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Even if Paula Bennett is only a part-time feminist, let’s call it progress of a kind

New Zealand’s new minister for women has explained why she described herself as a feminist ‘most days’, prompting fresh criticism. But one thing is sure: she is an upgrade on the last effort.

Paula Bennett, deputy PM and minister for women, this week spoke out robustly and laudably on pay equality and domestic violence.

She also, as Newshub had it, “hit back at feminist critics“, who had been unimpressed by her remarks, shortly after being appointed minister for women last year, on the question of whether she is a feminist. She said then:

“Most days. There’s some days when I don’t really think about it and I’m getting on and being busy but I still get a bit worked up about some of the unfairness that I see.”

She elaborated yesterday:

“The truth is I am every day. But there’s just some days when you’re getting on with life. And there’s some days when there’s [feminists] who are so anti and man hating and awful, that you think if I’m compared to them, that’s not who I want to be.”

From left, ministers for women Louise Upston, Tony Abbott, Paula Bennett

It is tempting to wonder just how many days the minister for women is happy to be described as a politician, when you consider the way many of them behave all week, but let us count the blessings of a minister for women who is at least OK with being a feminist most of the time.

Because here it Bennett’s immediate predecessor as minister for women, Louise Upston:

“I’ve never called myself a feminist. I’m not interested in being a flag-waver.”

And Louise Upston, then minister for women, on “old fashioned chivalry”:

“I’m quite comfortable with it, and I think that’s probably why a real feminist wouldn’t call me a feminist.”

And Louise Upston, then minister for women, on the fiasco around the NZ Rugby inquiry into the Chiefs rugby players and their behaviour towards strippers, which was condemned by Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue and the Council of Women and many more:

No comment. “Entirely a matter” for the Rugby Union.

(Paula Bennett, by contrast, condemned the Chiefs’ behaviour.)

And Louise Upston, the minister for women, on John Key repeatedly pulling a waitress’s ponytail, which was rebuked by Jackie Blue, the Council of Women and many more:

As the prime minister has said his actions were intended to be light-hearted. It was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable. He said that in hindsight it wasn’t appropriate, and that is why he apologised.”

At least, on the feminism thing, our ministers for women aren’t alone. The prime minister, Bill English, recently said he’s not a feminist. And so did former Australian minister for women, Julie Bishop: “I don’t find the need to self-describe in that way,” she explained in 2014. Their current minister for women, Michaelia Cash, doesn’t want to be called a feminist either.

An earlier Australian women’s minister did, however, identify as a feminist. Who was that? Minister for women Tony Abbott.


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