Don?t just stand there, do something

A guest post:

This was my mother’s immortal saying when she got tired of us hovering around looking gormless and unmotivated. She also said it whenever we criticised the government or the ‘system’. If we wanted to grizzle we had to come up with a solution.

Mum herself had very few outside interests while her husband was still alive as her job was to be at home for Dad, and for the kids. She was a great Mum at making party dresses, having a beautiful garden and later on she joined an organisation she believed in passionately ? stopping corporal punishment in school. Not that any of us were strapped or caned, but Dad had major scarring on his hands for speaking Maori at school. Steel inserts in wooden rulers did a lot of damage.

In later years Mum became active in the Labour party as secretary and garden-fair organiser, but she had no impact, or indeed expectation on having an impact, on policy, which was still the male domain.

But we heard the words often: do something. They became embedded in my head.??

In 1975 or thereabouts, when I started to emerge from illness and a broken marriage, I decided to join the Labour party branch in my small town. The branch meeting was announced. It was a cottage meeting, which meant it was at someone?s house, and they really were cottages in those days in the Labour movement. I tremulously knocked on the front door, which was eventually opened by a grizzled older man who looked very surprised to see me there. I stammered that I thought there was a Labour party meeting there and had I come to the right place? ?Yes,? he said, ?come in?, and he ushered me through the small sitting room, which was crammed with men, to the kitchen and told me to make the tea for them all. The tray was set, tea was beside the large teapot and scones were buttered. He left the room and shut the door behind me. I was stunned and horrified and, without further thought, I walked out of the back door, got in my car and drove home. They never contacted me to find out why I disappeared.

Some ten years later I recovered my desire to become involved in politics again and, when attending a Women in Agriculture conference in an open forum, I asked the conference floor whether I should join this very chauvinistic small town branch or go through to the city to become a member of a bigger branch. The conference was mostly National party women but they gave me great feedback. They asked if I wanted to have influence in the group or was interested for social reasons. Influence was my goal; I wanted to make a difference. Join the small branch, was the advice given to me, and the reasons were as valid then as it is today: the bigger the branch the more competition there was for jobs in the branch; that women were just starting to be recognised as important to the Party organisation; and there were more options to become involved. A real gem of advice given was not to become the secretary becasue that was always seen as a demeaning role and always went to a woman to keep her in her place, which was to write down what she was told and not to have ideas of her own.

I took their advice and joined my little local branch. There were about six men present at the ‘cottage meeting’ in what really was a mill-worker’s cottage with a coal-burning oven and a disabled daughter sitting beside the coal scuttle. My timing for involvement was superb. A letter had gone to all branches saying they had to have a woman on their committee. As I was the only woman there, and they had no other female members, I was on the committee before I had even paid my membership fees.

At the same meeting they had received the papers of the women?s conference with the stern warning from the Labour women?s organiser Margaret Wilson that contributions were expected?and that they were to pay the conference fees for a woman rep. So, my first meeting was spent going through remits and explaining to these elderly mill workers what they meant. I also prepared six of my own remits, which they grumblingly sent through to Margaret Wilson. My branch suggested I attend this conference and I was asked if I would chair the workshop on rural policies. I was terrified! I had never even been to a working conference, let alone chaired a workshop. I had never even heard the word workshop before. But, I struggled through it and the workshop voted and passed all my remits. I was then told by the organisers that I had to present these remits to the floor of the conference using an overhead projector. I had never even heard of an OHP let alone seen one and, when they gave me the acetates, I turned them over blankly saying, ?What do I do with these?? I heard a sigh behind me, and someone came forward to show me what I had to do.

I got through all those experiences, and when five out of my six remits were undertaken by the new Labour government I danced with excitement around my sitting room, and bought myself a bottle of wine to celebrate.

I had not just stood there. I had done something! I had made a difference!

As a footnote on the sexism in political parties, it is only 15 years since I attended a National party meeting to meet the new female MPs. The way they were treated by the predominantly male audience was so awful I walked out halfway through the meeting. The National party female MPs became my heroes for what they had to cope with from their own party, let alone from the general public out there in the big harsh world.

Don?t just stand there, do something. That is the beauty of New Zealand. Our social structure makes it possible to make change. But, we have to be prepared to learn how to do it, to stretch ourselves and do things that might seem terrifying. We have to learn how to communicate with the influencers.

And enjoy doing it.


-Frances Denz