The Otago Daily Times, the only independently-owned major daily newspaper in New Zealand, had this feature teased on the front page this weekend:
The paper is joining with a heritage society to get everyone to vote for Dunedin’s ‘most notable resident’. But you have to vote from a list of 17 nominees that have been compiled by ‘local historians’.
How many of these 17 nominees are women, do you think? Bear in mind that this is one person per decade since Victorian times, focusing primarily on ‘public’ life, so please dampen your expectations. It’s not going to be 50-ish per cent.
How many? Oh, none.
None at all. Out of SEVENTEEN.
I expect if you are reading this, you probably agree that this is not right. Surely they could find one or two famous women too?
Janet Frame? Ethel Benjamin? Emily Siedeberg? Barbara Calvert? Learmonth White Dalrymple? (See what I did there? I only knew of the considerable achievements of one of those women before today, but the power of Facebook and Google are mine! ODT: take a lesson from my astonishing research skills!)
But I’m here to tell you that isn’t the real problem here, or is at least only a small part of it. Here’s what’s wrong with this list:
Problem #1: It doesn’t have any women on it
Sure, we’re all agreed on this one. Do feel free to add your suggestions of ‘notable women’ who helped shape Dunedin in the comments below. As many as you like for as many decades as you like.
You may also like to see my new favourite tumblr, All Male Panels.
Problem #2: It got published
A bunch of local historians made some nominations, and didn’t nominate any women (or the women they nominated didn’t make the cut somewhere later in the chain.)
A journalist or two wrote or commissioned or accepted this feature, probably supervised by other editorial staff members. They were all content with the list. I wonder if they noticed it was all men?
The sub-editor and editor approved the article for publication. I’m simplifying, as my newsroom experience is limited to season five of The Wire and All the President’s Men, but I think I’ve got the basic idea right.
At not one of these steps did anyone say, oh hang on, we can’t publish such a sexist list!
Even if the whole thing – spread over several feature pages – was supplied by the heritage group, surely a newspaper doesn’t uncritically publish material it realises is appallingly sexist? There was not a word of hedging or critique here to acknowledge its glaring imbalance, and the newspaper itself is now soliciting votes – from among these male nominees only – to select the champion most notable resident.
This is institutional sexism. The whole institution of the newspaper is at fault here – it must be, for such an obvious piece of sexism to go unchallenged. This means that to put this right, if it wants to, the ODT needs to not just publish a new list that isn’t sexist, it needs to do some substantial soul-searching about the sexism that has seeped into its bones and printing presses.
Here’s why it matters: what other important issues of democracy and justice are being influenced by the institutional sexism of this newspaper?
Problem #3: It’s a sexist premise, not just a sexist list
People may mansplain to you that this list is mostly about contributions to the building of the city, and, sadly, in the historical period of Dunedin’s founding, women were just not able to be involved in this kind of important activity.
They may tell you that if it were a list of important people from the 21st century, then, sure, it would be appropriate to have a better gender mix.
There are three problems with this. First, see above: there were indeed more than a few women who fought their way to be allowed to contribute to society in a public way, so even on this bizarrely and arbitrarily limited criterion, it’s a sexist fail.
Second: there are plenty of exceptions allowed for male nominees. Some are artists; some are still living; one is celebrated for running dances and race horses and beginning the Miss New Zealand pageant. None are female, however.
But the third is the most important problem, for my money: if you ask a sexist question, you’ll get a sexist answer.
The paper and the heritage society invented this competition from their own brains. They decided to ask the question: which people contributed to public life in a way that’s easy to document, starting from a long time ago? The answer: men.
Problem #4: They’re making women invisible
Have there actually been any women in Dunedin in the last 170 years? It’s hard to tell from this feature.
Could Dunedin have been created in such a notable fashion if it had been inhabited solely by men for the last 170 years?
How about each of those men’s wives or housekeepers being added to the list? Because I’d guess most of these nominees would have been unable to be ‘notable’ if they had had to spend hours each day boiling the copper for laundry, baking bread and cooking seven hot meals a week – and that’s not even assuming anyone wants these geniuses to pass on their genes, in which case they won’t have time for anything more than wrangling toddlers for several years of their best thinking time. So whoever did all those jobs for them surely deserves a share of the credit?
This kind of article perpetuates the really harmful, offensive and sad idea that important = whatever men do.
I don’t have any specific knowledge of the individuals on the list or of who exactly ought to be included as well or instead. There might even be women city planners who are missing, let alone women who built the public social infrastructure (I bet some hospitals, schools and welfare organisations were founded, funded and fuelled by women in Dunedin).
But specifics aren’t the point. As soon as your list ends up being all-male, you know you have a problem. Or several.
I asked the ODT for comment on their Facebook page 24 hours ago and have received no reply.
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