Helen and Hillary and old white dudes

My fascination with politics started in 1993. Ok so I was six and that sounds crazy but it was the centenary of women’s suffrage and that was a big deal! I went to the suffragette picnic in the domain with my mum (the same location as the teddy bear’s picnic… coincidence?!), and I remember reading books about the suffragettes from the school library. Most of them were actually about the women’s suffrage movement in the UK or the US, and I’m fairly sure that reading about hunger strikes and forced feeding through nasal tubes gave me nightmares. I was gruesomely interested though. For a while my history was extremely confused – we contributed to the war effort and they gave us the vote and now Kate Shepard is on the $10 note but there still hasn’t been a woman president of Aotearoa! I remember going home and saying to my mum “did you know there has never been a woman president?!” And she said that president was in America, we have Prime Ministers, but there hasn’t been a woman for either. And I was like, “but ?!?!?!?!?!? how can that be?!?!?!?!”

Writing this, I’m aware of how unusual my interest was for a six year old. I didn’t know this when I was six. Some kids are mad keen on learning more about dinosaurs, I was mad keen on learning more about the fact that women were once wholly excluded from governing the society of which we are HALF THE PEOPLE.  Who gives a toss about dinosaurs?

My family talk politics the way some families talk sport, and dad always spends election season out door-knocking for Labour. The first election I remember clearly is 1999. We watched the results come in at an election night party. Was Labour gonna make it into government without Winston?! Would Jeanette Fitzsimons win Coromandel, and if not would the Greens get 5%? The mood was hopeful, and when the result was called, euphoric. Dad took me down to Mt Albert to see Helen Clark step up and make the first speech as Prime Minister elect.

And Helen Clark was Prime Minister all through my high school years and the first four years of uni.

Then in 2008, our election was a sleepwalk towards a change of government that made me sad and irritable. But instead of caring too much about it, I was entirely emotionally invested in Barack Obama as the next president of the USA. Hillary Clinton was an irrelevant also-ran in my mind. Obama, Obama, Obama! I went into my equity law exam knowing that when it was over we’d have the results of the US election. We all came pouring out, many wearing Obama badges, and pretty soon the news spread that HE WON! We crowded round laptops and watched the beautiful acceptance speech and it was just wow. This guy! The President! It was better than anything Aaron Sorkin could have scripted!

OK so it’s 2016, not 1993, and the USA has still not had a woman president. And Hillary is running again, and this time her opponent is not a once in a hundred years dream candidate, it’s just another grey haired white faced dude in a jacket. It’s like my grandad read Marx. Sorry not sorry. OK, whatever, talks some good talk, and getting in the race to shift the party left is legit, but he’s  an implausible presidential candidate so let’s move on huh. I don’t mean he’s a bad guy or the enemy or anything, he’s just not a likely saviour.

Hillary isn’t my perfect candidate.

Neither was Helen.

I never voted for Helen Clark actually. I was two ticks Greens in 2005 and 2008. I was deeply critical of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and of the Electoral Finance Act. I criticised the Civil Union Bill for not going the full way to marriage equality. When she stood on the steps of Parliament and called the the tangata of the hikoi “haters and wreckers”, I felt like I was done with Labour forever. I passionately wish that they had never backed down from the carbon tax, because the emissions trading scheme is a legally complicated nightmare that was easy to gut and just sits there being useless. I wonder what things would be like if the closing the gaps initiative had been followed through.

But, I’m a big fan of the introduction of paid parental leave and the early childcare subsidy and interest free student loans and KiwiSaver and the stance against the war in Iraq and the establishment of Kiwibank and the increases in the minimum wage and the establishment of our own Supreme Court.

