Nico Espiner, Emma Espiner, and Colleen Smith. (Image: supplied).

Feminism in the family: Colleen Smith and Emma Espiner on breeding activism

In the fifth part of the new podcast series Venus Envy, Colleen Smith and Emma Espiner discuss raising feminists. 

Like mother, like daughter, Emma Espiner grew up protesting. When other kids had the day off school because teachers were on strike Espiner joined her mum Colleen Smith demonstrating for pay parity.

In this episode of the Venus Envy podcast, made in association with Are We There Yet?, the women’s suffrage and equality exhibition at Auckland Museum, Noelle McCarthy spoke to mum and daughter about raising a child on the front lines of feminism and what the environment was like to grow up in. The pair have been involved in activism together for as long as Espiner can remember. It felt like she grew up at the headquarters of the Wellington feminist movement, the People’s Centre.

“It was so normal that I didn’t think of it as activism. I thought this was what everybody’s family did. There were other kids and we played on the floor (of the People’s Centre) and there was a collection of shared toys. Our parents talked and then we went on marches,” Espiner said.

Smith fought against the the social and systemic discrimination against single mothers. It was in this movement she found belonging and solidarity. As a group they looked after each other and refused to accept the treatment of women by organisations like WINZ.

“The Lower Hutt Women’s Centre was based in the Hutt, and was a drop-in centre for women. It had self-esteem courses, had a library, had councilors, that kind of thing. From the first time I went there, it was the feeling of ‘this feels really good, I feel welcome’, like I belonged somewhere,” said Smith.  

“As part of the first few meetings I attended, what struck me is that they wanted to know about me, not about me as a daughter, or a sister or a mother, they were just really interested in me, and I’d never had that before. I was just hooked.”

Espiner was enveloped in this feminine energy. And it’s had a lasting influence as she raises her own daughter and the way she approaches mothering. Her understanding of the roles of parents has come to define what she wants for women in 2018.

“Choice is a really big thing to me, and that’s choice to do whatever, not dictating what the right choice is. I think there’s a little bit of this going on at the moment among mums, and I think that’s the most intensely scrutinised group of society,” she says.

“In some ways I’m more excited to see Clarke Gayford be a stay at home dad than I am at Jacinda being the prime minister and a mum. If he can push that out more and create more of an environment where more men can feel like they can take that role if they want to, I think that would be really powerful.”

The Venus Envy podcast: Download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcription of the conversation with Colleen Smith and Emma Espiner.

Colleen Smith, and daughter Emma Espiner  at the recording of Venus Envy. (Image: Noelle McCarthy).

Noelle McCarthy: Tell me about DPB Action?

Colleen Smith: The DPB Action was for women that were on the DPB, and it was an activist group that really just protested against benefit cuts and rights for women raising children on their own.

To give the context of this, it would have been around a time of cuts.

CS: I actually looked it up yesterday and in 1984, David Lange and the Labour Government came into power.

So how did you get involved?

CS: I’m not sure, I think someone I knew must’ve just put me onto this group. They were part of poverty action which was an organisation in Wellington called the People’s Centre. DPB action and poverty action were part of that.

What was it like for you Emma, growing up was activism a backdrop in your household?

Emma Espiner: It was so normal that I didn’t think of it as activism. I thought this was what everybody’s family did. I’d forgotten about the People’s Centre until now, but the sorts of social things that we did, now I understand how they were different to what other families did.

Like what, what did you do?

EE: Well we hung out at these community centres, and we talked. There were other kids and we played on the floor and there was a collection of shared toys. Our parents talked and then we went on marches and things like that.

I don’t think I really realised until I was in high school that other people did different things. So that was normal for me, I didn’t think of it as activism.

And how did you feel when you realised your normal was different to others?

