The ironies of gender politics

This article was hastily written – I have some more ideas stewing away that I should hopefully be putting on paper soon

There are some moments in the political history of women in New Zealand that are rightfully a source of pride – after all, in 1893 we became the first nation to give women the right to vote. To this day, New Zealand has seen a number of strong female politicians, notably figures such as Elizabeth McCombs (the first female MP), Prime Ministers Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, as well as prominent politicians such as Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern. While this is certainly a positive thing for representation in New Zealand, there is a need to examine the role of women in politics more closely. The fight for equality and progression for women is just as unfinished in parliament as it is in wider society.

Some of the strongest and most dominant politicians in New Zealand have been women. Many of Helen Clark’s opponents, notably National Party leader Don Brash perceived her gender as a weakness, and paid for it. However, Helen Clark was also subject to a torrent of gender related degradation throughout her career, which made a notable impact on the way she presented herself and acted publically. As Leader of the Opposition, and later Prime Minister, Clark went through a series of drastic and well publicised changes to her image. Most of these were as a response to the public perception that she looked ‘too manly’, and consisted of Clark adopting a more feminine haircut and outfit. However, as soon as this happened she was ridiculed for trying to appear feminine. After this, Clark settled with the strong image that she kept for her time as Prime Minister, but suffered nine years of judgement based on her looks and actions. Helen Clark is an obvious example of a problem that has plagued female politicians. Our patriarchal society is challenged by strong and powerful women, particularly those that tell us what to do, like Helen Clark. It seems that the reaction to this is to immediately degrade these women by attempting to imprison them through physical labelling. Helen Clark was labelled on her looks and manner rather than her politics –a judgement that should have been entirely more important in her career as a politician. The same goes for many of her generation. Judith Collins is a very strong woman who is constantly subjected to physical scrutiny and is compared to a robot. The same happened to Julia Gillard, who was cruelly ridiculed for her physical appearance by now Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and also to Margaret Thatcher who had to undergo a physical transformation before anyone began to take her seriously. These women are forced to adopt masculine qualities because femininity is perceived as a sign of weakness. However, once they have done this their masculinity becomes another source of degradation for them. Women have sadly only survived in a male oriented, male dominated arena by becoming like men themselves, and even then cannot find the respect they deserve.

In the next generation of female politicians coming into New Zealand politics there have been some changes. High profile women like Nikki Kaye, Jacinda Ardern, Amy Adams and Jan Logie are taking important positions in their respective parties, and are very popular amongst New Zealanders. However, events like the ‘Battle of the Babes’ which highlighted the youth and appearance of Ardern and Kaye in the Auckland Central election demonstrate that because these women do exhibit strong feminine qualities, they are still bound by the same labels that the generation before them experienced. As a reaction to the challenge of women with power, who retained their femininity, our patriarchal society labelled them as ‘babes’ – subjecting them to the confines and the stereotype of a young attractive women, an image not usually associated with power and intelligence.

We are very lucky to have had exceptional women leaders like Helen Clark, and lucky that the next generation of female politicians are able to exert their femininity to succeed politically in a male dominated system. However, this is evidently not enough. The representation of women in parliament is far from equal, as the Green Party are the only group with any kind of gender balance. The fiasco of the Labour Party ‘man ban’, and the limited numbers of women in the National caucus demonstrate that this issue is perpetuated across political divides. As has also been explained, the objectification of female politicians by the public reflects the strong sentiments towards gender that dominate supposedly egalitarian New Zealand. Despite the encouraging progress made through the rise of a new generation of strong, feminine politicians, New Zealand has a long way still to come. We should not look back to 1893, but rather to the future, and strive to be an inclusive and progressive force for all marginalised groups, in all aspects of our society.

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