Why should we challenge assumptions about second-wave feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Geena Carlisle explores the history of second-wave feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand, focusing on the exchanges and tensions between Māori and Pākehā women.

In 1893, Aotearoa New Zealand became the first nation where women gained the right to vote and the country has since assumed the role of a global leader in women’s rights and gender-equality. Additionally, ongoing claims to have the ‘best race relations in the world’ have been important in shaping Aotearoa New Zealand’s national identity, persisting explicitly until at least the late-1960s but continue to impact society today. These were based on a complicated history of conditional inclusion of Māori within nation-building processes as well as comparisons to other settler colonies, serving to justify the settler position and erase the colonial violence upon which the New Zealand nation was built. Both narratives were, and remain, foundational to the settler nation’s history and identity. What happens, though, when we engage with, and challenge, these popular myths and founding narratives?  This post looks at the case of second-wave feminism in the 1970s.

This image is a cover of the 1982 October edition of the New Zealand feminist magazine Broadsheet. On the cover are 2 Māori women activists wearing black boots and coats.
Donna Awatere (left) and Ripeka Evans (right).
Broadsheet Magazine No. 103 (October 1982). Reproduced courtesy of Sandra Coney (editor) and Libraries and Learning Services – Te Tumu Herenga, University of Auckland.

What is the feminist wave model and why is it relevant?

Second-wave feminism took hold globally from the late-1960s to mid-1980s, and is well-known in its calls for a united ‘sisterhood’ and its challenges to society’s patriarchal structures. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this saw a boom in feminist organisations, movements, events, publications, and more.

Understanding feminist movements within the wave model has faced both contemporary and current critique, particularly that it prioritises white, middle-class, straight, and liberal women. This holds for the case of New Zealand, where the voices and action of white Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) women dominate narratives of feminism. The individual and gender-based focus of this feminism meant that the movement overlooked other forms of interconnected oppression. This did not resonate for many Māori women who, as articulated by Māori scholar Leonie Pihama, ‘live daily with the impact of the intersections of racism, sexism and classism combined with the agendas of neo-liberal capitalist imperialism on our land.’ Thus, mainstream feminist spaces of this period alienated many women, particularly women of colour, for whom this unity felt like a ‘mirage’ benefitting only white women.

Although the wave model remains highly contested, and follows a Euro/US-centric timeline, it cannot be so easily shaken from popular discourse. Challenging the model’s assumptions and impact is hence crucial. If we do not reconfigure the discursive boundaries of the second-wave, and who it remembers, this period of feminism remains a space that privileges white, middle-class women. This is part of a wider trend in New Zealand’s history: one study found that of the 71 articles published in the New Zealand Journal of History between 1993 and 2017 that included historical women actors, only thirteen incorporated Māori women.

History shapes how we view today’s society and one that excludes the central importance of Māori women in the development of the nation’s feminism works to uphold the settler colonial structures that the nation is based on. The impact of these structures can still be seen today, exemplified in the ongoing threats to Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840) and the rights and sovereignty of Aotearoa’s tangata whenua (Indigenous peoples).

What is considered feminist action?

Becky Thompson defines the ‘three-pronged’ activism of feminists of colour as: (1) action within white-dominated feminist movements, (2) forming women’s sections in mixed-gender groups, and (3) creation of Black/Indigenous women’s movements. Similarly, Māori women actively fought on all three fronts throughout the 1970s. By viewing feminist action in this way, rather than with a focus on individual rights and single-issue oppression, the rich and diverse resistance of Māori women can be rightly recentred as fundamental to Aotearoa New Zealand’s feminism.

1. Action from within the mainstream movement: In 1979, the fourth and final New Zealand United Women’s Convention was held in Hamilton. These conventions, also held in Auckland (1973), Wellington (1975), and Christchurch (1977), intended to bring women together nationally, along with international guests, to discuss women’s issues. However, in line with second-wave feminist trends, the conventions normalised the ‘white’ experience and overlooked the diverse experiences of Indigenous and other women of colour in Aotearoa New Zealand. This culminated in a protest outside of the 1979 convention, where protesters held banners such as ‘White Women’s Convention?’.  

