Images: Jacinda Ardern / Paula Bennett / Metiria Turei
What do you get when you ask 12 different women the same questions? This year, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, we’ve been celebrating our ‘daring dozen’ – a group of inspirational women kicking ass and proving that girls can do anything.
Today we conclude our series by presenting the collective wisdom of three of the most prominent women in New Zealand politics: Minister for Women and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, Labour Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern, and Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Happy International Women's Day!
Villainesse: What has been the toughest challenge you have faced as a woman in politics? How did you overcome it?
Jacinda Ardern: There have probably been two – the assumptions that people make about almost everything, and my mind. I can turn a tiny seed of doubt into an overwhelming beast. I know I am not alone in that, but it’s hard not to let it choke you and hold you back from doing your job.
Metiria Turei: It seems to me that women everywhere often experience some form of sexism, whether in their profession or in their community or even in their family. And we all learn to deal and combat it as we can. But with my job, it’s the public exposure I find the hardest. Like thousands of other women, I do my work because I want to fix what I see is wrong and make good change in the world. I don’t do it because I want to be in the spotlight. But “fame”, or more accurately infamy, is a feature of politics that takes some getting used to. The plus side of it is all the incredible support I get from people everywhere who know me and my work, like what I do and are keen to tell me. I love it, but it always feel it’s undeserved. The negative side is that I am very exposed. My family, my home, and my looks are all open for public scrutiny and comment. It can be overwhelming when I have put myself here for the issues that are important, but it’s the superficial that gets cut-through.
Paula Bennett: Politics is a tough game – but I genuinely think it’s as hard for most men as it is for women. Yes, I’ve had people make derogatory comments about my appearance – but so too have some of the men I work with. As a woman I find it really difficult to be away from my kids for days on end – but I know the men I work with feel the same. I’ve worked in a few different industries and I have to say that politics is one of the fairest environments I’ve worked in as far as equal pay and conditions. If I had to pick something it would be the first five years in parliament when I was in my 30s and people would openly ask me if I was going to have another baby. Mind your own damn business. I’ve aged out of that question.
If you had a magic wand, what would you most like to change about the political world?
Paula Bennett: It would be good if there were more hours in the week to get out into the community. We spend so much time in Wellington making and debating laws (which is of course important) but we’d all love more time to spend with people in the community and to be able to travel around the country.
Metiria Turei: I would make it more democratic and transparent. We need to have more people involved in the decision-making. Having systems like citizens’ assemblies, extending select committee processes and allowing more open access to ministers for NGOs and communities would mean that more people have the ear of Government. Our current system locks families and communities out, while big business and wealthy lobbyists get easy access. Communities know what solutions are needed for the challenges they face. Government’s role is to facilitate those solutions – that is what participatory democracy is all about. When the Greens are in the Government, we will not only be a different government, we will do government differently.
Jacinda Ardern: There are so many things! But one would be changing everyone’s mind set so that we ‘pay it forward.’ For voters, that would mean voting beyond our own interests and recognising that when everyone does well, we’re all better off. For politicians, it would mean an end to short term thinking, and getting beyond electoral cycles to tackle things like child poverty and climate change. It’s ‘pay it forward politics.’
Oh, and Donald Trump. Can I wave my wand at him too?
How does the word ‘feminism’ apply to you personally?
Metiria Turei: I am a feminist – I work for the emancipation of women. It’s up to others to say how well I might be contributing to that aim, but I try to every day in my work and personal life. My first focus though is always those women who have the least – least power, resources, and opportunities. They are locked out because of the pervasive patriarchy. I have zero patience for those who attack “identity politics”. In the main they are Pākehā men who use their voice to suppress women’s efforts to speak truth to power and call out that misogyny. There’s also more that needs to be done to understand each other’s struggles – particularly Māori women’s struggles - but there has been a big shift in the last 20 years and I think there is more understanding than ever about the different struggles.
Jacinda Ardern: When I hear that word, I feel like I am being reminded of a very personal crusade. Somewhere along the way, we lost control of the word ‘feminism’, and yet it is a symbol of a very simple and important concept – equality. I think it’s up to all of us to recruit a new generation of young women who will proudly call themselves feminists, and keep fighting for goals that we haven’t yet reached.
Paula Bennett: The word feminism means something different to everyone. It depends on how old you are, your experiences and whether you look at it intellectually or emotionally (or a great combo of both). I love that women younger than me “own it”. I was one since the day I was born and it was thrown back at me many times as a put down. To me, it means being treated equally, not necessarily the same as men, but equally. I get a bit annoyed at people who have their own definition and demand that women must see things exactly how they do. To me, achieving change is far more important than debating the definition. As Minister for Women, I’m focussed on achieving pay equity- starting with the public sector and reducing the harm of family violence.
What advice would you give to young women who want pursue a career in politics?
Paula Bennett: Do it, there are two types of people in this world, spectators and participants. You will never do anything as frustrating, as time consuming, and as rewarding. It is honestly a privilege to fight for positive change for New Zealanders within parliament – no matter your politics. And if you don’t like it, it’s only three years and no one will make you do it again. If you want it go for it. Be a participant in your own life.
Jacinda Ardern: If you hate injustice, or just want to change your corner of the world for the better, politics is one of the best places to do that. We will only make it a force for good if good people keep putting their hand up to be there – so do it.
Metiria Turei: Do it! Find your political passion and run with it. Politics is just about the systems of decision-making and resource sharing. It’s what we do every day in our relationships and communities. We look for common ground and we call out abusive behaviour. We fight hard and then step back so that those most affected get to be the decision-makers – working with people to make all our lives better. It’s a deeply satisfying passion/obsession/affliction – all of those things. Keep a good crew around you who know and love you, who will boost you up every day and call you out when you need it. Cry when it’s necessary. Shout when it feels good. And laugh every single day.