Allow your light to shine

22 SepCommunity

19 September marked the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act that granted New Zealand women the right to vote. To commemorate this historic occasion, Te Manawa is publishing interviews and profiles of prominent local women at each end of those 125 years.
Dr Angie Farrow is an Associate Professor at Massey University’s School of English and Media Studies, and a professional playwright whose work is regularly performed locally and overseas.

In Aotearoa we make a big deal out of being the first country where women won the right to vote. How do you think we measure up to that ideal?

I think we measure up very well. I was reflecting on this the other day, that when I first came to this country [in 1990], I was overwhelmed at the strength of the women here. I’m particularly talking about public figures and people who are on radio and fronting up on TV programmes, or even speaking within the academy. There is something unique, I think, about New Zealand women: that they do have powerful voices, that they don’t have that slightly apologetic dynamic that you often get – certainly in England, where I come from. I don’t mean that to be derogatory, but I think there’s just been a very different history; that the pioneering culture, among other factors, has made New Zealand women very strong and independent. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that this is a country a long way from the rest of the universe, that we’ve developed our own strength and culture. And that feeling I had when I first arrived has been completely borne out by the women that I meet here.

I think we’re on the whole not afraid to speak out; I think New Zealand women are very courageous, in the way they engage in politics. Jacinda Ardern, for me, is a really wonderful example of a very feminine woman – she embraces her womanhood, and has all the authority of any man, from past and present. She’s got gravity, she’s very articulate, she’s very knowledgeable, and she’s very young! I remember myself at that age; I was just wimpy! I didn’t have any of her mana. So that has been a very spiriting experience for me, to be here and see that borne out.

It is no surprise to me that we were the first, and I think we continue to be the first on all kinds of levels.

How do you think society benefits when women have a more equal voice in it?

I know this from my work as a teacher: that when there is an equal balance of male and female in any class, men become less bullish and women assert themselves more. And I notice this time and again, that you get a much – I wouldn’t say it’s a *softer* environment – but you get a really rich discourse.

I never get so hung up about male and female, because my view is, as a writer, I have to be both, because I have to write from the perspective of male and female constantly. But I think we are the richer when we engage together. I’ve worked with all-male groups where often they become very competitive with each other. Not always, but there is the sense that men often “pack”. And women do too – we “pack” with each other. We don’t necessarily learn other discourses because we are engaging just with that gender.

What is it that women bring? Sometimes they bring a greater humanity. Their emotionality can sometimes be more subtle, sometimes more complex. Whereas I think what men often bring into that discourse is a different kind of cognition. Whatever it is we bring in our gender polarities, we’re better when they come together.

You’ve been a teacher, you’ve been in academia; what are the challenges that you’ve faced in those roles because you were a woman?

It’s very hard sometimes to say “I am being patronised”. It’s very hard to say “because there are more men in the room, I am being talked down.” So I’m often aware of it, but it’s very hard to speak out about it, or to even put your finger on what it is. But I do think that quite often, particularly in a male-dominated space, I often get talked over, and I have to work really hard at stopping that from happening. Also I think my willingness to give way doesn’t always serve me – to be accommodating, to say “yeah I hear what you’re saying”. While that is a very attractive female trait – that willingness to bring everybody into the picture – sometimes it’s not always honoured when men are in the space.

I remember talking to a colleague who said that men are much more likely to ask for more money when they’re going for a promotion, they’re much more likely to ask for a better deal. I don’t know what that’s about, but women are actually far less likely to say “look, I’m worth more than this”. So I think we have to work hard at asserting ourselves. I’m not often very good at that!

Do you think perhaps that’s because of an internalised feeling that they aren’t worth as much? Like, this is what they’ve been told their whole lives?

Yeah. And also we do tend to want to be accommodating, to be less assertive about what we need; that’s been my personal experience. I have struggled, but it’s got easier. I think it’s far less [of a struggle] than it used to be.

In any given social situation, it is difficult for women to see when sexism is happening; it’s often happening very subtly, like through the fact that men speak more than women, through the judgement that’s being made on your sex when decisions are being made

It’s really difficult to be able to say “That right there! That was A Sexism!” You have to build up a picture over time.

That’s right. And I’ve been with even very close colleagues who I love very much, and thought, “…is this sexism going on here?” You feel that you’re uncomfortably being ignored or that your views aren’t being as celebrated.

My experience as a teacher is that I tend to work with mainly young women, and they are immensely strong. That’s been one of the great joys of working here: you see, year by year, women getting stronger, more assertive, more assured, more worldly, and they can speak better about their needs

Do you think it’s a kind of snowball effect? As things get better, it makes it easier for the next generation?

Yeah. I look at my daughter, she has male and female friends on an equal level. She expects of women what she would expect of her male friends. It’s a very different environment from the one I grew up in. I think there’s a lot more tolerance. They always hang out in male/female groups, but it’s not necessarily strongly heterosexual, and I think we have a lot to thank the suffragists for, because that began a whole journey for women in accepting their equality.

Who are some of the women, past and present, that you look up to?

Ohh, I love Helen Clark. I think she’s absolutely stunning. I love that she doesn’t play the female game. If you [look at] Hillary Clinton, where glamour is everything, and appearance – the choice of clothes, even her air – she’s much more self-consciously female. Whereas I love Helen Clark for not really giving a toss about that. She’s a very attractive woman, but she’s not worried about what she looks like. I love that she’s tough, but not “tough” in inverted commas. I think what she has for me is that she has always had a very clear political vision, and she is uncompromising around that. She doesn’t give way. I love her politics, anyway, I believe so much in what she believes.

