As of late March, New Zealand has made history around the world as one of the first nations to offer a paid leave of three days to workers who have experienced miscarriages or stillborns. This law is a significant win for women’s rights, as it destigmatizes miscarriages and offers state support. Labor Party MP Ginny Andersen, who initiated the bill, says, “the passing of this bill shows that once again, New Zealand is leading the way for progressive and compassionate legislation, becoming only the second country in the world to provide leave for miscarriage and stillbirth.”
With New Zealand being championed worldwide as a leading agent of change, it is important to note that New Zealand is not the first to provide paid miscarriage leave. In fact, many nations such as India, the Philippines, Uganda, South Africa, South Korea, Colombia, China, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Indonesia, to name a few, have had variations of this law for decades. A Google search of “countries with paid miscarriage leave” yields hundreds of articles about New Zealand, with only several mentioning India—the first country to offer paid miscarriage as early as 1961.
Moreover, Western media never comments on New Zealand being the first Western nation to catch up to existing Latin American, African, and Asian legislation. Instead, the media tends to depict Western nations as benchmarks of human rights discourse, especially regarding women’s rights. New Zealand, in particular, being the first country to earn women the right to vote in 1893, receives global attention for its progressive leadership. While the West has accomplished many progressive advancements for women’s rights, it is imperative to contextualize these advances through the lens of colonialism and western imperialism and identify how these systems can manifest within Western feminism.
To unpack the various dynamics at play, the feminist framework of intersectionality demonstrates the need for multi-faceted analysis in women’s liberation. Intersectionality theory was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and describes how multiple sources of oppression (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, etc.) often disadvantage people and do not always exist independently. Rather, these identity markers “overlap” and create unique webs of oppression between patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. This theory revolutionized American feminism, which overlooked the plights of women of colour, queer women, and working-class women under the assumption that all women shared the same issues.
Oftentimes, in the advancement of women’s rights, laws either negatively impact or completely disregard non-privileged women. For example, the most quintessential “second-wave” feminist writing of the 1950s in the U.S. was “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, who lamented the confinement of women in the domestic sphere. Non-privileged women couldn’t relate to Friedan’s writing, as they had no option but to work to keep their households afloat. When the feminist advances of the 1960s contributed to (mostly white) women joining the workforce, it was only made possible by non-privileged women; these women took on the child-rearing and home maintenance of privileged women and, ironically, were now confined to the home. Many “advances” only applied to elite white women, and were typically at the expense of the rights and freedoms of non-privileged women. Hence, demonstrating the need for intersectional feminism.
The Relationship Between Colonialism and Feminism
We commonly celebrate the West as leaders in women’s advancements, such as the right to vote. However, in most settler-colonial nations, women of colour—specifically Indigenous women—did not win suffrage until decades after white women. In New Zealand, or Aotearoa, the country’s Māori name, Māori women stood alongside white women to support suffrage through the Christian Temperance Union while also fighting for inclusion in the Māori parliament. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, a well-known Māori suffragette, submitted a motion to the Kotahitanga Parliament that gave women the right to vote and allowed women to stand in parliament – a right not extended to women in Aotearoa until 1919.
Mangakāhia explains that before colonization, Māori women were landowners and leaders and played essential roles in the collective well-being. In the Māori language, the use of gender-neutral pronouns suggests that there was no gender hierarchy; women were viewed as “whare tangata, the house of humanity.” Their roles as mothers were not confining because of cultural practices of collective caregiving, which allowed women to perform a wide range of roles, including leadership positions. Rose Pere, a teacher known among the Māori as “Indigenous Grandmother,” explained that prior to Christianity and colonialism, her Māori ancestors were “extremely liberated” compared to her English ancestors. Within colonial projects, it was important to assert patriarchal norms and roles onto Indigenous women who, prior to contact, were matriarchal and equally as valued as their male counterparts. Ensuring that they would become second-class citizens meant that they would not have the socio-economic or political power to resist colonization.
