I love my job, writes midwife Lucy Kelly. But love can’t make up for a wage I can barely survive on.
On Wednesday the 19th of September we celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa. I found it hard to celebrate. It feels like we’re riding on the wake of a landmark success of women securing the right to vote 125 years ago. It feels like we’re painting ourselves as a liberal, forward thinking country because we secured the vote before any other nation, and we are home to our Labour Party’s two passionate female prime ministers. We’re supposed to be celebrating, but 125 years on it feels like as women, we are stuck in quicksand. Sinking faster than we can move, with an entire government and nation telling us we should be grateful because at least we can vote, and at least 5% of our elected prime ministers have been female, and at least there was that piece of legislation in the 1970s that in theory was supposed to create gender pay equality. Still we are told that we’re asking for too much, to celebrate what we have, to pipe down and be thankful.
This stems in part from the culture in which work for women was first established. In my Catholic education I was taught that my future options were one of three things: a married life, dedicated to my husband; a single life dedicated to my career; or a life in prayer dedicated to God. I was assured I’d know which path to take because God would call me. I can only assume God isn’t smartphone savvy, because I have no idea what my higher purpose in life is, and at this stage I have no issue with my life goals being entirely self serving. I chose to study midwifery because I couldn’t stomach facing the seven years of medical school, because I wanted the autonomy that midwives have, and because there is something beautifully refreshing about men being completely irrelevant to my work.
Turns out men being irrelevant also means that being paid appropriately is irrelevant.
Women are taught over and over again that their work should serve the world around them, and those above them. The western medical system is no exception, it was developed in two models. First, the military model, in which women were drafted as field nurses, and were expected to follow every demand of their male officers and doctors. This is how modern nursing came to exist, with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, training volunteers and nuns to follow the commands of doctors for little recognition, and certainly no pay. The other model in which healthcare exists is the religious one. Not much more than half a century ago most nurses were also nuns; they lived in religious quarters, and if they wanted to pursue marriage they had to leave their profession.
To this day women working in healthcare are expected to play by these two models: to unquestioningly take orders from those higher up, and to love their work so much they do it without need for reward, only so as to serve.
Teachers too, used to be exclusively nuns. An entire social structure of women in the workforce rests on this model, this idea that women are so lucky to be allowed to work, to pursue their passions, and we should be grateful for any remuneration for it – given that apparently the greatest reward of all is just knowing we did a good job.
I love my job. I smile when from time to time somebody I’m caring for refers to me as “sister”, I pour my heart and soul into my work. But none of this can make up for the wage I can barely survive on. Love is not enough when it comes to work, and still the systems in place that dictate the pay for female-led professions fall back on this ancient model. Teaching children, changing wound dressings, birthing babies are all supposed to be acts of selfless love.
These women are the hands that hold your five year old when they’re terrified on their first day of school, who listen to your teenager without hesitation or judgment when they’re struggling with depression or heartbreak. These teachers don’t get paid to do this; they do it because they care.
These women are the skilled hand that will place an IV line when your body is sick, will change your bedding, religiously (so to speak) check your vital signs, call the shots if you begin to deteriorate, hold their hands on a wound to stop bleeding until their fingers are numb. And they’ll suffer sexual harassment from male patients on a near daily basis.
These are the women who birth your children. These are the women who’ll manage an emergency, climb fully clothed into a birthing pool to help a stuck baby be born, whose backs will ache as they patiently help a new mother learn to breastfeed. These women are strong enough to dislodge and birth a child whose shoulders are caught behind the pelvis, with hands gentle enough that they know exactly how carefully to beat the heart of a newborn struggling to survive.
Love is not enough anymore. Serving a God I do not necessarily believe in has never been enough.
In Aotearoa we celebrate as our female prime minister gives birth while in office, the second woman in history to achieve this feat. We see it as symbolic of who we are as a nation: progressive, dedicated to equality. Meanwhile we underpay our women, we have a drinking culture deeply rooted in misogyny, abortion remains in the Crimes Act, and our gender pay gap still exists despite decades-old legislation outlawing it. New Zealand has one of the lowest numbers of women in leadership positions in the world. This is getting worse, not better. In 2004 it was estimated that women made up 31% of senior teams in businesses in New Zealand. Last year this figure had dropped to 20%.
We are going backward, not forward.
The pushback on women’s autonomy is heavy; it sits on our shoulders everyday. This is history repeating itself.
To label women as “greedy” for wanting to be paid appropriately for the work they do is an incredibly tired insult. It’s the same insult thrown at us in the 1970s when the stock market crash resulted in middle income families now needing two wages to be sustainable. Despite the economic necessity of women working, they were called greedy for daring to have children too. It is blindly ignorant to say that the pay issues that exist for nurses and midwives are not because of our gender. There are far fewer male-led professions that have had to march down the main street, picket outside their place of work, strike from their job – and still be denied the pay they deserve.
Women are educated, trained, dedicated. We pour our heart and souls into our work. And we want to be paid enough to survive, to not have to work overtime, to not have to work 70 hour weeks in order to put food on the table and afford to pay rent. We shouldn’t have to justify being paid for the work we do by begging. At this point we should recognise that women working on the front line have tertiary education, a wealth of knowledge and experience, and we depend on them to uphold our country. We want to be paid for that skill and work.
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To frame this desire as greed is shameful, it is tired. I am tired, all women who have been fighting this fight for the last century are tired. Our country cannot and will not continue to grow and thrive on the broken backs of tired women. Something must change, or everything will crumble.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.