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September 10, 2007 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Jim and Prue show

In 2005 Sweden’s Malmo library lent out human beings, to give borrowers a chance to challenge their common stereotypes and prejudices. Living library types include homosexuals, journalists and Muslims. To explore the stereotype of feminism Salient feature writer Tristan Egarr “booked out” activist feminist economist Prue Hyman and campaigner for father’s rights Jim Bagnall, and questions their different world views.


Salient: What is this Feminism thing?

Prue: I don’t like single definitions of feminism because perfectly reasonably things mean different things to different people, but as far as I am concerned, feminism is a response to many hundreds, even thousands of years of a situation in which largely the power influence and money resources were held more by men than women, and opportunities for women were not as great as men. So it’s therefore an attempt to restore that balance to some extent, with an emphasis on men and women and children having better lives.

Take my own area of economics. Theories, systems and policies tend to have been developed with men’s lives largely in mind, because most of the decision makers have been men. It doesn’t have to be deliberate or Machiavellian, but that’s the way things have developed. Therefore feminist policies are an attempt to redress some of those balances, to make sure that women have equal opportunities of various sorts – for example, in paid work – but that the whole balance of men and women’s lives should be able to be more balanced between all sorts of things, including caring for kids. We’re all for men having a bigger part in caring work. The main point is that feminist stuff should benefit everyone.

Salient: What about you, Jim, how would you define feminism?

Jim: Well, I think that I’d go along with what Prue’s just said. The only thing that I would add to that is some of the ideological nonsense that’s come along with that point of view: that historically all men are this that and the other – rapists, abusers, perpetrators – and that has cast a slur over what men are or have been. I was brought up in the last world war and I do agree that the position of women needed to be redressed. I just think that the way certain sections of this movement have gone about it are non- productive and they’ve cast a slur on the sexuality and the authoritarian, if you like, command that men have had – and they’ve had that very largely in the past because they’ve had to do very much of the hard physical work and have been put, to some degree, by circumstance, in that kind of position.

Salient: So would you call yourself an anti-feminist?

Jim: No, I’m pro-child. I’ve been a teacher for 34 years. I’ve had 5 children of my own, and some grandchildren.

Prue: We’re all pro-child, I hope, and pro-next generation. It’s the systems [that] feminism should be looking at, rather than trying to attack individual men. Of course there are some individual men that are victims of the system just as there are women that are victims of the system, but I don’t go along with things like “all men are rapists”. That seems like a very symbolic thing.

Salient: Is there an “anti-male” fringe of feminism in New Zealand?

Prue: I think it’s very unwise to be anti-male and no, I don’t think it’s popular. I think there’s concern about some aspects of some men’s behaviour, and concerns about the systems that tend to bring it about. And I don’t know whether we’re going to talk about the violence issue because that’s the one that’s so much in the news today, anyway.

Feminism and Education

Salient: So, Jim, do you disagree with that? Do you think that the anti-male viewpoint is a big part of feminism?

Jim: I’ve been a teacher for 34 years, and I’ve seen the changes within the system – and there is always that suspicion that if you have a young child and a male, you’ve got problems.

Prue: I’d certainly like to see a much better balance within all sorts of jobs, including teaching. But let’s remember that this isn’t a second wave feminism thing (mostly women being primary school and child-care workers) – it’s been going a very long time – and frankly, a large part of it is very poor pay. Most of the jobs that women predominate are poorly paid, and men don’t want them for that reason. I think it’s also true that some men are very nervous about teaching in the first place. I don’t know the rights and wrongs of some of the cases, but the fact remains that both men and women have got to be very careful about how they deal with very young children. Look at some of the stuff that has gone on in the church, stuff that has gone on in a lot of places, and it is mostly men – not entirely, there are women who have been just as bad – but it is certainly to a much greater extent men that have committed violent acts on their partners and/or children.

Jim: Can I just address the salaries thing – I was a teacher for 34 years and was getting exactly the same pay as women, doing exactly the same job. When I started in teaching, thirty per cent of the primary school teachers were males. Now it’s down to eleven per cent. So it wasn’t so much a salaries issue in those days, because we were getting paid the same amount and we were getting paid well. So, I reject the notion that somehow we don’t get into teaching because of a salary issue. We don’t get into teaching of children at a young age level because we are targets.

