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Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

I read an article called “Sylvia’s Story” in the Sunday Star Times April 17, 2011. It was about the thousands of women, war brides, who sailed to New Zealand after World War two to join their husbands who were New Zealand servicemen. It got me thinking that something extraordinary happened in New Zealand in the decades following World War Two. In Europe people were coping with rebuilding cities and lives, coping with the results of atrocities and dealing with trauma on a scale that had never been seen before. But in New Zealand, far away from deprivation and destruction, connected only by servicemen who would not talk about their experiences, news sources that were sketchy, and immigrants who were regarded with suspicion and wariness, life went on much as it had always done. New Zealand at that time was generally isolated and insular and New Zealanders took pride in their self-sufficiency. The number 8 fencing wire mentality was still essential to survival, and women were strong, independent, able and continued the pioneering successes of previous generations of (European) women.

Into this world came not only the European refugees, but also thousands of women, mostly English, who married New Zealand servicemen they had fallen in love thousands of miles away. If they were anything like my mother, they had been spun a story of a land of milk and honey, a paradise where anything was possible. Instead they arrived in a country so primitive and unsophisticated that many, like my mother and Sylvia must have wanted desperately to go home. I don’t believe that my mother ever forgave my father for uplifting her from the vibrant (if damaged) city of London, to the tiny family cottage in Mangaweka where the toilet was an outhouse, then to Wellington where she found, not a city, but a backwater where facilities were primitive and there was not even theatre for distraction.

Like Sylvia, my mother and father were forced to live with family for the first part of their married lives. This angered Sylvia who wanted a state house.  Sylvia’s husband was an airforce officer and from an affluent family. After the war he returned to the company he had previously worked for and was trained for promotion. My father was an army private and his family was large and poor. When he left New Zealand, despite having left school at thirteen, he had achieved a cadetship with the Railways as a draughtsman. When he returned, injured in 1941 in Egypt, he was told he was too old for the cadetship and so worked variously as a labourer building the Tawa line, and as a porter, but never again had an opportunity like the cadetship.

Living with family was the least of my mother’s problems; she never complained to me about it anyway, but recalled with humour incidents like, when living with my dad’s aunt, taking all day  to light the fire under the “copper” to do the washing.

Sylvia, like most war brides, arrived in New Zealand in 1946 on a “bride ship” carrying hundreds of brides, fares paid for  by the New Zealand Government. Sylvia, married to an officer, had superior accommodation. My mother married in New Zealand and arrived in 1943 in a converted freight ship carrying mostly servicemen returning home. Fortunately, my naive mother shared a cabin with a much older, worldly woman who protected her from these predators. One evening they discovered a line of servicemen spaced out along the corridors to provide an early warning system for a serviceman who intended to try his luck. The older woman, knowing they’d be back, barricaded the cabin door.

My mother’s fare was subsidised by the government but was paid in the main by my father who had proposed by letter from his hospital bed in Egypt. She, like Sylvia needed clothing coupons for her wedding dress. Sylvia’s husband, as an officer received plenty of clothing coupons enough for a dress. My mother and her friends and workmates all saved and pitched with coupons for fabric, and she made her dress herself. It was plain but all she could afford. When she arrived in New Zealand, her aunt-in-law saw the dress and immediately offered her own lacy, pretty one instead. Feeling pressured, my mother wore the borrowed dress. Though pretty, it was at least four inches too short, my great aunt being much, much shorter. My mother always hated her wedding photo, and I believe that she thought she had betrayed the generosity of her friends and workmates.

Sylvia, like my mother was terribly homesick, but was able to return to England with her husband for a few years in the early fifties. My parents could not financially afford to visit England. My mother finally visited when she was in her eighties, with my sister and after my father had died. I sometimes wonder if my father was frightened that if my mother returned she might not come back to New Zealand. I suspect that my grandmother and others may have suggested she return to England.

It is the experiences of these war brides, their struggle to come to grips with their adopted home, that led to something extraordinary happening in New Zealand at that time. My mother felt ostracised by New Zealand women who could put their hand to anything but were probably intimidated by her dress and her “posh” accent. Though poor, my mother always found a way to dress with style, a strategy that helped her maintain her self-esteem. I wonder how many other war brides also felt isolated and abandoned. My mother found herself living in a community dominated by people of Irish descent and she felt threatened by the hatred she perceived the Irish have for the English. As a result of  loneliness, dependence on my father and a sense of obligation toward him, my mother became determined that we would have a better life than she did.

She would do everything possible to ensure her children, including her daughters, were educated and independent. She expected that we would do well at school, she expected that we would finish secondary school, and she expected that we would have a tertiary education. There is nothing more powerful than a parent’s expectations to ensure a child succeeds at school.

