Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 35 Number 6. April 11, 1972
The trouble with the Women's Liberation Movement is that the enemy is undefined. This causes bitter disagreement among its adherents, and makes it even more difficult than usual, in radical movements, to settle on a plan of attack, is it men who oppress women, is it women themselves in their placid and content acceptance of what superficially appears to be the minor role in the power structure, or is it, as a last resort, the social structure and social conditioning? All three enemies were attacked over the weekend at the Women's Liberation Conference, and various solutions offered. Adaire Hannah suggests revolution, rather than an attempt to mobilise woman as a powerful pressure group at election time, and Sue Kedgeley suggests changing social attitudes through legislation. The conference views revolution as unrealistic; they want liberation now.
Others favour the by now old fashioned opinion, that liberation is essentially an individual matter, and that the groups can act as therapy sessions rather than political cells. There is much talk particularly in the reporting of group activities, of 'consciousness raising in groups' (I try to shrug off the resemblance to 1984 and Nazi Germany). These appear to be a combination of group therapy for psychological and sexual hang-ups and an attempt to stave off that terrible bitchiness and uneasiness a group of women exhibit when they are without men, seeing it as a result of competing for men, (formerly) a woman's best way to advance herself. Perhaps groups of women self indocrinate that they are the oppressed majority in Western society, and that political action, of a radical or revolutionary nature, is the only unselfish solution. A Canadian woman points out that, in contrast to North American groups, whose members tend to drift over from the radical left (sick of lying prone for Stokely), women joining the New Zealand groups become more 'politicised' with membership.
In an earlier discussion, a male had pointed out the advantage of a women's liberation movement which did not identify itself too exclusively with other oppressed groups, since women's oppression cut across all class barriers, and could bring together the capitalist female with the worker exploited by her husband, and that this could perhaps produce powerful politics and sympathy. Star turn Ngahuia Volkerling later says in private that the consciousness raising sessions of the Christchurch group are nothing but personal attacks.
The girl sitting next to me on Sunday morning, the closed session to discuss action policies, asks me how many members there are in my group (most disconcerting), launches into a short tirade: what did I think of lesbianism ... she understood Ngahuia's plea for respect rather than tolerance ... she had a friend ... abortion, the last couple of pregnancy scares she'd reached the stage where she would have one herself ... things used to be pretty bad, letting men take advantage of her, because, partly, she accepted her social role ... things were better now - she was in the middle of writing a broadsheet called 'When did your woman last fake an orgasm', which, disappointingly, turned out to be about female sexual hangups, guilt etc because of 'childhood conditioning'. The girl is from Christchurch. (Is it relevant?)
Suprisingly, a good third of the audience is over 30, or male (the first day). Several of the young use the term 'middle-class' to disparage older women whose comments were not wholly in line with their own. Ngahuia uses the term to appeal to the guilt in her audience -rarely fails. No-one seems to effectively realise that Women's Liberation in New Zealand, as elsewhere is made up of the educated elite, and that their experience is very different from the less privileged - that one of the reasons it's so very hard for members to reach 'working class women' is that this is one liberation movement whose attention is unwelcome, once it gets down to the changing of the social structure and the typical female (and male) roles. Perhaps this element of the fantastic in the movement, and its obvious inability to convince the majority of women that they are exploited and oppressed, is one of the reasons for the emotionalism with which the topic is approached, not only in mixed circles. At times it smacks to me of the good works of the leisured ladies of the Victorian era, not that this analogy is exact. Paradoxically, some of the women in the movement would like to attain equality, if not dominate in those spheres regarded as least desirable, if man is to survive. One gets the feeling that many would like the roles switched or at least broadened but only in the context of the present sick society. And that's hardly the answer to the general insecurity in both sexes, the willingness to rush into tenuous relationships because we have not the self-confidence to go it alone. It seems to me that this is the root of the obvious dissatisfaction felt by members of womens liberation, rather than the superficial excuses such as 'the right to control our own bodies', or any appeal to sexual and social roles. That, and the desire to end the myth that 'biology is our destiny'. Present society, as we know it in protected, comfortable. New Zealand terms offers nothing definite - and, also, nothing fixed.
Women's economic role is already changing, which means that the myth is already subject to strain. The opportunities are widening, although there is still a lot of pressurising to be done by women's groups - within the system, since alientation only induces decline. Witness the feminist movement in the States. Most of the women present at the conference would agree with this, particularly over such issues as childcare, equal pay - or rather opportunity, matrimonial property laws, better sex education, increased availability of contraceptives, and dissemination of contraceptive knowledge, and, abortion. It is interesting to note, with reference to abortion, that the loudest round of applause went to the girl who said that, for herself, abortion-was anathema, but that she'd fight for others' right to have it. It is perhaps in its mobilising of women to do something in the political field that the conference was worthwhile. It would seem, judging from the reports from various centres, that local crusades were proving most effective, that the different groups wanted regional independence, and that womens liberation as a national movement will probably not eventuate on a permanent basis. It is also worth pointing out that there are already several powerful pressure groups of women, at the national level, whore are doing far more already eg Maori Women's Welfare League, and National Council of Women, however middle, class the might appear (after all. New Zealand is a middle class society).
I don't want to leave the impression that members of women's liberations opposed to women like me who are 'just interested' (and disillusioned with ideological movements) are maladjusted, emotional individuals. Most of the discussion was rational and peaceful and above all, concerned. However, I do think that most of the perceptions stop well short of being viable programmes or conclusions and that several of the issues discussed are unnecessary, eg lesbianism (and if I can add a pessimistic note here, the fact that there is no legal concern with female homosexuals has not meant a better acceptance of them, may mean that legislation does not in fact gradually lead to altered social attitudes... but then this is a case of negative rather than positive legislation.)
Women's liberation is a highly emotional issue. One incident in particular remains in my memory from what was a stimulating discussion in general. Early on in the conference, a plumpish, well rounded Maori woman in a poncho, got up after Ngahuia's speech on Maori and Polynesian women - (incidentally these two protagonists were the only non-whites present). She was obviously disturbed., she couldn't accept that Ngahuia should stand as the representative of either the Maori race, or of women in general. Slight titters from the audience, but mostly an embarrassed silence. We wait for Ngahuia's rhetoric on lesbianism "We are you worst fear, and your best fantasy." It is obvious the coupling of support for lesbianism with womens liberation that worries her most, together with her distaste for radical alteration with societal roles. She says 'I am more liberated than any of you here ... a solo parent... I am not very liberated' (the usual confusion of sexual with women's liberation). Ngahuia accepts her remarks as a personal attack, wishes to discuss them outside the conference. The woman tries to walk out with dignity, and succeeds, as does Ngahuia in keeping hers. Guerilla theatre could hardly have presented the polar extremes and the dilemma better.