Prue: I think it’s both. Thirty/seventy is still quite extreme, even then – and women made up less than half of the labour force, so it was still a heavily female occupation. Of course they were paid equally, but that pay was not good relative to other jobs.

Jim: But thirty to eleven per cent does give you some indication of why.

Prue: I do agree that that’s part of the reason. There’s some level of concern amongst men that they’ve got to be careful and it’s an extra worry.

Salient: Is the Family Court a Bastion of Feminism?

Jim: In the last eight or nine years I’ve been involved in the family court, and the family court becomes a crucible for power plays between men and women, between mothers and fathers with children, as collateral damage. Someone will write an affidavit under the law which says you can say anything about anybody, and we now have 300,000 New Zealand children out of a million that are not living in the same home as their fathers.

Prue: I think that marriage and relationship break-ups are one of those really sad things that happen, and I certainly think it’s better that one tries to sort out both the issues over the kids and the issues over money and everything else in a way that’s as civilized as possible. And a lot of them are. The trouble is, the ones that go to the family court and that take the longest are probably the ones where the two parties have become so entrenchedly opposed to each other and there’s so much agro that they can’t sort it out easily, and I don’t think there’s any easy answers on that. I don’t think there’s a bias in the family court. I’m all in favour of shared parenting, but it often isn’t workable, and the notion that men should have absolutely equal shared parenting after marriage, if they haven’t during the marriage, is one of the problems. It’s starting to change (although very slowly), but still in the majority of marriages and partnerships, women have done far more of the caring work. So it makes sense for them to do more of it afterwards.

Salient: So if the man has done most of the child-rearing, he should get most of the access?

Prue: I don’t necessarily oppose that at all, but the fact remains that eighty five per cent of sole parents are mothers. But I do think men should have more time to be able to spend with their kids.

Jim: I’ve had five children of my own with a separation, with my wife being encouraged to do so by some feminist friends. I have seen the longitudinal damage on all my five children (the youngest one is 36) and there’s been huge intergenerational damage by those split-ups. I agree with Prue that a lot of people do it in a sensible way outside of the family court. But after all my experience, I could not agree that the family court is unbiased. As a teacher I would often come across children in my classroom who’d had family split-ups. The first signal of that devastation was that their educational attainment just went down the hill completely. I had to ask them, “What is going on in your life?” Almost always it was a family split- up. So I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of the family court. What I do need to say is that the collateral damage of all this is to the children.

Salient: You say they are damaged by family split-ups – is that necessarily the fault of the family court?

Jim: A lot of these split-ups are very nasty, you know.

Prue: Rather than fighting about the family court, which is not very constructive, let’s just look at family split-ups, which is the issue anyway. I don’t want to get into your marriage break-up, but you seem to be blaming feminists for it and I think that’s ridiculous. Any relationship break-up must involve something between both parties.

Jim: Hang on, you’re talking about my relationship now.

Prue: Well, you did bring it up.

Jim: Look, I was there. As soon as my wife saw the 1976 Matrimonial Properties Act, she immediately said she wanted to split up, and that she was going to halve me up.

Prue: And before that Act happened, women had to stay in totally unsatisfactory marriages because they couldn’t financially survive if they left. I don’t want any marriage break-ups, but the fact remains that if people have to stay together for financial reasons, well, you said that kids suffer bad consequences just if there’s a break-up, and I think that you’re right – but I think that there are worse consequences if there’s constant friction in appalling marriages. And I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests to stay in a relationship that’s unsatisfactory. It’s wonderful if they love each other and then there’s no problem. The problem is when they don’t love each other any more.

Jim: So when they stop loving one another, they’ve got to split up?

Prue: No, I just don’t think it’s desirable for them to stay together if they’re constantly fighting in front of the kids.

Jim: But if they’ve got someone encouraging them to split, wouldn’t it be better to try something like counseling, rather than allow some kind of ideology to interfere in a marriage?

Prue: I’m absolutely in favour of whoever can help trying to keep you together, but I absolutely disagree that women encourage women to get away.

Jim: If you’ve agreed to love each other forever, surely you should have a go. By the fifth or by fourth child, or even by the third, you would know that staying together with this person and having children with them was not a good policy for the children.

