Fifty Years a Feminist: Sue Kedgley reveals the book that completely changed her life

In her new book, Fifty Years a Feminist, former Green Party MP Sue Kedgley reveals how she first learnt about the meaning of feminism and began to take action 50 years ago.

I was in transit at Brisbane Airport, browsing in the airport bookshop, when I spotted the book that would change my life: Sisterhood is Powerful: An anthology of writings from the women’s liberation movement, edited by Robin Morgan.

A red clenched fist inside the female symbol was on the cover. I began reading it as soon as I got to Auckland, where I was staying with Sharyn Cederman in her Newmarket flat.

Sharyn had graduated from Victoria with a BA in commerce and administration, and was one of the first women to work in the short-term money market. She was incredibly well-organised, energetic and efficient, and had already been promoted to the position of assistant manager at a merchant bank, where she had discovered that, at age 24, she couldn’t progress any further in her job because women were not allowed to become managers in a bank.

We spent hours poring over Sisterhood Is Powerful, discussing its ideas and relating it to our everyday lives. As I was reading through it I had an epiphany, or what is called a “feminist click”, a light-bulb moment when it suddenly struck me that everything in our society revolved around men, and that women were simply expected to be a sort of servant class to the male population.

It was a bit like a slave who suddenly wakes up and asks, “Why am I a slave?” It occurred to me that women were indeed like domestic slaves to the male population. We were conditioned, or rather conned, into believing that we were inferior to men and that the only way we could be fulfilled as women was to marry and spend the rest of our lives looking after men, exchanging our sexual and domestic services for their financial support.

After this, I began to see sexism everywhere I looked, and things that had once seemed normal and acceptable now seemed abnormal and unjust. Why were girls brought up to believe we were lesser beings than boys and men and that our role in life was to be subservient to men? Why were we expected to do all the work in the home, for nothing?

Why were we paid around half as much as men? Why were we defined by our relationships with men and expected to give up our names when we married? Why were girls brought up to be girls and boys to be boys, as if they were two different kinds of people?

I then began to notice, for the first time, that New Zealand was a patriarchy. Men held every position of power, prestige and authority, and women were a sort of invisible, powerless underclass who were shut out of public life. Men controlled the media, the professions, the trade unions, the economy, the banks and all the political institutions that governed New Zealand.

There were only two women in Parliament, no women in Cabinet, and no female magistrates or judges. In fact, there were hardly any women in senior positions anywhere in New Zealand. You never saw a woman reading the news on television or commenting on it, and women were excluded from numerous occupations. In the official census, men were described as the head of the house, while housewives and mothers were classed as “dependants”.

I still have a tatty, dog-eared copy of Sisterhood Is Powerful. Rereading it now, it’s hard to explain why it had such an impact on me. It wasn’t even particularly well-written, but it made sense of a lot of the things I had previously taken for granted – such as the way girls were brought up to believe that being leered at, sexually molested or raped by men was a normal and almost inevitable part of our lives, something to put up with and keep quiet about.

It also made sense of many of my past experiences: the way I was expected to run around like a Girl Friday at Checkpoint (the current affairs TV show I worked for) for men who were no more qualified than I was; the way I was told women didn’t have enough “authority” or credibility to be reporters or presenters at Radio New Zealand; the way men at Victoria University, who were so concerned about the fate of the Vietnamese, were only too happy to denigrate and sexually molest women.

Sharyn and I were particularly fascinated by a chapter about “the politics of orgasm”, which claimed that Freud and other men had created the myth that women onlyexperienced vaginal, rather than clitoral, orgasms as a way of keeping them sexually subservient to men. This was riveting stuff. I had barely heard of the word “clitoris”, let alone the myth of the vaginal orgasm, and I had certainly never seen this discussed openly and provocatively before.

We then got hold of and devoured other influential feminist texts, such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics.

Black and white photo of Germaine Greer in Auckland with Anne Gilbert, Sue Kedley and Ngahuia Volkerling
Germaine Greer arriving at Auckland airport, where she was greeted by Anne Gilbert, Sue and Ngahuia Volkerling, who was dressed as a Halloween witch.

These also seemed to speak directly to us, even though they were written by women living on the other side of the world, in different societies and cultures. We were particularly taken with Kate Millett’s analysis that our society, like all other historical civilisations, was a patriarchy which had institutionalised men’s power and control over women; and by the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s claim, in The Dialectic of Sex, that women’s oppression is the oldest system of oppression in the world.

A red hand clenched in a fist set in a feminist symbol

After this I set out, with messianic fervour, to find a women’s liberation group that I could join. I made my way to the clubs office in the Student Union building at the University of Auckland and asked whether there was a women’s liberation group on campus. Someone suggested asking at the student newspaper, Craccum, and I was introduced to its editor, Stephen Chan. Stephen was an unusual looking, softly spoken man with long black hair down to his hips. The day I met him he was wearing jeans but nothing on top. He confirmed that there was no women’s liberation group on campus and told me how to go about starting one. He also suggested I write a few articles about women’s liberation for Craccum, and I soon became a regular columnist.

Black and white photo of Sue Kedgley and Caterina De Nave with a placard at a Hay Liberation Protest in Albert Park
Sue and Caterina De Nave, wearing a placard, at a Gay Liberation protest in Albert Park, 1972.

A few weeks later, I put up notices around the university advertising a meeting to discuss setting up a women’s liberation group on campus. To my surprise, around 50 women turned up, all keen to become involved. I invited Dr Fraser McDonald, the medical superintendent of Kingseat Hospital in Auckland, to speak at the meeting. He turned out to be an inspired choice. Dr McDonald was a courageous, visionary and outspoken psychiatrist, who had made headlines in 1968 when he told Thursday magazine that women were the “Negroes of New Zealand society”.

