Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University of Wellington Students Association. Vol 41 No. 1. February 27 1978
Where is the Real Women's Liberation Movement?
Where is the Real Women's Liberation Movement?
Over New Zealand Day weekend, a three-day Women's Liberation Congress was held at Piha, Auckland. This was organised by a group of Auckland feminists who were concerned about the development of the Women's Liberation Movement in New Zealand its aims, ideas, theory, practice, progress - and wanted a chance to discuss it with other feminists. The conference had a limited enrolment of 110 which was kept to, even when latecomers attempted to join in. Some criticism was made of this action, but it was necessary in order to maintain the planned structure as a working proposition.
The structure worked on the basis of sessions devoted to different topics and the the three days were utilised to their fullest in order to cover the most ground possible. Unfortunately, this emphasis on fitting as much in as possible led to the first session being held at 7:00 p.m. on the Friday night which was very inconvenient for those who had to come from other parts of New Zealand. This was a reflection of the strong Auckland orientation of the Congress (over ½ of the participants were from Auckland).
Another result of the strong Auckland influence were the transport arrangements, Although the Congress was scheduled to finish reasonably early, no provision had been made for fast transport into the city for those members of the Congress who had to be home early, in order to be at work on time the next morning.
In itself there is nothing wrong with strong representation from one district at a national meeting, but it is to be hoped that in the planning of future such even's the particular difficulties faced by participants from other localities will be remembered.
The congress was divided into a series of sessions dealing with each of the papers provided. These sessions were split into small workshops of about 11 people followed by large group discussions of the papers presented. Papers were diverse, ranging over Marxism and Feminism. Anarchism and Feminism, Race and Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, Cultural Feminism, Radical Feminism and Socialist Feminism. The structure was good in that it provided many opportunities to discuss theoretical issues and share new ideas and concepts. A good example of this was the discussion on Cultural Feminism.
Before the Congress I and others had never encoutered the concept of Cultural Feminism and to meet a totally new idea (whether we agreed with it or not) was really stimulating.
Basically it seemed that a group of women are attempting to build up a separatist women's culture (women's theatre, art, music etc.) and in so doing, felt they were creating their own personal solution to their oppression by placing themselves outside of male-dominate d society and its culture. There was a lot of opposition to this from women who felt that it was incorrect strategy to view cultural feminism as a total solution.
In bringing out these types of points, the structure acted very effectively as an information and learning agent. The value of this was seen time and again in the different discussions.
One aspect of the discussion was that each saw the same theories being applied to the various topics. These theories fell into fairly readily identifiable categories - Marxist Feminism, Lesbian Feminism and Radical Feminism.
Marxist Feminism saw class as the origin of women's oppression with the oppression of women arising with the creation of surplus value.
Radical Feminists saw the basis of women's oppression as being the male/female split. Theis was represented in a variety of ways. Some subscribed to the view that it was the patriarchy which oppressed women, others that individual men oppress women and others to an even more complex view which was named the "Tripod Theory". This saw the three oppressions of class, sex and race as being of equal importance and to be fought equally at all times. Class oppression was viewed from a Marxist perspective, sexual oppression was viewed in terms of the male/female contradiction and racial oppression was viewed as a black vs. white oppression.
Lesbian Feminists subscribed to the view view of women's oppression as lying in the male/female contradiction. Some developed this further by saying that women who sleep with men are re-enacting the old power structures which led to the suppression of women, while women who sleep with women are coming to self-affirmation. There was a view expressed that to be a better feminist you should become a celibate or a lesbian feminist. A number of women present who had been sleeping with men had stopped with their growing commitment to Women's Liberation. They had felt that they could not be honest in the fight against women's oppression if they were still sleeping with the people they saw as oppressors. This was an extension of the view that men as individuals oppress women.
A new concept was also brought in here and that was the concept of "Heterosexism". This term was used to describe the privileges enjoyed by heterosexual women (social acceptance, job security etc.) which lesbian women are denied. Unfortunately there was a tendancy for some people to view "heterosexism" and "sexism" as the same thing and to describe sexist behaviour as heterosexist.
In the exchange of views, two groups in particular came under fire from the feminists present. These were the New Zealand University Students' Association and the Socialist Action League. The attacks on NZUSA were centred around the slogan "A Democratic Right to Choose" which NZUSA adopted in a 1977 campaign against repressive abortion laws. These attacks arose out of a basic misunderstanding when some women present interpreted it as meaning the right of every New Zealand person instead of as the civil liberty which it is meant to represent. It was felt that in future it would be better to clarify the position by saying "A Women's Democratic Right".
Others felt too that NZUSA was a male dominated group and as such had no right to lead campaigns on women's issues as it has done in the past. This view was not shared by all though and it was pointed out that, rather than be criticised, NZUSA should be commended for its efforts in attempting to spearhead action where there were no other groups to do so This brought out what was to be a recurring theme during the congress — the need for a united women's group which would be ready to act at any time and could conduct the sort of discussions which were held at the Congress.
Criticism of the Socialist Action League (SAL) came in a variety of forms. Many felt that the SAL women use the Women's Liberation movement to push their own values and are in it for their own political ends rather than for women. It was felt that in meetings the SAL try to dominate in an undemocratic fashion and to stifle the ideas of other groups which are contradictory to their own. An example given of the bad effect this can have was the Women's National Abortion Action Campaign (WONAAC). Conflict in WONAAC had developed to the extent that there was a deep split between SAL members and and non-SAL members which could not be bridged.
However, there was another deeper reason for the attacks on the SAL. This was the lack of a coherent united political theory on the Women's Liberation Movement. Were there one, the influence of a groups such as SAL would have nowhere near the effect on the Women's Liberation Movement which it does at present, since the Women's Liberation Movement would have a real theoretical basis on which to fight the SAL (rather than on the smaller issues basis on which they are fighting them now).
By the end of the Congress it was quite obvious that many women felt the need for a united active Women's Liberation Movement with some type of theoretical analysis to back it up. An Auckland Women's Liberation Group was set up with an open loose-ended structure. Apart, from co-ordinating activity in Auckland it will maintain the contacts made between women from different areas at the Congress.
The problems of establishing a Women's Liberation Movement are many and complex. Should it be open or closed? Should women MP's who may compromise the movement later be admitted? Should it be aiming to organise a programme for all New Zealand women or for a selected advanced group? Should there be a united theoretical base or would this alienate women who might otherwise enter the movement? How do you build up a Women's Movement? The Congress didn't resolve all of the questions but the setting up of a Women's Liberation group in Auckland is a step in the right direction. What will happen to all the other ideas expressed at the Congress must remain to be seen.