spring. There was strong opposition to the Royal Commission's report at the Convention. A resolution deploring the abortion recommendations of the Royal Commission and asserting that the decision to end an unwanted pregnancy must be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor was passed by 1087 votes for to 120 against.
Dr Marieskind also pointed to the absurdity of the Government's decision to reduce the Domestic Purposes Benefit. New Zealand has the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the industrialised world. A reduced DPB, though contraceptive laws, and lack of child-care facilities can only add up to misery and hardship for so many women.
The Health-care system, she concluded, reflected a society's economic, political and social system. In our system, it is used to maintain the definition of women as inferior, sickly, weak and fragile — suitable for only certain types of work. She noted, though, that this definition did not include working-class and peasant women, who were assumed to be as strong as workhorses.
Rosemary Roland, an organiser of the first United Womens Convention in Auckland in 1973, also gave a thoughtful speech. She highlighted the dilemas that face the women's movement, especially its radical section. Very little has been achieved for women in the last few years, she pointed out, despite the two conventions held. Even within the women's movement, there were those working against women's interests and she pointed to three groups: those who push a church morality, those who oppose abortion, and those who sanctify the nuclear family. Her address raised the question of the cause of women's oppression: was it men, who 'hold the key positions of power and use that power to manipulate their positions to their own advantage', or was it the whole system, political, economic and social? "We don't want an equal slice of the pie" she said. "We believe the pie is rotten and we want to cook another". The present system is based on competition and hatred, the women's movement must work towards the beginning of co-operation.
Men or capitalism the real enemy?
Her address left open many questions which must be studied in more depth if the women's movement is to develop a direction which really will help the position of NZ women. Should the women's movement be directed at men or at the present capitalist economic and social system, or both? Which is the more fundamental cause of women's oppression? In what ways will a socialist society improve the position of women? How do we work towards such a society?
It was disappointing that the Convention did not spend more time and effort considering the problems that confront the majority of women, and how to solve them. Soaring prices, declining living standards, redundancy particularly in women-dominated industries such as the clothing industry, lack of child-care facilities, lack of participation in unions — these are the problems made urgent by the economic crises NZ is in. As the Government and big business continues to attack the right of women to work and to organise to fight for better working conditions and wages and an effective say in the political life of the country, the women's movement must discuss and make policies that will combat this fascist trend.
Of the wide range of workshops offered, not one dealt with 'Women and trade unions', unlike the previous two conventions.
After the opening plenary session, delegates each attended three workshops. Workshop topics included: women and crime, women and teaching, women and assertiveness. Pregnancy, Maori women, women and employment, women and the economic recipe, women and violence. Two of the workshops we attended were Solo Parents, and Women and Peace.
Plight of solo parents
The solo parent workshop proved a great opportunity to listen to solo mothers, talk about their anger and outrage at the government's attacks on them, and the daily hassles they experience. Some of their stories seem incredible the DPB is usually cut before the Social Welfare Department has carried out an investigation, and this sometimes takes them three months, — so solo mothers are assumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent, or until the Department makes an effort to allow themselves to prove their innocence. Other solo mothers spoke of the Dept's half-hearted efforts at chasing up maintenance and its victimisation of women whose husbands have fallen behind in maintenance payments. One husband who had fallen so behind was a social worker with the Department of S.W. itself. And so it is very difficult for solo mothers not to direct their anger at men, rather than at the unjust economic and social system which is ultimately responsible.
The workshop could have given more time and emphasis to bringing forward policy and action recommendations. The need for solo mothers to join together with others to build some sort of political force to fight the attacks made on them was acknowledged, but little time was spent in discussing it. Solo mothers recognised that, unlike trade unions which have some sort of organisation to fight with, they are unorganised and defenceless. And, as many of them said, they are so worn out coping with the hassles of the Dept, day to day living, and the 'stigma' of being a solo mother, that they haven't the energy left to put into political action.
But the workshop was unanimous in its condemnation of the Domestic Purposes Review Committee, and in the need for the term 'de facto' to be clarified immediately. At present the criteria for deciding on whether a woman is living in a de facto relationship varies from region to region.
Women in struggle for Peace
The workshop on Women and Peace was run by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Betty Holt began the session with an address about the factors which would lead to another world war — especially the arms race between Russia and America and the lack of justice for third world countries. She argued that women must actively work for peace in whatever way they can. Discussion following her speech centred around the role of the Soviet Union and America in building for war. Some people saw both superpowers as expansionary — both seeking to gain economic and political domination over various parts of the world. Others questioned the stance of the Soviet Union — whether it was a communist country, whether underneath its rhetoric it was really pursuing a peaceful policy.
We broke into small groups to consider questions which covered education on peace, violence on TV, war games for children, and a nuclear free zone in the pacific. The workshop supported a nuclear free zone in the Pacific. The discussion brought out the need for more people to study what is happening in the world, to understand the causes of war, and the reasons why Russia and the USA are moving toward a new war which will necessarily involve their allies. Too often discussions on peace are centred on ideals rather than facts. As a new world war looms ahead, the women's movement must take an active and fruitful role in the struggle for peace.
After the workshops on Saturday and Sunday, a final plenary was held on Monday morning. Unlike the last UWC in Wellington in 1975, workshop convenors did not report back their findings or proposals and this seemed a retrograde step.
Most of the session was taken up with the individual commentaries of four NZ women: Fanaura Kingston, Christine Dann, Elsie Locke, and Toni Church. Christine Dann argued that too much time was spent in disseminating information and knowledge, while too little was spent in talking about how to get changes. Fanuara Kingston who followed disagreed with this point.
The system must be changed
Elsie Locke, more clearly than any other speaker, said that 'the cause of our oppression is not men but the economic system'. " The system which depends on the exploitation of us and the very ground from which we draw our sustenance must be changed". Elsie drew attention to the small numbers of women enrolled in the economic workshops; women and employment, women and child-care, women and the economic recipe — issues which are basic. She also warmly praised the Housewives Boycott Movement against rising prices as being a striking example of women asserting themselves. And, finally. Elsie referred to the important workshop on Women and Peace and its recommendation that one of the things we must strive for is a nuclear free zone in the Pacific.
Elsie's speech was a significant contribution to the Convention in that it drew attention to the economic features of our society and the position of women and the need for the women's movement to link these two together. After these four addresses, the Lesbian women, at their own request, and for the first time at a United Womens Convention, spoke publicly to a plenary. They expressed their tiredness of having their Lesbianism written off as merely a sexual preference and the lack of acknowledgement they had received for their strong role in building the womens movement in NZ.
"that we condemn sexist advertising on television"
"that the Convention support the Bill of Rights for Children"
"that this Convention deplores the intention of the Government in reducing the DPB and calls on the Government to reverse its decision"
In brief, the Convention provided a chance to meet and talk to many NZ women, of different ages, levels of involvement, and different political commitments. But, it brought out the need for women to understand the causes of our oppression, and to struggle continually to build policies and activities which will unite as many women as possible in the fight against the increasingly repressive attacks on our living standards and democratic rights.
— Geraldine Whiteford & Dale Steele