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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Women, Activism and Print Media

Jasmine Freemantle is in her final year of a PhD in Gender and Women’s Studies. Her thesis examines how women’s activism has been constructed and subsequently represented in New Zealand print media. Jasmine’s thesis covers the period 1890 to 1981, and specifically focuses on three political campaigns: the campaign for women’s suffrage (1890- 1893), the 1951 waterfront lockout, and the 1981 Springbok Tour. For each campaign she is looking at 12 different print media titles from around the country and considering how women activists have been represented in each movement in comparison to the roles that they played in the campaigns. Of these 12, eight are daily newspapers (four metropolitan and four provincial), in addition to four other periodicals: one published by the activists themselves, two women’s or feminist publications, and one student media publication. She is comparing trends not just across the three campaigns, but also across the different categories of publication.

“Despite there being some wider social change … there are still a lot of similarities,” Freemantle explains. “In part, the similarities rest in the genres that are covered. Obviously, the popular press still want to make money, so the sorts of things that they’re going to cover are the big impressive looking protests. Police batoning protesters, for instance, is far more likely to be covered than policy decisions. Controversy sells.

“Things are a little bit more complicated than that though. For instance, surrounding the waterfront lockout, there were of course the Emergency Regulations, which meant that no print media, or any criticism in fact, could actually promote the case of the locked out watersiders or their supporters. There was, however, occasional mention of women activists in support of the wharvies in the popular press, but hardly anything at all… This can be contrasted with coverage of women activists involved in organisations such as the Housewives’ Unions, who urged the socalled ‘strikers’ to get back on the job.”

Freemantle has found that the roles of women have tended to be quantitatively underrepresented for all three campaigns. In the case of the female franchise campaign, much of the reporting was on the debate in Parliament, an institution that women were not granted access to until 1919.

“They also weren’t covered very much because often when women activists [held] meetings, they actually got males to front those meetings.” Male politicians and “other men of standing in the community” would be invited to speak, allowing the activists to knowingly take advantage of the media bias in favour of reporting males. Even Kate Sheppard, the name now most commonly associated with the female suffrage movement, very rarely appeared in contemporary publications.

Freemantle’s conclusion that women were underrepresented is more complicated in the case of the Springbok Tour. She found that though women participated in similar numbers to men in some areas of antitour activism (the likes of mass rallies and protest marches), the fact that women were poorly represented in the formal positions of most anti-tour organisations led to a general down-playing of the importance of women within the movement. Some activists also claimed that prominent organisations such as Citizens Opposed to the Springbok Tour (COST) were sexist, racist, and did little to encourage the involvement of rank and file union members.

Freemantle has observed a number of changes over the period she was covering. For example, there simply were no feminist publications operating at the time of the suffrage debate or the waterfront lockout, and female representation in the press has generally increased over time. She has identified a number of different wider social factors that have led to this.

“The influence of the feminist movement would be one, for instance. Women actually being able to have more of a public, instead of private or hidden, expression of activism. If your activism isn’t known about, if it’s not considered ‘newsworthy’, then it’s not going to be reported on.

“But still there are less women nowadays in … Parliament and the CEOs of big companies, even the head of organisations like Greenpeace or whatever, and those are the sorts of people who normally get quoted in the newspapers.

“And of course, those women that do end up fronting prominent organisations are largely Pakeha, bourgeois women. The so-called ‘poster girls’ of women’s equality – ranging from the Kate Sheppards to the Helen Clarks – have radically different access to resources and avenues for the expression of their activism, compared to most women. At the same time, ‘practical knowledge’ – the ability to write a media release, take the initiative at a rally, chair a meeting – are in a general sense skills that certain groups of people tend to have far less opportunities to develop. This isn’t something that just affects women, though gendered discrepencies are fairly prevalent in result of factors such as a lack of decent childcare.”

Freemantle has a long-standing interest in activism and print media, initially sparked by tagging along to protests with her mum, a student politician and beneficiary rights advocate, during the early 1990s. Freemantle is a former Salient columnist, and was VUWSA Women’s Rights Officer in 2002. Seeing how her own activism was portrayed in print media inspired her to investigate the extent to which trends and institutional biases exist in the construction and portrayal of women’s political activism more generally.

“I was under heavy fire as WRO, particularly in the pages of Salient, but also in mainstream media. Salient published about a hundred letters attacking me that year. I’d write columns about pay equity and the like, and be bombarded by writers saying ‘I must have been abused as a child to be in such a bad mood’, and that I ‘need the cock!’

“At the time I took it quite personally, but in retrospect the situation was pretty ludicrous. It’s a good example of how the treatment of activism – despite some wider changes – is still highly gendered. I mean, it’s pretty unlikely that a male politician would be instructed to ‘blow a decent load’ or ‘conquer a cunt’, ‘cause he was pushing the margins with his politics.

“Meaningful and widespread structural change is required in order for women to participate fully as activists. Likewise, we cannot expect fair media representation of women – or of just about anyone else – under a male-dominated and capitalist system.”

Jasmine Freemantle holds a BA (Hons) in Women’s Studies from Victoria University. She is Assistant Lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies.


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