EE: Well, you want what people have. I realised we weren’t even close to normal and there was a period of internal struggle about that. Of course you see other kids with nice things, they’re given cars and laptops and things and go on ski holidays and go overseas and all that sort of thing. Fortunately the area we lived in, in Lower Hutt, and the school that I went to was incredibly diverse. No one really stood out for any one thing or type of background.

It was like the best of the Catholic schools, very egalitarian, from what I can remember there were no major extra costs that would make families with less stand out more. The irony of all of that is the things that I probably rejected and struggled with as a teenager have come full circle to define me as an adult and how grateful I am for having that difference.

Was there stigma at the time because of being on the DPB?

CS: Yeah definitely stigma about being a single mum.

How would you see it or feel it?

CS: Any time we’d have to go into WINZ to ask for any sort of allowance that people on benefits were entitled to, but the managers would never let you know what you’re entitled to so you’d have to go back and ask. You’d hear that someone needed some help paying their accommodation so you’d think ‘Oh, I’ll go see if we can get some help with that’. But it’s never forthcoming, it’s always looked down on, going into WINZ.  

Did having the group make things easier?

CS: Yeah, definitely a feeling of solidarity. Not even just in WINZ, but in society and even within my family. It was like I was getting something for nothing.

Really? So the family back in Takaka?

CS: Yup, cause we really come from a mum whose philosophy is that you make your bed and lie in it. You don’t really talk about it or get help with it, you just get on with it.

Was your mum a full time mum when you were growing up and your Dad worked?

CS: Yeah, my dad died when I was twelve. It was interesting last week I was in a team thing and we were asked how many of us grew up in a single parent household, and I actually put up my hand to say that I did, even though I had a dad. For the twelve years I knew him he was an alcoholic and so there hasn’t been any good memories of him.

Mum did bring us up really singlehandedly. Although a few years ago my eldest sister and I we were part of this postmaster’s group and we’d get to give speeches of memories of childhood and stuff, and she did quite a few of my father. Which was really neat because I got to borrow her memories and have them somewhere for myself, so that was an interesting time.

Tell me about feminism and how it came into your orbit as an ‘ism’, rather than just how you were living.

CS: Yes, so that would’ve been when we started getting involved with the Lower Hutt Women’s centre. That was through DP Action, going there and presenting what we were about. The Lower Hutt Women’s Centre was based in the Hutt, and was a drop-in centre for women. It had self-esteem courses, had a library, had councilors, that kind of thing. They still run the same courses. Self esteem, assertiveness, self defence. From the first time I went there, it was the feeling of ‘this feels really good, I feel welcome’, like I belonged somewhere.

As part of the first few meetings I attended, what struck me is that they wanted to know about me, not about me as a daughter, or a sister or a mother, they were just really interested in me, and I’d never had that before. I was just hooked. I did all the courses, became a volunteer for a few years, I was a manager there for a while which was a huge privilege.

You must’ve gotten to see all sorts of women and all sorts of situations.

CS:  Yeah, but there was no really differentiation between the women who had just dropped in, attending the courses or worked there. We were all in the same boat working for the same causes. It was a really cool time.

Do you remember it like that, Emma? Or do you have memories of other times?

EE: Oh yeah, very distinct memories of the women’s centre. I could never tell who was just there visiting or working or who was in charge of what. I have some friendships with some other kids who were a similar age and whose mums were doing similar sorts of things. We had our own little subculture within the centre. We had a slightly different experience, because you do when you’re kids, you always find something to to push against, so we took the piss out of it a little bit.

As we got older and when we discovered boys, and understanding why men weren’t allowed there and finding about why that was, that’s probably where I learnt about a lot of things, the uglier side of things. Women would come in and had experienced abuse and had bad relationships with men. In the magazines they didn’t censor anything for the kids in terms of the reading material that was around and you could pick it this magazine, or broadsheet or whatever and deal with some pretty confronting stuff. Overall, it felt like a really safe environment, quite witchy, you know?

That feminine energy.

EE: And actual witchiness, they did witchy things. Their logo is a witch on a broom.

CS: That’s true. We’d do full moon rituals together every full moon and you know, like candles and incense and have a beautiful centrepiece and someone would read a poem or sing a song and then have a nice meal together. Sounds very tame now, but back then I guessed it seemed a little witchy.

Yeah so you can imagine the response to this, if it became known that the women of the Hutt were gathering together, to celebrate every full moon.

EE: I can’t quite remember what went down but there was always some kind of tension with the neighbours, right?

CS: Yes

EE: They were concerned about the rituals right?

CS: Yes, because we’d have it outside if it was a nice evening and there might be a bit of a fire and dancing around the fire.

But they never complained? Or did they try to shut you down? How was the co-existence?

CS: Yeah, they did. The police were never called though, so we managed it.

What are the demonstrations and marches Emma mentioned?

CS: Yes, we did a lot of the Reclaim the Night marches, women against pornography, that kind of thing. They were a big part of our lives when Emma was young.

Did you march at the Women’s March?

EE: I didn’t, no.

It wouldn’t have been as new for you perhaps as it was for lots of people. You grew up with this.

EE: Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who are discovering their activism maybe later in life. I felt like we did one every other weekend. It would take a lot for me to march these days. I’m more politically active than I ever have been, but I like to think about that question from the election debates when they asked “what would you march for?” and Bill English said “oh I’d march for myself”. Very odd, presaging his defeat I think.

I think about that and Māori Sovereignty is the thing that would probably get me into the streets again. That’s not because I don’t care about some of those bigger global issues, and the people I know that were at the Women’s March in the States said it was an incredible feeling. I know people that held organised marches against Trump’s policies last week, but I guess I’m more engaged in local issues, and making a difference in that sort of sense.

I think there are some convenient things that you can jump on like hating on Trump, cause he’s a great villain, but here in New Zealand we’ve not always been great about looking after our children either. So I would march for local things I think. That’s why I don’t really tend to do those big local protests.

Emma protesting for pay parity for teachers, 24 years ago. (Image: supplied)

How does your cultural background intersect with your feminism?

EE: More and more, I think. I’m very conscious of that and I have a lot of role models that I look to when I’m thinking about feminist issues and making sure that I’m checking in with the Māori side of things.

And I should say, your dad’s Māori.

EE: Yeah, but most of what I’ve learnt has been through mentors later in life. It’s difficult because issues aren’t the same for all women. There are different issues for Pākehā women versus Māori women, versus recent immigrant women.

I think in the past women of colour have had their issues kind of swept up in these global movements. The rise of corporate feminism with a ‘lean in’ type Sheryl Sandberg approach, which doesn’t account for the lived experiences of women who don’t earn a lot of money, or are marginalised in other ways. It’s really intertwined and it’s the check that I have all the time about why am I doing this and who am I doing it for?

What was the cultural makeup of the Women’s Centre? Was it mostly Pākehā women?

CS: Yeah, mostly Pākehā women. We talked about holding space for Māori women if they ever wanted to come but we felt that we weren’t a bi-cultural organisation, we were a Pākehā organisation so of course what we had to offer was for everyone, but it was for Māori women to come if they wanted to.

So the onus was on them to reach out to you?

CS: Yeah, yeah.

Is that still the same now, do you know?

CS: Pretty much. There is a Māori Caucus now, this is how many years later?

20 years later?

CS: Yeah, so they’re just a small group. It is a growing thing.

EE: But I think that’s really important to acknowledge, that we are Pākehā and that’s what we’re doing and that’s something we have to offer rather than bolt on, ‘we’ll get a thing over here, then we’ll be able to say we’re bi-cultural’.

I think that’s where some of the damage has been done, where you have allies saying “oh yup we’re gonna do it, I’m gonna do a course on tikanga and then I’ll be able offer culturally safe services for Māori. The reality is, like you said, that you create a space and then we come and fill it or you just support–

– other spaces.

