Look at us Now. Tirohia Mai. National Library

Posters at Look at us Now

Posters at Look at us Now

Two of the posters on one wall recalling the poster campaign through the 120 year period. The Katherine Mansfield poster on the right claims that behind every great woman is a man who tried to stop her.

Look at us Now. Tirohia Mai is an exhibition about the slow, 120 year, progress in NZ towards gender equality.  On my way back from Wellington on the train after seeing this exhibition and a couple of others, I read an article about the comment made by a BBC commentator on the women’s Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli: that she “was never going to be a looker”.  That, and recent publicity about the need for more female parliamentarians and Board members in NZ as well as the campaign for equal pay, made this exhibition about the progress towards gender equality at the National Library as relevant today as during any of the 150 years it surveys.

The exhibition clearly shows that while the past issues of male ‘ownership’ of women, the lack of a vote and blatant exploitation seem to have been overcome, at least in part, inequality still persists in a huge number of areas.  The fact that NZ has had female Prime Ministers, a Governor General and Chief Justice does not demonstrate a similar change of circumstance for women generally. One of the screen texts displayed says:

Women live in a much wider variety of households, relationships and circumstances than ever before. There are no legal barriers to the choices available to them. But not all women are flourishing. Significant disadvantage is experienced by disabled women, Maori and Pasifika, and those perceived as “not from here”.

 

What struck me, thinking about the evidence of inequality and discontent that was on display, was the invisibility of the problem for males since the inequality is reserved for women.  The visibility of unequal opportunity is often masked by the idea that ‘there are no legal barriers…’ as though legal barriers are responsible and not entrenched attitudes and power structures.  Even if laws no longer provide an obstacle, personal attitudes in relationships or work places often create circumstances for women that would never be experienced by men.  These are often the residue of old attitudes and power relationships that are not yet influenced by any changes to legislation.

Support for young women with children provides a good example of this.  Through a video contemporary witness statement, Bianca Zander says:

The future of the economy depends upon the willingness of each generation to raise children and yet, in 2013, the working world is still, on the whole, incredibly hostile to the needs of women during their child bearing years.

The exhibition consists of a series of fact sheets, posters, memorabilia, photographs and changing video contemporary witness statements.  It explores the progress towards equality for women in New Zealand since they were granted the vote on the 19th September 1893.  Considering the precedent set by that pioneering vote for women it is incredible that women are still disadvantaged by gender.  A time line on one wall details landmark and legislative changes from 1840 to 1960, opposite, a video presentation, recorded this year, gives a range of views from women about their situation currently.  On another wall are a collection of posters, books and other writing that were part of the  campaign to claim equal rights in all areas of life since that 1893 landmark.

One of the many areas of inequality the exhibition covered concerned the rights of the one in six women with disability. It also pointed out that women play a vital role in caring for the disabled – one in six women in paid work also look after someone who is ill or has a disability.  ‘Combining earning with unpaid caring work is still seen as a women’s problem, not men’s’.

This exhibition is well worth seeing, not just for the facts about our gender inequality and the progress towards it, but also to provoke thought and some insight into how social change like this comes about.  Women’s equality is accepted as being right and just, along with the rights of other sectors of society.  That acceptance does not solve the problem.  It is only the beginning of a change which has to be actively claimed.  Exhibitions like this help that change take place.

Union Poster. Equal pay is still not a reality since women currently suffer at  least a 10% disadvantage in wages for comparable work.

Union Poster. Equal pay is still not a reality since women currently suffer at
least a 10% disadvantage in wages for comparable work.

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