New Zealand is justly proud of being the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. But our pride in that achievement shouldn't blunt our awareness of all that's still left to achieve. With gender representation in Parliament as close to equal as it has ever been, with 48 women to 72 men, it's still significantly short of the 50/50 split that would mean true equality of representation at the highest level.
The numbers are one thing. But there's another hurdle to cross. No matter their politics—left, right, centre—every female politician contacted by VICE spoke of sexism they had encountered in the course of doing their job. Here, in their own words, is what that looks like—and the women who have inspired them to rise above it.
Sexism is alive in politics. Sometimes it works very well for women when we are often underestimated. I work on the basis that if people are silly enough to judge based on gender, then they’re too silly to be taken seriously.
I greatly admire quite a few women political leaders. I admire Helen Clark even though I do not agree with her politics and I admire Jenny Shipley for having the courage to take on the leadership role when it was clearly a lost cause. That takes gumption.
New Zealand First
I was elected in 2011. The first phone call I got from a major newspaper was from a male reporter who asked me, “How will you juggle your housework and children with your new job?” I asked him what the recently elected male local member had responded to that question as he had more children and a larger house than I had. There was no answer.
Having to deal with words like “shrill” used to describe my speaking style—when I am intensely making a point—by both Speakers of the House and members of the other side of the house. I cannot recall a time when a Speaker referred to the tone of a male MPs voice, nor when I have heard a member from the other side of the house refer to the tone of a male MPs voice. These sorts of descriptions are used throughout girls’ lives to reinforce that they should be quiet.
She may not be that historical but Dame Annette King is a female politician for whom I have great respect and who I seek advice from. You may not know the female politician who has inspired me most because she was never successfully elected but Anne Martin, my mother, is my political and personal inspiration. A woman of great strength, strong values, dedication to family and her country who unfortunately I cannot match when it comes to absolute class.
I have experienced verbal and written abuse including death threats which came in many forms as my Marriage Equality Act progressed through Parliament. I have experienced forms of workplace bullying where male colleagues have used aggressive and intimidating language, gestures and actively interfered in my work and employed various forms of sabotage to prevent me completing programmes of work I had championed over many years. I am not sure how many of my male colleagues have had to deal with these experiences but I know that many of my female colleagues have, across our Parliament representing all political parties.
My political inspiration comes from Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia who submitted a motion in the Kotahitanga Parliament in 1893 in favour of women not only being allowed to vote for, but also to stand as, members of the Parliament. She noted that Māori women were landowners too and should not be barred from political representation.
Meri Mangakāhia had a definition of suffrage that was founded on equality; equality of opportunity to vote and equality of outcome in women’s representation. Women should never be satisfied with expressions of “opportunity” we should remain steadfastly focused on actual “outcomes” for women in society. That is an inspirational legacy to strive to emulate.
I do feel that people are more critical of how female politicians dress and look. I also faced a barrage of dreadful false accusations against me when Metiria Turei went public with her previous benefit problems. They didn’t question male politicians who had also been on welfare.
Many women have inspired me. Katherine Rich was an early mentor of mine when I entered Parliament. She is someone I respect and admire.
Comments about what I look like not what I think!
Te Puea Herangi—a leader of the people for the people!
It’s oddly difficult to extract yourself from the cut and thrust of daily life in the weird world of politics, let alone compare your experience to others, because the environment kind of by design doesn’t provide that space for reflection—which, arguably, is why the system self-perpetuates its flaws, but that’s a massive tangent and its own can of worms.
I asked my right hand man, Tim, this question because he worked for a male MP before me. He noted the biggest major difference by far was the tone of correspondence, which could be compounded by the fact I’m also ‘young’.
Jeanette Fitzsimons may find it a tad funny to be referred as an ‘historical’ politician, but I’ll count her as such because she’s helped shape Aotearoa’s political history in more ways than one. She’s a staunch, unapologetic, and fantastically earnest firebrand who has fought tirelessly to illustrate that ecological and social justice issues are interconnected, and was recognised as the most trusted politician during her time in Parliament. I get the privilege of catching up with her every now and then, particularly when she hosts the Young Greens Summer Camp at her farm, and we get to engage in the most clichéd of Green Party behaviours—discussing transformational change, cross-legged on the grass.