EE: –Yeah, and support what they want to do in their own places.

CS: We would support if the local marae were doing anything, we would support and we would get invited, and have a stand and do that kind of thing.

So there was a lot of grassroots stuff, from the sounds of it?

CS: Yeah it was totally grassroots, yup.

You’re studying medicine, Emma. There wouldn’t be a lot of people in your class with the same background as you, is that a fair assumption?

EE: No one in the world has the same background as me! I have a very confusing looking CV. It’s nice now when I’m in my clinical part of training in hospital placements, that finally it serves a purpose and generally I can find something to connect with people about. My heart actually goes out to the students that have come straight out of school. You’re armed with so little to be able to connect with people when you haven’t experienced anything, and that’s particularly true with patients, but also with teachers and the hospital environment.

My default is always politics, because 9 out of 10 people have a view on politics so if you say “Oh I worked in politics” then they’ll go away with whatever their thing is. I was thinking about this on the way here, it’s the first step towards whakawhanaungatanga, relationship building, if you can offer something or give something for someone to latch onto and say “oh yup, I can connect with that thing as well”.

It’s been an advantage. Obviously I’d like to have decided that this is what I wanted to do a bit earlier so I’d have a few more years at the other end to practice, but it’s mostly been an advantage. And no, there aren’t many people with my specific background. But you do find the outliers, you do find some really cool people that have done fine arts, there’s a few artists and people who have done interesting and unusual things and you gravitate towards them because it is unusual.

Did you pick Emma for a medic in the making?

CS: Well, I’m not surprised Noelle. Emma hasn’t changed since she was about Nico’s [Emma’s daughter] age, and I just always knew that she could do whatever she wanted to and here she is doing it. That’s what she’s always done.

One of the subtitles for this series is “what women really want” and so far it’s gone through pay equity, safety, basic safety. Respect has been something that I didn’t expect to come up as much as it had. I didn’t think about disrespect and how it’s experienced. Have your wants and needs changed, Colleen, over time in New Zealand?

CS: I don’t think so, Noelle. There’s a poster that we had at the Women’s Centre: “Until all of us are free, none of us are”, and I still have that. I’m still striving and working for that. Our feminism was never about putting men down, it was about raising women and children, and lifting them up. That’s for all people, working for that freedom.

Why do you include children specifically?

CS: Because they’re, as a group, the most abused sexually and domestically. New Zealand’s domestic violence stats, youth suicide stats are shameful. We’ve got a lot of work to still do in those areas. I think they’ve increased, those stats over the years, rather than decreased.

What’s the biggest change? Have you seen things that 20 years ago you might’ve wanted to change that are no longer an issue?

CS: Yeah for sure, things like gay marriage. Twenty or 30 years ago it would’ve been hard to visualise the Homosexual Law Reform act.

Were gay rights a large part of the Lower Hutt Women’s Centre?

CS: Yeah, definitely. Just really the freedom for any women to be who she was, no matter if that was a mum at home or a working mum or a lesbian mum. Whatever she chose for herself.

Would you have seen attitudes around sexuality evolving in New Zealand?

CS: Yes, yes and no. I think similar to the racism, maybe it’s not so overt nowadays but it’s still there just under the surface. You just have to scratch a bit and it comes out.

Would there have been many lesbians or gay men in Takaka when you were growing up?

CS: I don’t think I ever knew the word. Lesbian might’ve just come into my consciousness in my later years at school, but I didn’t really know what it meant.

So was it Wellington where you learnt–

CS: Yes, that’s where my awareness grew exponentially.

What was that like?

CS: Oh it was fantastic, I loved it! I love diversity and it was just so energising and engaging, I really enjoyed it. That’s why I love Auckland too. The diversity of people and being able to be anonymous within that when I choose.

What about you Emma, what do you want?

