New Zealand’s TV Guide got an enormous amount of attention this week (exactly the amount it was hoping for, presumably), when it published this letter:
This hideous piece of throwback misogyny got all the condemnation and ridicule it deserved on Facebook yesterday (and more, no doubt: I’m not suggesting that social media response has itself been kind or appropriate, but that’s a conversation for another day).
A contributor to a feminist mother’s page I belong to snapped the photo above, and I posted it to the Human Rights Commission page, hoping for an official statement reminding the public that what the correspondent suggests is, in fact, illegal. Back to that in a minute.
After I’d done that, though, I moved on pretty quickly. The idea that professional women in any job ought to hide themselves away and be banished from work is just too absurd for words. It was so fuddy-duddy and ridiculous that it hardly seemed worth responding to.
But then I read another thread, with several hundred comments, every one defending the television presenters. And I was reminded, reading the words of so many people who were enjoying following the progress of the women’s pregnancies, that these are real human beings this man is attacking.
Pregnancy can be bloody awful, between the sciatica and the insomnia, with a side of vomiting. I can well imagine how a pregnant woman might feel, reading herself described by some tutting man as ‘an eyesore’ and ’embarrassing’.
How desperately unkind. This isn’t just sexist drivel, it’s mean.
The writer tries to make it clear that he’s full of benevolence for these women, with his last sentence: ‘As for the presenters themselves, I wish them all the best for their new arrivals.’
There are at least two huge problems with this.
For one thing, these disingenuous good wishes do not somehow cancel out the word ‘eyesore’. Sorry, mate, we’re not going to file this under C for Chivalry just because you added some manners in at the end.
This last line also underlines that the writer isn’t speaking directly to the women concerned, but to the people who are in charge of these wayward women. I think he is imagining courtly gentlemen managers who have lost their way, and need to be reminded how to shepherd their sub-competent female charges.
It’s a helpful reminder of how paternalistic sexism is inherently harmful. Women are real people with autonomy and agency, who can make their own choices. Men who think they know better how to run women’s lives can go and jump in the sea, please. And if those patronising men try to control women while spouting vitriol, well, at least we all know where we stand. Sexism is, at least, a form of basic unkindness.
This nasty little episode also makes me grateful for human rights legislation protecting pregnant women, which exists in New Zealand, though not in many other parts of the world.
The New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993 provides, for example, in section 22:
(1) Where an applicant for employment or an employee is qualified for work of any description, it shall be unlawful for an employer, or any person acting or purporting to act on behalf of an employer,—
(a) to refuse or omit to employ the applicant on work of that description which is available; or(b) to offer or afford the applicant or the employee less favourable terms of employment, conditions of work, superannuation or other fringe benefits, and opportunities for training, promotion, and transfer than are made available to applicants or employees of the same or substantially similar capabilities employed in the same or substantially similar circumstances on work of that description; or
(c) to terminate the employment of the employee, or subject the employee to any detriment, in circumstances in which the employment of other employees employed on work of that description would not be terminated, or in which other employees employed on work of that description would not be subjected to such detriment; or
(d) to retire the employee, or to require or cause the employee to retire or resign,—
by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination.
Summary: you can’t treat people differently in a job setting because of their sex. And that explicitly (in section 21(1)(a)) includes pregnancy and childbirth.
TVNZ could not legally tell its pregnant news presenters to stop doing their jobs because they’re pregnant. Thank goodness. And thank the human rights movement of the last several decades.
That we’re even having to say that out loud in 2016 is eye-wateringly depressing.
(Does this man think pregnant women don’t need income? For just how long over their child-bearing years should women be out of his view? Why on earth does he think other people’s abdominal girth is even his business at all? And other obvious questions I’m too tired to even type.)
But we clearly do need to keep saying these things. So let’s not get complacent about how progressive our society is (remember when we had women in all those important public offices at once? Like, 15 years ago? Yeah, I remember that time vaguely too…). We are still desperately in need of strong institutional support for human rights across the spectrum.
Sadly, the Human Rights Act does not have the effect of making people act with ordinary kindness and decency.
This grotty little episode may have provoked a wave of public indignation in the right direction, but it’s at the expense, probably, of the happiness of two women who did nothing to deserve the nasty tongue-lashing a magazine saw fit to print.
I don’t know the women in question, but I hope that the coming days bring them extra naps, friendly gifts of chocolate and strawberries, less nausea, and an outpouring of solidarity and encouragement from women and men everywhere who recognise that pregnancy is a state that should be surrounded with kindness, from every corner. Just kindness.
If you’re pregnant and unsure of your rights, here is the Human Rights Commission’s summary of rights in pregnancy. If you are an employer of a pregnant person, here’s the Human Rights Commission’s Employer’s Guide for the Prevention of Pregnancy Discrimination (it’s a PDF).
Anyone can contact the HRC here for help in figuring out if what is happening to you is okay.
I have a whole category of rants, and you might also be interested in these posts: