Feminism, a word first heard around 1970, has often celebrated breakthroughs only to discover challenges ahead. But this year it begins to feel like women are changing the culture of national life. It is not just that a second generation of New Zealand women has produced a Prime Minister, and that she had a baby this year, and that she has lead a difficult coalition government through its first year without too many mishaps. It has more to do with the fact that women being in positions of power and prominence no longer seems remarkable.
A generation ago, when women became leaders of both main political parties and held the positions of Governor-General and Chief Justice, it was a subject of frequent comment. Now, not so much. We have our third female Prime Minister, our third female Governor-General and second female Chief Justice, and we take it for granted.
Women head half of our government departments, though they are struggling to get similar equal representation at the top of the private sector. But the new challenges for this generation of women are not so much positional as cultural. They are changing some of the ways things are done in workplaces of all kinds and they are pressing for better pay in jobs performed predominantly by women.
They are even changing the culture of sports in which they are involved. This year our top women players of hockey, football and cycling have all forced the removal of male coaches whose manner, tactics or personal behaviour were not acceptable to them.
Women in many countries have drawn inspiration from the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment from men in positions of power or authority. In New Zealand, the outcry has come loudest from law graduates joining the firm Russell McVeagh. The inquiry by Dame Margaret Bazley produced a report this year that will have prompted all firms — not just in law — to ensure those they put in managerial roles treat all staff at all times with respect.
Now the challenge is to extend that lesson to all men in any social situation or relationship with women. It is well past time to do something about the rate of domestic violence in New Zealand. Women's refuges should not be needed in a country such as this. Publicity campaigns that suggest domestic violence is a generalised male problem may be comforting the perpetrators with the idea they are normal or typical Kiwi men. They need to be told they are not typical, that the majority of men find their behaviour unmanly.
Today's young women have one challenge previous generations of feminists did not. The pornography freely available on the internet is probably more damaging to the development of healthy attitudes to women than any such material in the past. Some schools are now looking for ways to counter the unrealistic and false impressions of sexuality that teenage boys are receiving on the web and it is a problem Parliament will need to address.
Women in positions of leadership have much still to do for the wellbeing of women generally and the better functioning of society. But the way they are now taking their rightful share of power and improving the civility and sensitivity of politics and public debate shows what a difference they can make. Women, all women, are our New Zealanders of the year.