EE: Yeah, similar to Mum. I’ve talked before about her values and moral compass on this stuff. It’s really important to me, lifting everyone up. Choice is a really big thing to me, and that’s choice to do whatever, not dictating what the right choice is.

I think there’s a little bit of this going on at the moment among mums, and I think that’s the most intensely scrutinised group of society. You can guarantee you and I are doing something wrong right now by being here, that’s just how it’s seen. We can be cruel to each other, and some of the mum groups on Facebook, picking over some people’s decisions, who’s at home, who’s at work, and all that.

I just want acceptance of everyone’s freedom of choice. And I think that, more and more, that will apply to men as well. We’ve seen a real surge in ‘women can do whatever they want’ and ‘girls can do whatever they want’, but there hasn’t been a mirrored movement for men to wear dresses or stay at home. In some ways I’m more excited to see Clarke Gayford be a stay at home dad than I am at Jacinda being the prime minister and a mum. If he can push that out more and create more of an environment where more men can feel like they can take that role if they want to, I think that would be really powerful.

Jacinda Ardern (L) joins thousands of people marching up Queen Street on January 21, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. The marches in New Zealand were organised to show solidarity with those marching on Washington DC and around the world in defense of women’s rights and human rights. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

You mentioned ‘mumming’ – the difference Colleen, of you bringing Emma up 30 years ago and the involvement you have with Nico. What are the biggest shifts you’ve seen around parenting or around attitudes to parenting in New Zealand? Or is it just easier and nicer and cruisier being a grandparent full stop?

CS: It’s so good being a grandparent. Nico’s the light of my life. To be honest, I found it hard being a young mum, or being a mum with a young child. It’s not easy those first five years, and so I think what I’ve noticed is that I’ve really admired the way that Emma and Guyon parent Nico. They’re really just loving and supportive with each other and that’s been quite a healing experience, because I didn’t have that with my dad. So to see an involved, loving father and partner to Emma has been a real treat for me.

What was it like finding out you were having a girl?

EE: Oh it was a dream, it was magical. We would’ve loved to have a little boy, but I’ve always seen myself as a mother of a daughter. I don’t know whether that was because we had a very female-heavy upbringing, but that dynamic means a lot to me.

And you Colleen, being a mum to a daughter specifically?

CS: We had a good time, we had a really good time. I feel like we grew up together. My partner during most of Emma’s growing up time before she left home for university was a woman, and we had a really good life together.

I need to hear about the first period party… I need to hear about this, because this was a red letter day!

EE: I think you guys had more fun than I did, I was sort of blocked out.

CS: So different from when I got my first period. I remember going to the toilet and seeing this thing in my undies, and being nervous about going to mum and going “oh mum I think I’ve got my period” and she said “no ya haven’t, can’t be.” So I go back and check and I thought I was dying.

Then you get these terrible pads and things to wear back in those days, and every month having to ask mum for money to buy these things was a real stress, because they were expensive and she didn’t have money for extras. She was still using rags at that time.

I guess some friends had thrown a menstrual party for their daughters and I jumped on that because I thought it was such a positive thing to do for Emma. One of the cool things about the Women’s Centre is we had lots of rituals for different things, and the marking of time, which I really loved.

I’m not sure if this was the menstrual party or another thing you did with Linda Wood where you all sat on a red cloth?

EE: Oh god, I’ve blocked that one out completely…

CS: Do you not remember that one?

Take a drink of water, take drink of water.

CS: Yeah, the menstrual party must’ve just been at home…

EE: Yeah it was, I do remember it.

CS: …we invited friends around.

So everyone came over. What happened then?

CS: Just the Women’s Centre friends.

EE: Yeah, obviously. You know what it’s like being a teenager, especially a teenage girl. You’re kind of fascinated and repulsed and you don’t even want to go there and be the focus of the party. The women are loving it and reading things to you and bringing you gifts and reusable cloth pads. It’s a great story to tell now, no lasting damage. I had forgotten about sitting on the red cloth.

