It might seem like a fairly simple question: “Are you a feminist?” But the way that politicians have been answering this has been causing a stir lately, and raises further important questions about gender issues and the state of feminism in 2017.

It seems to be becoming the political question of the moment: "Are you a feminist?" And the answers from public figures and politicians are proving rather interesting. You can watch the 2-minute video of MPs being asked by Newshub reporters: Are you a feminist? MPs respond on International Women's Day. The reporters summarise the responses: "Hekia Parata isn't (but kind of is). Gerry Brownlee is. Winston Peters doesn't know. Many MPs didn't know what 'feminism' meant."

Are we all feminists now?

The question of "What is feminism?" is actually what really needs to precede any debate or declaration of who is or isn't a feminist. And on this question, the media and political discussion this week has been wholly inadequate. Virtually every commentator or politician has put forward an extremely narrow or limited definition of what feminism means.

For example, Barry Soper explains: "And for those who're confused as to what the term means, and at Parliament there appears to be a lot of them, it's quite simple. It's a belief that women and men have equal rights and opportunities and are treated as intellectual and social equals" - see: Feminism in the political world.

But even in his own column, Soper reports politicians quite rightly pointing out that there is no monolithic feminism: "The equally loquacious Amy Adams, standing within earshot, was asked the same question on International Women's Day, and bubbled that she considered herself one, although different people have different views on what feminism means, she mused. To her it means women can do anything, have the right to do anything and shouldn't have anyone telling them how to lead their lives."

Rachel Smalley of Newstalk ZB was also certain that the definition was simple and that embraced nearly everyone: "It all comes down to the issue of definition, it seems. Many said it depends how you define feminism. Well, there is only one definition, isn't there? If you believe that both sexes are deserving of the same rights and opportunities in life, you're a feminist. On that basis, I think most people would put their hand up and say "yes, I'm a feminist" wouldn't they?" - see: Are you a feminist? The question many politicians won't answer.

Smalley says the question could simply be re-stated like this: "Do you believe that men and women should have equal opportunities?" She also argued the importance of politicians declaring their feminism, because they're "making decisions and creating policies and helping to steer the course of the country". Furthermore, "Quite why so many of our politicians see that as a potentially politically-damaging question is beyond me."

Writing about this question late last year, David Farrar says "This question is always a trap. If you answer yes then you will be given a long list of ways in which you don't live up to feminist ideals, and if you answer no you will be condemned as not believing in equality" - see: The feminist trap question.


But a bigger problem is still the definition, and on this, Farrar says: "Many people (including myself) define a feminist as someone who believes in equality for women. On that definition around 98% of the population is a feminist, which probably makes it not a particular meaningful definition."

And, there's a question of whether you need to be a feminist to believe in advancing the position of women in society. According to Danyl Mclaughlan, survey evidence suggests that "Most people will say they believe in gender equality but very few people will self-describe themselves as feminist" - see: Feminism!

He quotes a British poll about feminism, in which "women were more likely to identify as feminist, with nine per cent using the label compared to four per cent of men. But men were more supportive generally of equality between the sexes - 86 per cent wanted it for the women in their lives - compared to 74 per cent of women."

Mclauchlan concludes: "I suspect the results are similar for New Zealand, and that National knows this which is why we're having this little sideshow. There's a more general lesson in here for the left, I think, which is that you really want to be talking about values and problems that people understand (equality) rather than abstract intellectual concepts (feminism) that they don't."

Defining feminism

Historically, feminists have used very different definitions of feminist ideology and practice to that being used this week. Such a "feminist-lite" definition, which equates the movement simply with a vague notion of equality, would be entirely disputed.

This is a case made by rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton, who has argued that the "Wellington liberal media elite (WLME)" have a very poor understanding of feminist theory, and "a startling ignorance of their own canonical texts" - see: English and Bennett know feminism better than left (paywalled).

Hooton elaborates: "Feminism has never been about mere equality but emancipation. A hint is in the term "women's liberation." Margaret Fuller wrote in 1843 of women being slaves with chains to break. The movement's goal is surely better described as for women to be free from male domination and violence and be able to live the way they choose, as women. By 1999, Germaine Greer - now shunned by some feminist activists for comments seen as unsympathetic to transgender people - felt it necessary to devote The Whole Woman, her sequel to her 1970 classic The Female Eunuch, to arguing that feminism must not be about mere equal rights."

Similarly, see John Moore's blog post today, The mainstreaming of feminism.

He argues that in New Zealand, feminism "has been collapsed into a set of easily digestible catchphrases and slogans. When everyone is expected to be a feminist now - regardless of one's political views, social position, or general belief system - then the term seems almost meaningless. Liberal feminists have reduced the term to a feel-good identity, and a means for liberal virtual signalling."

Moore argues that there are in fact a variety of different types of feminisms: "Rather than there being a single, easily digestible feminism, there are in fact a range of feminisms - from liberal feminism to socialist feminism, from lesbian feminism to Muslim feminism. And along with this diverse range of feminisms, comes a variety of approaches to political action, organisation and theory."

