Sunday, November 16, 2008


ALERT! (24/11/08)
The new National Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett has just called for a national debate over whether mothers are being pushed to go back to work too soon after having children and the implications for society of career-women having children later in time. Ms Bennett, who as a single mother relied for a time on a State benefit, says all parents should be free to choose whether to work or not.

As discussed below, the question remains: How will Ms Bennett and the National-led government define the issue of 'choice'? If in narrow, formalistic terms, we can expect to see more moralising about the demise of the 'traditional family'; attacks on 'fatherless families' (in other words, those that are headed by women); and tax policies which benefit middle and upper-income couples who can afford a 'stay-at-home' parent thereby encouraging these women to become economically dependent, while discriminating against working-class, poor and sole-parent families - the very groups who are most in need of a tax break.

This month's election triumph of the Right over the Left which ousted Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Labour-led government prompted Chris Trotter, a leftist male political commentator, to indict the 'gutless, witless men of the barbecue-pit and sports bar' for whom the prospect of an intelligent, idealistic, free-spirited woman with nine years experience in government as their Leader was anathema. Although the 'feckless females' who colluded with these men were relegated to only a minor supporting role; women have always been at the forefront of resisting, as well as promoting women's political, social and economic emancipation.

Take for example, Alexis Stuart's article, which condemns Helen Clark and her Ministers for participating in a feminist conspiracy to coerce mothers into the paid workforce, rob men of their familial roles, while raking in the female tax dollar. This self-described 'stay-at-home mother of three pre-schoolers' blames feminist ideology and the Labour government for relentlessly pursuing gender equity at the expense of mothers' freedom of choice. A Ministry of Women's Affairs focus on achieving women's economic independence is denounced as 'feminist-speak for women in the workforce, children in state day care and men dismissed'.

Yet the State has always viewed women's traditional economic dependence on a male breadwinner largely as a matter of individual choice. As every single mother knows, it is only when mothers become dependent on the State that they are exhorted to enter the paid work force. So it is difficult to understand how the Prime Minister and her co-conspirators could set about prising Ms Stuart out of her marital nest and into the world of paid work. The jackbooted 'Feminazi' will not assist as she is a product of the antifeminist imagination.

The concepts of 'freedom' and 'choice' Ms Stuart endorses are not the substantive, humanistic ideals of the Left, but the formalistic, spiritually-barren lingua franca of the Right. Thus while Ms Stuart argues that it is bondage, not emancipation, when mothers of young children are forced to work outside the home, she is no advocate for her working class and poor sisters whose paid work takes on the greatest importance - which itself is a reflection of social inequality. Rather, her hostility toward 'taxpayer-funded equity' and a just redistribution of wealth (the strategy of President-Elect Obama which similarly enraged Republicans) indicates support for the 'bootstraps' philosophy: 'I pulled myself up by mine; so you should too' which conveniently ignores the obvious and less transparent privileges, advantages and opportunities that accrue to the wealthy.

Forget egalitarianism - the family Ms Stuart champions as the foundation of civilised society is 'grounded in marriage between a man and a woman' with fathers in the paid work force and mothers at home doing the unpaid housework and child caring. Lesbians and gays need not apply. This individualistic, monocultural notion of family has also been criticised by Maori women as eroding te mana me te tapu o te wahine.

Ms Stuart's treatise utilises the ideology and rhetoric of the 'New Right'. This loose coalition of political, religious and antifeminist groups, which arose in reaction to the Women's Movement, projects itself as 'pro-family'. The welfare state is blamed for destroying the fabric of the self-sufficient patriarchal family, undermining the authority of fathers and the moral order of society. Rather than promoting equality of opportunity, the welfare state attempts to create equality of conditions. State expenditure has raised taxes, added to inflation and forced married women into the labour force. George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty which President Ronald Reagan distributed to members of his Cabinet depicts the welfare state as perpetuating poverty. Since the path to upward mobility is the maintenance of marriage and the family, the 'first priority of any serious program against poverty is to strengthen the male role in poor families'.