I saw Jeanette Fitzsimons speak once, at a debate at uni during the 2008 election. She was so classy. She was so cool. She was resolutely not the hippy dippy grandmother she’s often dismissed as being, she was 100% on top of the issues – sharp as a tack and adept at taking charge of the conversation. Under the leadership of her and Ron Donald, the Greens went from a marginal party that might not have made it into Parliament, to carving out new terrain as the third party of New Zealand politics and a now integral part of the political scene. There’s a woman politician I could fully endorse.

Jeanette Fitzsimons wasn’t Prime Minister though. She was instrumental in policy developments that I support, as were Laila Harre and Jim Anderton, but she wasn’t the person in charge of the room.

I think of John Key’s announcement recently about the funding for the Auckland CBD rail loop, and betcha Nikki Kaye deserves a whole lot of credit for that, but she’s not the one who got to do the press conference.

Male politicians can have fairly long, fairly comfortable political careers. They can tilt unsuccessfully at leadership then go back to a lower position without anyone holding it against them. They can hang around on the back benches indefinitely and be seen by the leadership as reliable, rather than as a waste of space. Women in politics are subject to much much more criticism, from every direction. When a woman politician does something that should be criticised, the criticism is nonetheless harsher and more heated than a man would receive in the same position.

Women politicians have to think about how their gender will be interpreted in a way that men simply don’t. Straight male politicians talk about their wives in grossly patronising tones all the time, all those wives seem to be “amazing women” who offer “incredible support”. To be a woman aiming for power, to be a woman who wants to be taken seriously, to be a woman who wants to be seen as a competent person first and foremost, is a delicate manoeuvre. This is arguably more difficult as a progressive woman politician, because you can’t overcorrect towards being too tough or people won’t trust you to look after those at the bottom of society’s heap.

If I wanted to enter politics, I’d have think about what to wear every day. I’d have to make sure my hair looked good. I’d have to field questions about my family.

Men do not have these issues. Even men from less privileged groups don’t have these issues. Grant Robertson, an MP who I’m fond of for being the architect of interest free student loans, is able to directly confront homophobic comments in a way that a female politician cannot directly confront sexist comments without facing enormous backlash. He can say “it’s bullshit”, and he has, and saying that helps rather than hinders his public image, and that’s awesome: but look what happened to Julia Gillard when she made her fantastic speech in Parliament calling out Tony Abbot for his misogyny. Leadership and femaleness aren’t seen as going together, while leadership and maleness are. Men are presumed to be competent. Men are given the benefit of the doubt, all the time.

Back to Bernie. Sorry Bernie, but there’s a limit to how progressive a 74 year old straight white dude can possibly be. Your lived experience for the past many many decades has been one of unabating privilege, and your sincerity does not change the fact that anything you care about politically is on some level an abstract issue for you.

Back to Hillary. Given the constant stream of bullshit female politicians have to face, to still be standing tall and seeking to go further is itself fucking awesome.

Some people have started talking about trying to convince young people to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, because of the message that’d send. But people don’t need to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman: people need to recognise that a vote for Bernie and against Hillary is a vote cast in the context of pervasive sexist assumptions about gender in leadership, and that these assumptions benefit men and disadvantage women. Until sexism no longer exists, this will be true whenever a woman and a man run against each other. It’s not unique to these two candidates. It means fewer women enter politics, and it means that those who do are less likely to succeed. Think of it like this: could you ever imagine a young black woman with Obama’s CV prevailing over one of Bill Clinton’s closest male political allies and advisers? Honestly, nah.

Back to Helen.

I was a kid when she was elected.

I can’t remember really what message it sent at the time. I know my current impressions, and that boils down to something pretty simple. Growing up under the Clark government taught me that no matter how powerful a woman is, she can’t escape sexism. That sounds depressing but it’s actually something from which I draw great strength. When men insult my intelligence, when men call me “stroppy”, or “opinionated”, or suggest that I should shut up and listen to them, I can think “hey – it’s not just me, it’s not personal, and we gotta shrug it off and keep going and one day there’ll be enough of us in charge that this will change”.

One day.


There still hasn’t been a woman president.


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