Black and white photo of Sue Kedgley speaking at Germaine Greer’s forum at Auckland University
Sue speaking during Germaine Greer’s packed-out lunchtime forum in the Auckland University quad in March 1972.

When asked by the media if he wanted to retract this inflammatory remark, he refused to do so, explaining that he had intended to “stir up a storm”. In his view, he said, most women were so totally at the mercy of their husbands, and in such a state of financial and emotional dependence on them, that they were literally slaves. “It’s a man’s world,” he told Thursday, “and the problem will get worse until something is done about it – legal, financial equality in marriage would be a good start.”

Dr McDonald expanded on these views at our meeting and went on to become a great supporter of women’s liberation. He gave enormous credibility and legitimacy to our cause, and to our argument that we were not creating problems for women, but simply articulating them. While the media were quick to dismiss us as a bunch of man-hating lesbians with chips on our shoulders, they could not easily dismiss the opinions of the head of New Zealand’s largest psychiatric hospital, who had spent a lifetime treating women suffering from clinical depression.

After our first, resoundingly successful meeting, we began to meet in our lunch breaks every few weeks. We discussed influential feminist texts, and how we could campaign for equal pay, childcare, safe abortions and access to contraception. We set up consciousness-raising groups, where we applied the ideas of women’s liberation to our own lives.

Around 10 of us would meet weekly, usually in one of our student flats. We would talk freely about things that we had never spoken about before, such as abortion or whether we had been pressured into sexual relationships. Nothing was off-limits. It was fascinating to listen to other women’s stories and realise that a lot of our personal problems were in fact political in origin, created by our efforts to conform to the stereotyped female role. And so, the slogan “The personal is political” was born.

Black and white photo of Sue Kedlgey and Anne Gilbert, Toni Church, Sue, Kaye Turner and Sharyn Cederman of the Auckland University Women's Liberation group being interviewed
Some of the core members of the Auckland University Women’s Liberation group – from left: Anne Gilbert, Toni Church, Sue, Kaye Turner and Sharyn Cederman – being interviewed for a story in the New Zealand Herald, December 1971.

We were a hive of activity, planning protests and public meetings, writing articles and producing leaflets, and speaking to anyone who would listen. We campaigned for equal pay for café workers at the university. We put out a leaflet promoting the use of the honorific “Ms” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs”, so that women were not defined by their relationships with men. We joined marches calling for legal abortions for women. Occasionally we were interviewed by the media, usually by biased and hostile journalists who would crack jokes and sneer at “women’s libbers”. We spoke to Plunket mothers, Jaycees, Rotarians, Lions Clubs and secondary school liberal studies classes – anywhere we could get an audience.

We got a glimpse into the closed, rather bizarre world of men’s service clubs, with their odd symbols and rituals, such as lions’ tails, rams’ horns, and fines for bad behaviour. Whenever we addressed a men’s group we would speak in pairs to protect ourselves and dress up in our best clothes to avoid reinforcing the media stereotype of dowdy, bitter women. At one Lions Club meeting a couple of men threw condoms at Sharyn and me to show their contempt for our message, but we got the last laugh when they were expelled from the club for bad behaviour.

In June, we were advised that a group of women had been refused entry to the downstairs bars at the Great Northern Hotel, a booze barn on the corner of Queen and Customs streets. These were the days of only men being allowed to drink in the “public” bar of a hotel; women had to drink in the lounge bar, if there was one.

We decided to join forces with another women’s liberation group, Women for Equality, to “liberate” the all-male Bistro bar of the Great Northern and put an end to segregated drinking. We tipped off the media in advance: “The Great Northern does not allow women in any of its downstairs bars. This is blatant discrimination, so we of the Women’s Liberation Movement are going to liberate the bars. We demand that women be considered as part of the public. We want to be able to choose where and with whom we drink.”

The following Friday night, 30 of us turned up outside the main door of the downstairs bar of the Great Northern at 7pm. We were met by a group of belligerent-looking barmen and security guards who were determined to prevent us from entering. When we tried to go past the security guards and enter the bar a scuffle broke out, and several of us were pushed around by the guards. A male supporter ended up with a black eye. At that point someone decided to call the police, who eventually turned up, along with a few reporters and a television crew.

The hotel manager, a Mr Henderson, asked the police if he could refuse us entry, and they advised him that unless members of our group were under 20 years of age we could not be refused admission. After 45 minutes of deliberating, Mr Henderson reluctantly agreed to allow us into the Bistro bar. Triumphant, I told the reporters, “We are determined to set a precedent and we’ve done this, even though we had to tackle a band of great, fat, bristling men.”

At this point, the manager insisted the reporters and cameraman leave the premises. When they refused, he grabbed a television camera and removed its footage, telling the media the reason women were not allowed into the bar was because it had no toilet facilities for them.

We felt very pleased with ourselves and our exploits, and we spent a few hours celebrating our success in the bar as the bemused male patrons looked on. They seemed to be a bit put out that their all-male drinking session had been rudely interrupted by a bunch of young women upstarts, but we didn’t experience any overt aggression from them.

We announced we would “liberate” the bar again every Friday for the next month, but our energy petered out when we were met with a resigned “Here come those damn women again” attitude and allowed into the bar without any problems. We had made our point. I told an interviewer later, however, that I regretted the fact that our foray into the all-male drinking world had captured the media’s attention, since men-only bars were one of the least important exemplars of discrimination against women.

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