Intrusion of the 'Nanny State' into the private world of the family sparked nation-wide protest against repeal of legislation permitting parents to use 'reasonable' force to discipline children: which courts interpreted as including use of weapons. (Recent research found New Zealand men are more likely to be supportive of physically disciplining children and opposed to legislation limiting their ability to do so. As Green Party MP Sue Bradford observes, such attitudes have their origins in legal and social constructions of women and children as the property of men.) Nor could one tell from perusing the propaganda of the Right that despite decades of public education and law reform, home is still the most dangerous of all places for women. Indeed, to draw attention to this social reality is interpreted by Ms Stuart as insulting to men.

It is certainly the case that many women gain a sense of self-worth and social esteem from their unpaid child care and housework. However, Ms Stuart's idealised portrait of domesticity from which safe haven the 'artful' Prime Minister and her accomplices seek to wrest recalcitrant mothers is not reflected in the darker mirror of isolation, suburban neurosis and depression associated with the cult of domesticity which helped trigger a wave of women's protest in the sixties and seventies.

The notion that women choose their own oppression is a hallmark of Right-Wing analyses. Accordingly, Ms Stuart has no sympathy with feminist demands for pay equity. The gendered income gap is said to arise largely as a result of women's choices to take part-time and casual work, and time out for children and family. This fails to acknowledge the social reality that assignation of primary responsibility for unpaid child-rearing and domestic work to women - whether or not they also participate in the paid work force - is a central cause of the 'feminisation of poverty'.

Non-market caring work has no monetary value. So women who labour 'for love' rely on an income-earner who is prepared to acknowledge the value of their non-financial contributions and fairly redistribute economic resources. This unequal relationship often breaks down. When it does, studies indicate that the economic costs fall disproportionately on women. A broken or no significant work record, lack of employment-related skills and devaluation of home and caring work reduces women's earnings potential. By contrast, research indicates that the financial position of most men improves significantly after divorce.

Attacks such as Ms Stuart's, on a government dedicated to improving women's economic, social and political situation, may distress, even anger feminists and those committed to a vision of gender equity and social justice. But women who agitate for their own subordination cannot simply be dismissed as 'feckless' or a bunch of loonies. As Andrea Dworkin points out, Right-Wing women are politically savvy and perfectly capable of identifying the buttered side of their bread. Unlike feminists who perceive the antifeminism of Leftist men as somehow more humane than that of the Right, and so ally with men who have no real interest in relinquishing their gender-status privileges; women on the Right refuse to practice selective blindness with regard to male power. Their antifeminism is based on the futility of a liberation movement by the powerless against the powerful. To the extent that feminism jeopardises the bargains they can make; it is a malicious movement.

Our 'post-feminist' society graphically illustrates Richard Delgado's insight that gains are ephemeral if they are won by allying with individuals who really do not have your interests at heart. There is stagnation, even erosion of many historical women's gains. In the Universities, the potentially transformative discipline of feminist studies was sabotaged by demands for the inclusion of men's concerns. The result was a less threatening 'gender studies' which ultimately rendered the project irrelevant. Men still refuse to do their fair share of unpaid work and resist demands for pay equity. Home is still the place where women are more likely to be beaten, raped and killed - as well as robbed of the value of their labour. In the four Nordic countries which the World Economic Forum found to have most reduced gender inequality in economics, education, politics and health, the gap remains at around 80 per cent.

Zillah Eisenstein is sceptical about the possibility of a feminist coalition with men on the Left. She notes that until left-liberals and leftists recognise that the New Right is not simply a purveyor of free market ethics, but is fundamentally concerned with the familial and sexual structuring of society, they will remain ineffective; and it will be feminists who will have to 'fight the Right'.

Therefore men on the left need to sharpen their political analyses and become more engaged in women's struggles. As a first step, rather than focusing on the boorish and sexist attitudes of blokes in sports bars and barbecue-pits (and the 'feckless females who put up with them'); left-wing male commentators could more profitably engage in a reflective analysis of the part they played in the overthrow of a woman Prime Minister and her left-leaning government.

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