According to Annie Mikaere, a Māori scholar, “the concept of women as leaders/spokespersons for their tribes was unfathomable for settlers, they could only conceive of dealing with men… They were the ones with whom the colonisers negotiated, traded and treatied.” As a result, there were only 17 female signatures on the Treaty of Waitangi, reaffirming a colonial narrative that women belonged outside of politics. The effects of colonialism on Māori women are still apparent, as it wasn’t until 1949 that a Māori woman won a seat in parliament.
Today, New Zealand’s parliament has the most proportionate representation of male to female members with 48 women to 72 men. Yet, Māori journalist Kahu Kutia writes, “being a female politician in Aotearoa is still so hard.” Māori women directly contributed to the historical suffrage movement as an attempt to decolonize their lives and to “return [them] the democratic power [they] always had.” Despite their efforts, the Māori still fight for representation in office, still experience denial of economic and political self-determination, and still regularly protest against ongoing colonialism.
The Limitations of Western Feminism
Re-visiting the history of Māori women demonstrates how the elite and privileged women achieved suffrage from the labour and organization of Indigenous women who are still fighting for their rights. The framing of women’s rights discourse from the West obscures how colonial nation-states ripped away traditional rights from Indigenous women through colonization. Instead, discourse and media focuses on how “progressive,” “civilized,” and “democratic” the West is, whose superior status was essentially financed by the labour of Black and Indigenous peoples.
It is crucial to be vigilant of the ways Western imperialism can proliferate in feminism. Although Western intervention may appear on the surface to be in good faith, Erica West, a socialist activist, writes, “the political rights, health care, and education of women in the Global South (or lack thereof) are mentioned by politicians and activists, often followed by lamenting how far we’ve come (in the West), and how much further we have to go (everywhere else).” This saviour rhetoric encourages acting on behalf of women who are believed to be needing to be “rescued” from their cultures. Not only are we “assuming a position of authority over those women,” but there is also an underlying implication that their cultures are inferior. When feminists assert that certain cultures are more “developed” in terms of women’s liberation, despite their benevolent intentions, it reaffirms Western imperial ideologies.
In 2018, the world celebrated New Zealand for creating the “world’s first paid domestic violence leave,” meanwhile, the Philippines granted this leave back in 2004. Not only are Western advances frequently over-reported, reports typically use self-righteous language such as Jacinda Ardern’s comment, “I can only hope that while we may be one of the first, we will not be one of the last, and that other countries will begin to legislate for a compassionate and fair leave system.” Although it may be unintentional, using this type of language coupled with the media’s exaggeration of Western superiority frames the West as the “saviour of the world.” Further, when Western media patronizes recovering nations, such as the IrishTimes article subtitled, “behind the times: what countries are still playing catch up?” it re-affirms the narrative that Western nations are superior and actively ignores the West’s role in global exploitation.
Women’s liberation is a complex issue that requires multi-level analysis that accounts for the different power dynamics that shape women’s lives. Leah Whiu, a Māori scholar, echoes this sentiment as she explains, “I can’t ignore patriarchy in my struggle. Yet you ignore the ‘color’ of patriarchy, and in doing so, you ignore me.” Until women’s liberation includes every woman, we must continue to dismantle these generational, violent systems. Plus, it is important to remember that many women’s socio-economic and political struggles are not solely based on culture or religion, rather because of the global system of racialized and gendered capitalism.
Western feminists must be mindful of the role that the West, including its women, has played in the oppression of women around the globe. The false narrative of the West “overcoming” the patriarchy, which now is focusing its efforts on the “Global South,” erases the ongoing struggles of non-white women who have yet to be “liberated,” such as Māori women in New Zealand. We can celebrate women’s accomplishments worldwide and still remain critical of who tends to be centered in the movement versus who is routinely left out. Further, it is not anti-feminist to hold privileged women accountable for being complicit in other systems of oppression.
As Audre Lorde has famously said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”