The 1979 convention lumped the issues faced by women of colour together as one ‘aspect of the Women’s Movement’, and did not actively seek the inclusion of women of colour and their experiences. No Māori speakers were included in the convention’s programme, although on the day Charlotte Bunch, an American guest speaker, handed over part of her speaking time to Māori activist Ripeka Evans in response to this. Ironically, the convention’s poster pictured a Māori woman with a baby on her hip. Thus, under the guise of inclusion, myths of equal representation were furthered whilst, in practice, Māori women were given a face with no voice. The 1979 convention protest is one of many examples in which Māori women, joined by other antiracist protestors, spoke out and directly confronted the exclusivity of the mainstream women’s movement in this decade.

2. Women’s sections in mixed-gender movements: Māori women also fought sexism from within mixed-gender Māori rights movements. This included in Ngā Tamatoa, and other antiracist groups such as the Polynesian Panthers Movement. The action of women in these groups was not only fundamental to these movements but also allowed for the further development of feminism. Māori activist Hana Jackson realised from working in Ngā Tamatoa that ‘[s]exism and racism seemed to go hand in hand.’ A history of feminism that ignores mixed-gender groups overlooks their importance in forming and strengthening feminist feeling and action among these women, as well as the intrinsically interwoven nature of oppressions. This is important because, as highlighted by activist Donna Awatere, it often remained ‘black unity before black/white unity, even where women are concerned.’

3. Autonomous Black/Indigenous women’s movements: The third important channel of activism was the creation of Black/Indigenous groups and movements. The Māori Women’s Welfare League, established in 1951 and still in existence today, became an important official space for Māori women to express concerns and take action, and also encouraged communication with other activist groups. Although this group was criticised in later years by several Māori activists, the early existence of the MWWL contents assumptions that feminism occurred along a Eurocentric timeline in which white women were the pioneers, with ‘other’ feminisms only added later.

Another much more radical group, most active in the late-1970s/early-1980s, was The Black Women’s Movement, involving Māori, Pasifika, and some Indian women. This movement was influenced by the global Black Power movement and connected the Māori and antiracist fight in Aotearoa New Zealand with other groups internationally. Ripeka Evans highlighted the importance of global connections and support, explaining that ‘[o]ver the years we have built up strong bonds with other indigenous colonized people in the USA, Canada, and Australia. Where we can send people to support them and they support us.’ Within white-dominated feminist frameworks, these national and transnational connections are easily overlooked. Yet, they provide a much more complex story than that of one-way transmission from Pākehā to Māori.

Placing second-wave feminism within the settler colonial context

Māori activists, scholars, and women have been fighting the oppressive structures of settler colonialism since first contact, centuries before the second-wave. Mana wahine theory, which aims to decolonise and redraw narrative spaces based on the intersection of ‘being Māori and being female’, has been a fundamental part of this resistance and central to the fight against sexism and other oppression in Aotearoa New Zealand. Māori women navigated the complexities of feminism and settler colonialism, fighting on multiple fronts to engage with Pākehā women and bring attention to racist structures within Aotearoa society, simultaneously addressing sexism. To deny Māori women’s importance in the history of the feminist movement is to continue to preserve the colonial structures that rendered them oppressed in the first place. Nevertheless, simple inclusion of ‘marginalised’ women is not the answer. In order to truly provide space for Māori women’s knowledge as validated and understood, a deeper analysis of the oppressive capabilities and privileged position of Pākehā women, as part of settler colonial society, is vital. This goes further than sitting back and listening, but should include an examination of white privilege, as well as handing over power to Indigenous women.

This image is a photograph of the author, Geena Carlisle. Geena has blonde hair and is sitting in a park.

Geena Carlisle is a recent graduate of the joint master’s program of Global History at the Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. She is a Pākehā researcher of women’s and gender history, examining power and knowledge hierarchies within settler colonial contexts. In particular, she focuses on notions of femininity/masculinity and on silences and gaps in historical narratives. She received her BA (hons.) in History and Politics from Newcastle University (UK), also studying at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Geena currently works as a student assistant on the 1914-1918 Online project at Freie Universität and on the PhD Programs team at Hertie School, Berlin.

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