Margaret Thatcher, for example, has been called a “great leader”, but her ego was so massive, and she was so concerned about being right at the expense of everybody else. A lot of it was “about her”, whereas Helen Clark’s ego is well-balanced with her vision

Oprah Winfrey’s up there, for me. I think the New Age stuff does get in the way sometimes, but I love her strength and her passion and her love. A lot of the values that I espouse through theatre, which have to do with building community and building a belief system which is always about the common good, where you’re always looking out for ways of enhancing people’s imagination and creativity, of giving them ways of understanding what their direction might be…I think Oprah exemplifies a lot of those views in the ways she models herself. But she’s always looking out for the greater good. I know not everybody likes her, but I think she’s stunning. And of course she’s had huge fights in her life. She’s grown through hardship into this astonishing woman of great light

I think one of the dynamics – I suppose Helen Clark has it as well – is that you allow the light of yourself to come through, and you don’t apologise for it or hold back from it; you allow it to shine and celebrate that. I think that’s hard for a lot of women to do, because we’re so often looking out for others that we forget to shine ourselves. Sometimes we’re so concerned about being “big-headed” that we won’t allow our brilliance to be seen. It’s something I try to encourage in my students.

I would like to live in a culture where we have our male and female voices recognised and cultivated – at school level, at tertiary level, at a global level. And that’s the kind of world I’d like to live in: where we get to the point that it actually doesn’t matter. And in a way Jacinda Ardern is leading the way with that, saying “I’m a woman and I can be a great leader, and I can be a mum too.” She’s saying we can be a mix of our masculine and feminine energies, and that’s what makes us great – not the fact that we use our maleness to be strong, or we use our femininity to get what we want. In a way we have both. Wouldn’t that be great?

Who would you recommend young women listen to today? The same ones you mentioned earlier, or should they seek out new voices?

I think they have to listen to themselves. I also believe that we need a political stance. I say this to my students: they need to explore the political arena, and I think some of our greatest role-models are in that arena – the people who’ve been willing to go through tremendous personal hardship to rise to the top.

What do you consider to be your finest achievement?

Far and away, giving birth to my daughter. Absolutely. She delights me and she teaches me. I think what happens as a child gets older is you are doing all the giving and the shaping and you’re providing all those challenges, but as they grow up it starts to reverse, and I feel that I’m at the stage – she’s 27 now – where she’s teaching me. I guess it’s going to be all downhill from now on! That’s been the best thing.

I wouldn’t isolate any of my plays as great achievements, but rather when I’ve fallen flat on my arse – which I’ve done many times – and had the courage to get back up again. You write a play and it gets panned by the critics, and you’ve just spend a year doing it and thought it was rather good. And then you’ve got to somehow look to the future even though you’ve been condemned. The trouble with theatre is that if you are condemned it happens publically. It’s such public space that the humiliation can be very large. I’ve done this three or four times in my writing career, and I feel really proud of that.

Is there anything you wish you’d done? Or that you still want to do?

As a young woman I wish I had spoken up more. I wish I hadn’t let my shyness stop me, because I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to speak than to say nothing. I wish I’d been more courageous. I wish I’d spoken my truth, sometimes even at the expense of someone else’s pain. Sometimes you just have to say what’s true, and I’m a bit of a wimp about that – either trying to look after other people or look after myself. If I could live my time again I’d work on being bolder in those bigger discussion groups and speaking my truth rather than worrying about it coming out wrong.

That has something to do with the way that I was brought up. I went to a girls’ grammar school – albeit in the East End of London, it was a bit rough – and I was brought up to put men first, and to put others first. So I’ve had to unlearn a lot of those things. But I think a lot of women of my generation have had to do that. It’s a very English thing too; being brought up in Britain didn’t help.

I’ve had to work against some unbelievable cultural prejudices. Growing up in the East End during the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was this chauvinistic, racist culture, and even if you get educated, you’ve still got to work really hard because these things get embedded in you. That’s the challenge when we talk about feminism and how we can make women more equal to men, I think sometimes it has to be a very internal process, we have to build ourselves from within.

Good teaching helps; good friendship helps; I wouldn’t have been able to do this stuff without support. When I think about my mum…our dad ruled the house, absolutely ruled it. And he was an alcoholic and didn’t contribute very much, financially or morally…but she completely obeyed him. And I grew up with that model: to revere men, to put them on a pedestal, to believe that they were always right. So it was a big jump for me to go from there to being a liberated woman – and although I became one, I still get caught up by those cultural tropes

What do you think is the best way men can try to comprehend the sheer enormity of that struggle?

I think we have to keep talking. I don’t think it’s always helpful; the feminism that I grew up with was quite aggressive, and I was really uncomfortable with that – it was always sort of finger pointing, and I’m not sure that’s helpful. I certainly wouldn’t want to bring a son up in a world where they were made to feel that they weren’t worthy or they had to be quiet.

I think we have to keep fighting for women to have a greater place in those male universes: in political circles, in business groups, in the academy. I think that’s a fight that we are still not winning, for whatever reason. The very first question you asked me was related to men and women together, and I think having equal balances of men and women in those places of power is vital for our good health.

Working more and more towards that, reminding people – again, I could have been more courageous – when they are doing stuff that is upsetting you. You don’t have to do it in an aggressive way, you can do it in a loving way

The more we talk, the more we realise how similar we are, and I’m more interested in that than seeing how different we are. We have to keep working on our children and giving them permission to be male and female. They’re the major things, I would say.