Of course many feminists will accuse Hooton and Moore of "mansplaining", and challenge their right to contribute to the discussion. In fact, after my column on The state of feminism in 2017.

was published yesterday, leading feminist commentator Lizzie Marvelly (@LizzieMarvelly) tweeted sarcastically: "Oh thank God. A man has taken it upon himself to do a feminist roundup. Whatever would we have done without this? Truly awe-inspiring".

Similarly, "the Aunties"‏ (@whaeapower) responded to the column, saying "all respect Bryce but I'm not sure having a man write abt feminism adds anything to the conversation". For some, such responses will just reinforce arguments I referred in the column about the unhealthy elements of feminism in 2017. And others will see such responses as being yet more "identity politics" in which one's identity is taken as being more important than one's politics, worldview, or contribution to the world.

National Party feminism and track records

Both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister came in for a lot of criticism at the end of last year for their orientation to the feminist label. You can see Jo Moir's news report from the time: Minister for Women Paula Bennett says she's a feminist 'most days' - PM doesn't know what feminism is.

So this week, with International Women's Day happening on Wednesday, there was a renewed discussion of this issue. A blogger on the Spinoff website evaluated Paula Bennett's position, and suggested that she's an improvement on the previous Minister for Women, Louise Upston - see: Even if Paula Bennett is only a part-time feminist, let's call it progress of a kind. It also points out that in Australia, current minister for women, Michaelia Cash, doesn't identify as a feminist, and nor did her predecessor, Julie Bishop, but that another former minister for women, Tony Abbott, was a feminist.

But a much more interesting evaluation and exploration of Bennett's feminism is put forward by Jenna Lynch in the interview and article, The critics are wrong: Paula Bennett is a staunch feminist.

In this, Lynch looks at Bennett's track record. But, of most interest, Bennett explains that there are elements of feminism that she doesn't want to be associated with: "There's some days when there are ones that are just so anti, and man-hating and awful that you think if I'm compared to them that's not who I want to be."

So will Bennett and English's orientation to feminism prove to be a problem for voters? They both say it's about "track records". For example, when the PM was initially asked about his identification last year, he stated: "I don't really mind if people call themselves a feminist or not a feminist... what really counts is what they do."

And on that measure, Bennett suggests her boss is doing well. She says: "Bill English is a good example of someone striving to do better for women. When he was Minister of Finance he had to approve board appointments. He'd receive lists that were mostly, if not entirely, men. Instead of taking the attitude 'that must be all there was out there', that these were the only qualified candidates, he'd send the list back to Treasury and wouldn't consider making appointments until he had women to choose from" - see Bennett's It's 2017. It's time to pay women what they are worth. She notes that, "what do you know, 48 per cent of his board appointments as Finance Minister were women."

Similarly, Matthew Hooton says "on the narrow question... whether or not men and woman should have equal rights - both Mr English and Ms Bennett undoubtedly pass every day. Mr English's cabinet has more women ministers than Ms Clark's."

And, there seem to be plenty of activists in the National Party discussing gender issues. One blogger in particular has some interesting takes on it - Ele Ludemann has recently argued that Feminism doesn't go far enough.

She says: "Feminism and other identity politics too often become a vehicle for other political issues, alienating people who have no argument with the aim of equality but are turned off by the other, usually left-wing, agenda that accompanies them. All identity politics divides by focussing not on what we have in common but on what makes us different. People have the right to equality not because of gender, race, or any other differences but because they are people. Not being a feminist is taken by some of those who are, to be anti-women and anti-equality. That's not necessarily so. Lots of people live good lives and follow Christian principles but don't call themselves Christian. Likewise you can support equality for women without labelling yourself a feminist. I'm in that camp because I don't just support equal rights for women, I support them for everyone."

Ultimately, perhaps the label of "feminism" means very little, or is in fact too problematic to help with an understanding of gender politics and emancipation. It's clear that many of those who call themselves feminists are less than progressive on some gender issues, while those who don't identify as feminists can have a much better track record and political orientation. In this regard, it's well worth reading Tess McClure's excellent attempt "to assess the real-world records of New Zealand's MPs" on gender issues - see: We Checked the Receipts on New Zealand's Self-Proclaimed Feminist Politicians.

She explains: "We've selected just a few hot points regarded as central to the feminist movement: paid parental leave, sex worker rights, abortion and reproductive rights and support for single mothers. It's not a comprehensive record, but we've checked the voting and policy records of MPs to see where they stand. Feminist or not? You can decide."

Finally, this week on International Women's Day, self-declared feminist Mike Hosking discussed feminism on TVNZ's Seven Sharp with co-host Toni Street, Deputy PM Paula Bennett, Kate Hawkesby and Kerre McIvor - see the eight-minute video: What is feminism? Three high profile NZ women have their say on what it means.