The one thing that New Zealand offered these war brides (and refugees) was opportunity for their children. They came from countries where class, wealth and gender determined education and opportunity. The women may have felt isolated and ostracised, but their children were, are, New Zealanders assimilated and part of New Zealand culture. These women saw for their children no class structure, equal education available for all, and limitless career opportunities regardless of gender (fodder for debate, but this has been my personal experience). Their sacrifices would benefit their children.

In this way, I believe that these women, these war brides, contributed to  extraordinary changes in New Zealand over the following decades. Women of my age (50s) and older have careers as doctors, lawyers, judges, businesswomen, university professors, politicians … and families. By the 1980s I was a marketing manager and mother. My daughter takes for granted that she may become a senior manager in the organisation she works for, and issues of gender just aren’t on her radar. My sons assume women have the same rights and opportunities they do.

New Zealand already had a history of women’s rights; the war brides, my mother anyway, saw this and made sure a door to opportunity opened wide for their children.

English war bride married in Mangaweka, NZ, 1943

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I have finally found a door into a world of social commentary through art.

Most modern and contemporary art leaves me feeling somewhat puzzled, wondering what point the artist was making, if any. I “get” that renaissance art as a visualisation of nature, religion and history; I “get” that Impressionism is a record of what the artist saw, with lots of play on light. What I haven’t been “getting” are any messages for me in modern or contemporary art. That is, until I found “Sex Change In Vitruvian Man” and discovered Australian artist Susan White!

Sex Change Vitruvian Man by Susan White

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man is based on the Roman architect Vitruvius’ description of the human body as providing the ideal proportions for building a temple. The drawing combines art, science and geometry, as well as demonstrating da Vinci’s interest in proportion. It is one of my favourite pieces of art, yet there has always been a part of me that didn’t quite connect with it.

The original Vitruvian man

Then I found Susan White’s “Sex change in Vitruvian Man”. Not only did I relate to it as a woman, but I could enjoy the subversive messages. Much of Susan White’s works are commentaries on social issues such as human rights, the status of women, and the environment, but she also draws on her own personal experiences. The humour and irony in her work often lies in the detail, and that’s something that gives me real joy. This is why another favourite of mine is “The First Supper”.

 

The First Supper

She painted it for the Australian bicentennial celebrations (did I mention she is Australian?), and showed it in a religious exhibition. It was apparently quite controversial in Australia. The central character of Jesus is replaced by an Australian Aboriginal woman. Check out the detail then read a transcript of a radio interview with the artist at:
http://www.susandwhite.com.au/reviews.html

Another favourite of mine is “The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Times” and its twin “The Seven Deadly Isms”

Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Times by Susan White

Some of her work is whimsical, and I would love to be able to touch some of her sculptures, like “Stretching The Imagination”. Is that Albert Einstein’s face?  He said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” …

Susan White says that she is inspired by anything that she feels passionately about – human rights, the environment, family, art and music. She also draws on her own personal experiences, from the naturalness of menopause to the personal trauma of having a brain tumour removed. I concede that probably I “get” her art because we share many cultural experiences –  middle aged women of european heritage with similar interests, a love of family, and sense of social justice. I am delighted that I can enjoy her art, her social commentary, her irony and her humour.

I’ve bookmarked her web site so that I can look at something beautiful, clever and witty, or be inspired by her social values whenever I want or need – its quality may be reduced on the internet, but it is accessible social commentary and art …

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The use of labels to describe someone has irked me for some time. I would variously describe myself as womanly, paraplaegic, mother, christian, feminist, humanist, able … the list has changed over the years and I expect will change again.  Some labels seem to be mutually exclusive. Priorities change. Meanings change over time. Perceptions change. We are complex.

I don’t know about others, but I don’t want to be put in a box. I prefer to describe myself in terms of ideals I aspire to, be they noble, frivolous, challenging, or simply time wasting. For one thing the label on the box can mean different things to different people; for another, labels can lead to intolerance, stereotypes, and narrow thinking. Conversely, prejudice, intolerance and bigotry thrives on labels.

If you think this is trite consider this link sent to me by a friend. It’s a cute/tragic post about a five year old boy’s choice of Halloween costume and the absolutely appalling reactions to it. Nerdy Apple Bottom writes in “My Son is Gay”

My son is gay. Or he’s not. I don’t care. He is still my son. And he is 5. And I am his mother. and if  you have a problem with anything mentioned above, I don’t want to know you.”

If you haven’t read this post I suggest you do so now. Read the epilogue too. Her story made me mad, but it also inspired me. I admire and respect her principled and loving stand. If you need any further encouragement to read this post take a look at what she is standing up for:

(I hope that Nerdy Apple Bottom doesn’t mind my reproducing the photo of her son here.)

When did gender stereotyping become an issue for little kids? Why would you want to label a child gay, or use sexuality as a label for a child? One of my sons, when he was three years old, used to stand beside me when I was putting on my make up and practise putting on lipstick. Now that he’s twenty eight perhaps he borrows his wife’s lipstick. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now because he’s always been a funny, loving, delightful, kid, popular with his peers and those around him because he’s so positive and cheerful. My other son used to like wearing pink, he probably still does. He used to collect and play with soft toys. He liked teddy bears. He probably still does. This caring loving kid has become a killer litigator… a label that he’d probably like, but he has lots of other attributes and he’d be just as proud if he were described as a caring socialist.