CS: Yeah that must’ve been something else.

Were a lot of those ideas around rituals and around consciousness raising in general, was that coming in from America? I remember reading Gloria Steinem’s book and she was talking about a lot of similar ideas and groups and gatherings.

EE: And the circles eh, women’s circles.

CS: Yeah, that’s right. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it felt like more of an organic thing that happened when a group of women come together and talked about issues. I’m sure we were influenced by women like Gloria Steinem.

It’s funny Emma, one of the things that I really like about you is how you make Twitter fun and, caring is the wrong the word, but it’s a sort of shared space. I’m starting to see now where that comes from. Do you think that digital space is your version?

EE: Yeah, that’s an interesting point actually. Intolerance isn’t the right word, I kind of get the shits with the word tolerance, because I think that’s a really low bar to ‘tolerate’ others. Mum has always had a way of engaging with any type of person, regardless of what their views are. She’s always heard people’s stories, and makes her mind up for herself, and that’s something I really like and try to do, whatever my political views are. I’ll always listen to someone regardless of where they come from, no matter what side of the fence we’re on.

I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on good ideas, and I like being able to do that on Twitter especially because it seems resistant to that kind of thing, it’s very easy to be tribal and get into your groups on Twitter and I like challenging that a bit. It’s nice to hear that I’m sometimes successful and sometimes I’m not, cause it’s Twitter. I’m just endlessly fascinated by people, which I think you are too, and there’s always something to be interested in with other people.

CS: Yeah I think that we both get that from Mum, she was very like that too.

What about money? Do you talk about money, do you have money styles that you inherited from each other? Is this something in particular that women find difficult to talk about?

EE: I had to apologise to Mum after my first media appearances where I said she was financially illiterate, and I’m sorry for that, again.

CS: Accepted.

EE: But we didn’t really talk about money growing up and we didn’t have a lot. We weren’t probably smart with it and I’m still not very good with it. I think financial literacy is something that should be added into the suite of women’s empowerment-type courses. I mean a lot of men don’t know anything about money either but I think it is a particularly female thing to not engage with it. Or it has been.

CS: Yeah, I think that for me, for all us kids, as soon as we could earn pocket money, we did. So we always had our own money and knew that if we wanted to buy something new, we had to save up for it and buy it. So I had that instilled pretty young. As an adult I got married young and was dependent on Emma’s dad financially. I wasn’t in a good position when we separated. Then when I got into my next relationship I depended on them financially as well, so when that broke down I wasn’t in a good financial position. Financial literacy is crucial for all kids from early age.

It can be awkward when it intersects with parents or when it intersects with careers and asking for a raise or asking for more money. When you finish your studies, Emma you’ll be a doctor, and presumably there’s a degree of financial security that comes with that, but getting there obviously you have to plan and study for a while.

EE: I earned a lot quite young entirely by accident so I ended up in a career. I stumbled into something that was quite lucrative and so I never valued it and I just spent it. I have nothing to show for my twenties, if I never married who I did, I wouldn’t be in a position where I own my own home. I think that’s true for a lot of my peers. Some of them got their shit together a bit earlier or had that literacy from a bit earlier, but they always had parent’s help. So I’ve always had money, but never really known what to do with it in a longer term way. It was a really good exercise for us as a household – my husband might disagree – going down to one salary and having Nico as well and thinking right, what’s the legacy for her and handing something over to her and making sure she’s set up. That’s probably been the thing that’s shifted my thinking the most. Actually having an exorbitant mortgage and looking at it decreasing in such tiny increments, I’ve had to come to terms with what interest actually means, in my thirties.

It must’ve been an issue at the Women’s Centre as well, because lack of income security is often one of the reasons why women stay in violent or just sad or unhappy relationships

CS: That’s right, because they haven’t got the resources to get to get themselves out, for sure.

Would women talk about money in that way, were you up against it?