Prue: I think it’s too hard to talk about individual cases. The evidence is clear that after a break up, usually both parties are [financially] worse off than they were in the marriage, so greed isn’t even a sensible reason for breaking up. Of course you want to make sure you get your fair share, and that’s what the matrimonial property act is about. It does also recognise that if women have been out of paid work more, then there needs to be some allowance for that. But it does work both ways – there are some women who have had to pay more.

Jim: You’re quite right in that sense, but people who become impoverished by the family court are the children. The people who become enriched are the lawyers.

Prue: I agree with that.

Salient: Why is Feminism still relevant? Is Masculinism needed?

Prue: Feminism has led to some quite valuable changes already. There’s less inequality in both paid and unpaid work than there used to be, and more opportunities for women. But constant vigilance is required. And I think one of the areas of particular concern at the moment – apart from violence – is the whole area of sexist advertising and its impacts on young women. I’m not saying that it’s any individual man’s fault, however, and this is why it links with class and race.

Salient: Because there will be female advertisers creating this stuff?

Prue: It links with class and race because capitalism leads to all these manufacturers wanting to sell more and more of various different types of things, and the advertising that pushes this says you have to have a beautiful body. It’s affecting men as well these days, but I think it’s a gendered area because it has tended to apply more to women than to men.

Jim: I totally agree with that. My daughter and I, as part of her school project, went around to a porn shop to see who was producing these pornographic videos. At least one third of the producers or the directors were female. So I think that what we’ve got here, as Prue says, is an opportunity time for people to use gender as some kind of advertising tool, and I agree with her that it is sexist.

Salient: Why is a men’s movement necessary in NZ at the moment?

Jim: What we’ve done is we’ve changed, to some degree, the feeding frenzy from 1998 until about 2003 of the family court – and I’m sorry to get back onto that, but that’s what a men’s movement does – and we have lobbied, we have made submissions to the select committees, we’ve been to Australia to see what they’re doing there. This is not just some kind of mindless, red shirted or black shirted group of radical rednecks. We’re looking into the problem and trying to fix it. And so men’s groups should be widening their circle into education, joining Plunket and play centres and stuff like that, fighting the ideological nonsense that keeps them away. Let’s say that all men are not rapists. That’s why I think that men’s lobby groups are important to have, so that we can put the balance correct. The first barrier is phobia, and the second barrier is what we come across in everyday life.

Prue: I have nothing against a movement that re-examines the role of men. I think that both feminism and the men’s movement can work together in some ways to improve the position of everybody, but I do think that the men’s movement often becomes an anti-feminist movement. But certainly allowing men to look at the roles they have in life and how they do them – from “reclaiming the man within” stuff, to sensitive new age guys – I think you should be able to be a sensitive new age guy. You should be able to be a male in any way you want to, so long as it’s not anti-women or anti-children.

Salient: So you’re concerned about the focus upon the family court?

Prue: I think large parts of the men’s movement have made absolutely outrageous and unsupported comments about feminism (including a few Jim made today, but not all), and about the family court, about female violence being just as bad and common as male violence. An area we haven’t talked about is education, and that’s been an interesting one – because when women finally catch up and get as good a level of education as men – and in fact have in some cases slightly gone past now – then it becomes a terrible issue that we’re being “anti-men”. Things are done wrong in the name of the men’s movement, but the basic aspirations of the men’s movement are fine.

Salient: Jim, you bemoan the “extreme” elements in the feminist movement. Are there elements of the men’s movements just as extreme – take, for example, British group Fathers 4 Justice, who planned to kidnap Tony Blair’s five-year-old sons?

Jim: Yes, there are, and I’m not into tribalism of any kind. I’ve been protesting about what’s been going on for 8 or 9 years. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve always tried to get my point across in an intelligent way, which is exactly what I’m trying to do today.

Last Remarks

Prue: I think Jim and I don’t necessarily disagree that much on ultimate aims – we disagree on why things are the way they are and even how they are. I think the feminist movement still has a lot to say, and I think the men’s movement is often anti-feminist in an unfair way, although not all of the time.

Jim: What I would like to say is thank you very much, because you’re the first person that’s been game to debate this whole situation with me and I’m a lot clearer now than I was before. I hope you are too.

Prue: I’m happy to debate any time, any place.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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