It’s not particularly helpful to use an occupation as a label either, although in social situations, often the first question people ask is “So, what do you do?”  I’m a lawyer, cleaner, teacher, public servant, secretary, house husband, musician, accountant … only promotes stereotypes. Why do we want to put people in boxes?

I think that labels get in the way of freedom – freedom to choose who we are, to make choices, to be independent and individual. That’s why I prefer to describe myself in terms of the ideals I aspire to. Freedom to choose and to be autonomous are feminist qualities I promote and aspire to, but I wouldn’t call myself a feminist. The idea of loving others as I love myself is one I fervently believe in; it is at the core of christianity but if I call myself a christian I am likely to be grouped with the judgemental, intolerant “christians” of Nerdy Apple Bottom’s church school, the evil, corrupt “Bush fundamentalists” (christian fundamentalist – now there’s an oxymoron!), or the excessively pious self-indulgent preachers who want to pray over me. Not to mention hypocritical religious clergy. (Who deserve a rant in a separate blog)

Even those things that I am passionate about – freedom of speech, human rights, my children, being creative – can only describe part of who I am. I admire the strength and power with which Nerdy Apple Bottom defended her son’s choice. I hope that I have been as good a mother as she is. But I am many things, and I’d rather not be labelled by any of them.

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Who was Maud Blacklidge? Sadly, only the women in my family may remember her. Like many others who risked their families’ and societies disapproval and wrath, Maud was one of many suffragettes in England who are now forgotten, but whose efforts began the fight for women’s right to vote. She is my mother’s mother. I know little of my grandmother’s activities as a suffragette, but she was clearly a strong, stroppy, independent woman who made choices with little regard for what society thought.

I was reminded of her story when I read what a friend wrote in her post Everyday Feminism and Knitting. This struck a chord for me – that feminism is about autonomy, being able to make choices and living with the consequences of those choices.  I have always thought of my very self-sufficient grandmother as a feminist, and this is one reason why I want to share her story.

Not all feminists in the first half of the twentieth century were trailblazing doctors, lawyers or professors, some, like my grandmother, were women struggling to survive.  Being a suffragette was not what made Maud a feminist, although the qualities that motivated her to protest were the same qualities that made her rebel against her family, then become determinedly independent and resilient in hard times.

Born around 1877 my grandmother was from a middle class Yorkshire family. The suffragette movement in England peaked at around 1912, but by then Maud had been banished by her family, turned out for choosing to marry a man the family deemed unsuitable. As it turned out, the family was right, but still, it seems harsh that she and her three children had no contact and no help from them, despite becoming destitute. Maud and her husband must have moved to London because my mother grew up in Isleworth.  She recalls secret visits from Maud’s sister to show off her new clothes. (This must have had a tremendous impact on my mother who always managed to dress elegantly all her life, even when our family was living on almost nothing.) As an aside, Maud’s sister became a mannequin, as models were known then, moved to Paris in the thirties and was never heard from again, presumably a victim of the war.

By the time my mother was eleven or twelve my grandmother was supporting the family. With no social benefits, Maud turned the front room of their rented home into “tea rooms” where working men could buy their midday meal. My mother recalls the business as thriving and that Maud had established good business contacts. She must have been perceived by men as an astute businesswoman because she seemed to have no trouble securing credit, for example from the butcher who supplied her meat. For some reason Maud changed tack, and went into “textiles”. In the morning she would go into the poorer areas of London where the markets were, buy up bundles of fabric, then go to the wealthier areas and sell her fabrics to up-market haberdasheries.

In 1941 my mother accepted a marriage proposal from my father, a New Zealand soldier, and in 1943 sailed to New Zealand on the assisted passage programme. (From what I can make out, the colony was still short of women and the NZ government “bought” them in.) I’m not sure how my grandmother continued to support herself because the few letters I saw from her simply asked after my mother’s welfare. However, she must have done fairly well because she managed to make two trips to New Zealand over the next decade.

The second visit in the fifties must have been an interesting one, because despite being eighty or so, Maud was accused of taking away another woman’s husband. That is, until the accuser confronted my mother and realised that her husband was less than half Maud’s age. The farmer/businessman had been taking Maud around New Zealand, no doubt enjoying her stories and admiring her business acumen. She could not be persuaded to stay in New Zealand, finding it too quiet and having no cities.

There must have been other women like Maud who during the Great Depression had to be both nurturer and provider. The celebration of her story lies, for me, in her utter self sufficiency, and her ability to develop and use entrepreneurial and business skills at a time when English society would have been reluctant to accept this possibility. But then, as my mother admits, Maud was an intimidating woman.

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