CS: I can’t remember financial literacy being a big topic of discussion, and I think because most of us were just surviving day to day, or if women were in violent relationships or suffered sexual abuse, financial literacy was more down the track a bit.

You mentioned ‘mumming’ and doing it right, and being judged for it, what’s your relationship with guilt, Emma, do you feel much guilt around any aspects of parenting?

EE: No I don’t feel any, and I always feel a bit strange when I say that because you’re meant to. But I’ve always been someone who’s been in my own decisions 100%. Everything we decided to do with Nico was – okay, this is the best thing for her and the best thing for us and then just kind of leave it there.

I did have a few moments recently that were externally guilt inducing, and that was just some stuff around daycare and not being able to attend a couple of things, and the expectation that was built up and the children, and all parents would attend this thing and I couldn’t go. She wouldn’t have even expected me to go if the expectation hadn’t been set. So, I’m still susceptible to that. As far as the decisions are made that she’s in care full time, both Guyon and I working and studying. It’s the best thing for all of us. That’s a powerful alleviator of guilt.

Any regrets in the mum/daughter relationship?

EE: Oh probably being an awful teenager, I mean I know you’re kind of allowed some licenses when you’re a teenager, but I was unjustifiably awful to you. You haven’t held it against me though…

CS: No, no.

The question of the exhibition coming up at the Auckland Museum is ‘Are we there yet? Women and equality in Aotearoa, New Zealand’. What would your answer to that be? Do you think we’re there yet and what do you think of the question?

CS: I think, to be honest, how can we even ask that, with sexual abuse, rape, our youth suicide rates or just suicide rates in general in New Zealand, domestic violence rates. I don’t think that’s the question that we should be asking.

EE: And I was thinking about something that Papaarangi Reid, who is one of our leaders in Māori health at Auckland University said, she was talking about equity as a goal and she said that equity as a goal was only something to strive for if there have been inequities and injustices in the system around us, and that sovereignties should be the goal. So that’s how I’m thinking about these sorts of questions as well.

Do you mean self-determination?

EE: Yeah, yup.

One more question, sexiness? – Why are you shaking your head?

EE: Because, I’ve had VERY frustrating conversations about this sort of thing with my mother and father

Have you? Oh good!

CS: What are you thinking of?

EE: When I asked you what it meant to feel ‘beautiful’, and you just wouldn’t say what I wanted you to say!

CS: What did I say?

EE: I think I was trying to get you to wear makeup for the wedding or something like that. We were talking about beauty and her concept of beauty didn’t align with mine, which is physical, as well as other stuff, but let’s start with a great outfit and some lippy and stuff. She would say “oh ya know, I feel beautiful when I’m with my friends, or when it’s a nice day…” So you can guarantee that sexiness is gonna be a real issue.

What do you reckon Colleen? Is she right?

CS: What comes to my mind is I was really conscious when Emma was growing up not to comment on her body shape, size, what she wore, anything like that because I had that growing up and learnt about the effects of this at the Women’s Centre. I was really conscious not to do that to Emma. There was one day when you might’ve been 13 or so, you were going off somewhere and you had a pink t-shirt on, and might’ve had a playboy logo and had ‘sex’ written on it. That was the breaking point for me. You are NOT leaving the house with that t-shirt on.

EE: Oh I don’t remember that, I’ve blocked that out as well. I’ve got quite a selective amnesia of my childhood. I did those things specifically to annoy you. I got, and it was definitely copyright infringement, I got a playboy bunny printed on things specifically.

How to wind up your feminist mother! Was it like red rag to a bull?

CS: Yeah, it was. Pink t-shirt with ‘sex kitten’ and a Playboy bunny.

What ever happened to that t-shirt?

EE: I dunno…


This content is brought to you by the Auckland Museum. On now, Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa celebrates the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa – but asks how far has New Zealand really come since women gained the vote? On display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum until Wednesday 31 October.

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