Twelve Questions: Dr Gillian Greer

Dr Gillian Greer was named as one of the 100 Most Inspiring People Who Have Delivered for Women and Girls. Other recipients included Hillary Clinton, Oprah and Melinda Gates. Dr Greer leads New Zealand's Volunteer Service Abroad.

Dr Gillian Greer learned early on that life isn't fair.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dr Gillian Greer learned early on that life isn't fair. Photo / Mark Mitchell

1. You used to be the well-known Dr Gillian Boddy: what happened to the name?

I was Gillian Boddy for 22 years after marrying my husband. When I was first introduced to him, I have to say, I didn't hear his surname. I remember my daughter saying to us once, I don't want to be Sarah Boddy. I don't want to be any Boddy. We were divorced after 14 years and are still very good friends and I kept the name, for our children and my professional work. But in 1998, I became chief executive of the Family Planning Association and Dr Boddy seemed a bit much for anyone to take seriously.

2. You're on a list of the 100 Most Influential, as chosen by Women Deliver. Gloria Steinem is on there too. Has feminism changed since her heyday, do you think?

Perhaps, but her belief in "intelligent rage" remains real - not just about feminism but about whatever needs to be changed to make the world a better place. Intelligence is seldom enough on its own and nor is rage but put them together and that's a powerful combination.

3. Describe your childhood.

I was born here but grew up in Malaysia where my father worked in railways and when I was nearly 8, I was sent to boarding school in Auckland. I was the youngest boarder, and used to fly home to Kuala Lumpur in my black watch tartan school uniform with my name on a label around my neck! Malaysia gave me an early sense of life's lack of fairness - I knew my life was very different from those around me. My early years at boarding school taught me to be resilient and to get on with people. My brother died not long before I came back to school and I missed him hugely and somehow felt I had to do well enough for the two of us, to be good enough to stand in his shoes.

4. Did you consider yourself a feminist as a young woman?

No. I worked hard and graduated from Auckland University at 19 but when I married - and this is no criticism of my ex-husband - it was clear that our life was about his career. I stayed home for seven years when my children were small and when I first went back into teaching it took me a term to ask where the staff cloakroom was, that's how much confidence I'd lost. It was reading Katherine Mansfield, especially that sentence: "So often, while you have been working, I want to be working too. How I hate this women who slops around doing the dishes, sweeping the floor and you say to me, 'There's nothing in the house but eggs to eat'." It shows how backward I was that it was from someone back in 1913 saying and feeling these things.

5. What does feminism mean to you now?

I had the privilege of being a keynote speaker at the Australian Women's Health Conference last year. We all came away with the obligatory tea-towel, but this one said, "Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps ... Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety on the streets, for childcare, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women's refuges, reforms in the law." It's a while since Dale Spender said that, but wherever I am those words stay with me.

6. Where did your interest in Katherine Mansfield come from?

I taught at her old school, Wellington Girls College, and needless to say their most famous old girl was compulsory teaching. I began to read her notebooks and journals, then I read them in manuscript which had an amazing immediacy. It was as close as you could get to someone who had died years before.

7. What kind of a modern woman would she have been, do you think?

She would have been an advocate, in film, and in writing, for those women who still face the challenges she and her contemporaries faced, especially accessing contraception, struggling to be seen as equal to their brothers and husbands, to have both voice and choice.

8. Why is the abortion rate so high in New Zealand still, do you think?

First, it's lower than it used to be, certainly if you go back to my time at Family Planning. Secondly, to me it's so wrong that although you can have an abortion in New Zealand legally under certain complicated conditions and processes, it still sits in the Crimes Act which is in direct contradiction of what the World Health Organisation says. Women have to manage their reproductive lives for 35 years sometimes ... things can go wrong, mistakes can be made, other times it's due to violence, lack of knowledge or lack of access.

What's most important is not the number but that women who need to do this are able to have access. Women do not become pregnant by themselves but they are the ones who are judged and have to make that choice.

9. Have there been attempts to have it removed from the Crimes Act?

There have been a few, but unsuccessful. It's such a lightning rod issue, and people think changing that will encourage other changes too. But just that one thing would make such an important difference.

10. What can we learn most from the societies Volunteer Service Abroad works in?

Two volunteers said to me last Friday: "There we were the outsiders, the ones who were different, and we were embraced into that community although they had so little, and we became part of it - in spite of our colour, our culture and our language. We realised that we really are all one people, we all have something valuable to add. If we could somehow bring those worlds together, how different life would be."

11. What's wrong with Western society, in your opinion?

I think we are reluctant to see how much the world has changed - the old binary divides between developed and developing countries, between sectors and classes is disappearing. We have the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen, and we cannot continue to ignore what is unsustainable. We must learn to do things differently, within and between countries.

12. Who has influenced you most?

My mother. She was a brilliant writer and she cared about people. She was the first national publicity officer for CCS (the former Crippled Children's Society) and worked to establish access parking which was a real battle at the time. She met Germaine Greer once and someone said to her "you two must have had a lot in common". I'm not sure that my mother thought they did but in many ways she was a woman who really believed in equality.

- NZ Herald

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