What sparked your feminist awakening? From eye-opening books to pop culture and more personal and intersectional realisations, inspiring people share moments that shaped their feminist outlook.
We asked a variety of women, wāhine, intersex, trans women and non-binary people to share their perspectives for this story, but acknowledge that not all viewpoints are presented here.
“My awakening was the growing awareness in my teenage years that my expectations for myself were not supported by the expectations society had for me. I kept holding back and restricting myself, while trying to fight against these pressures as hard as I could. My feminism was about holding on to the truth that I deserved the right to strive for my dreams, without being made to feel I was doing something wrong. White interpretations of women’s liberation were another barrier to navigate around as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of colour.
International Women’s Day, for me, is about society giving space to and supporting all who identify as women in their aspirations.”
Leonie Morris, centre manager of the fantastic Te Wāhi Wāhine o Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s Women's Centre
“I realised I was a feminist in 1971, aged 15, when many New Zealanders were engaged in a heated debate about legalising abortion. My parents were strong supporters of reproductive rights for women and feminism. My mum was active in the feminist movement mainly through the Society for Research on Women.
Mum and I had long conversations about how critical controlling a woman's fertility was to being in charge of her own life. Mum talked to me about the ways unwanted pregnancies and back-street abortions were particularly hard on women in low-income communities. I don’t remember thinking about the impact of abortion rights on non-Pākehā women until my 16th birthday when my then boyfriend, knowing I was a keen feminist, gave me a copy of the USA book Our Bodies Ourselves. This book blew my mind open with stories about the experiences of Black women and dykes in the USA. My boyfriend had no particular interest in feminism, but in those days, feminism was accepted by everybody I knew as simply another positive, ‘modern’ idea.
It wasn’t until I went to uni that, through the students’ association, I became involved in organising demonstrations for reproductive rights, and via an-off campus group, Working Women’s Alliance, supporting higher pay for female factory workers.
I love being the manager of Te Wāhi Wāhine o Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland Women’s Centre because we aim to empower all women, whether tangata whenua or tauiwi, trans or cis, no matter what their age, income or sexuality. I love seeing the positive transformations in women’s lives, in their confidence in their ability to control their own destiny, I’ve seen this so many times. We also work for societal change by supporting mana wāhine and feminism in high schools, as well as community forums where we talk about the big issues such as the problem with pornography, celebrating the leadership of Muslim women after the Christchurch attacks, and of wāhine Māori such as Mihingarangi Forbes, Huhana Hickey and Hinemoa Elder.”
“My earliest influence I would say was my aunt - she was a fierce feminist. In India in the ‘80s I watched her go about her life with a sense of wonder. One of the many ways in which her beliefs manifest was in her support for traditional hand-loom women weavers in villages. They made amazing traditional cotton saris that back then were seen as ‘old fashioned’, and today are seeing a revival. For me as a young girl I saw what it meant to be ‘a strong woman supporting other women to find that strength too’.
Oh and then as a teen, I found Erykah Badu with her debut album Baduizm and then Mama's Gun. Her messages of sisterhood and fearlessness - what a woman.”
Marama Davidson (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou), co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa NZ, Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence, Associate Minister for Housing (homelessness)
Me aro koe ki te hā o Hineahuone, mai te tīmatanga, ko Papatūānuku te whaea whenua, ko Hineahuone te ira tangata tuatahi, he wahine!
Pay heed to the dignity of Māori women. From the beginning of time, was Papatūānuku the Earth Mother, then Hineahuone the first human created, a woman.
"The above saying for me encapsulates the status of Māori women that has been a firmly held way of life for us, until interrupted by colonisation. For me there is no feminism without re-indigenisation of the world. It is the Western patriarchy that has done the greatest damage to the status of indigenous women all around the world, and our feminist calls must be intersectional to recognise this.
I do not recall a particular moment of ‘discovering’ feminism as the term is generally known. What is steeped into my heart and mind, are the experiences of facing racism for being Māori – on my own whenua. As a university student I was able to start deciphering how this racism was also a tool for subjugating Māori women and further denied the equal and complementary role we always held in our Māori world. At university I finally had a world opened up to me in reading the likes of Dr Leonie Pihama, Dr Linda Smith, Ani Mikaere – and so many more researchers and activists who had been at the frontline of resisting this imperial colonial agenda. It was later in life I came across the conquests of Whina Cooper, of Eva Rickard, of Titewhai Harawira and many more wāhine Māori fighting for tino rangatiratanga and therefore fighting for the honouring of Māori women. It is Māori women who continue to lead our re-indigenising work today and I continue to be inspired by them.
Above all, it was my mother – Hanakawhi Alexander Paraone Nepe-Fox (Ngāti Porou) - who instilled a yearning for discovery of the power of wāhine Māori! The reason why I cannot recall a particular moment of feminist awakening is because I was born into her exemplifying mana! She was a part of the mana wahine movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s and it was all I ever knew – a mother who was fighting to restore what colonisation had ripped from her. I continue to be thankful for the world she opened me up to before since the moment I became part of te ao Marama.”
“I didn't know it at the time but I suffered from mad internal misogyny growing up and it had a huge impact on how I treated myself and other girls. I shunned everything feminine, never wore heels, dresses, or makeup. I wanted to be seen as one of the boys and genuinely loved it when boys said ‘you're so much cooler than other girls’.
I judged other girls for what they wore and how they looked and unfortunately it took me a long time (and being called out for my behaviour) to realise that I'd been a real dick to myself and others for a long time.
So I’d say my feminist awakening happened when I unlearned all those behaviours that are deeply rooted in internalised misogyny, and instead of trying to change others I changed myself, reclaiming the epic-ness of womanhood in the process and finding joy in gassing up every woman I meet.”
“My feminist awakening started and continued to grow watching Helen Clark as leader of our country. I remember being enthralled as a 13-year-old watching her 2008 Election debate with John Key and being so sad on election night when she was no longer Prime Minister. Although I don't agree with all policies she championed in her time with a 2021 perspective, seeing a female leader from an early age meant I never had a ceiling above me for what I felt I could and couldn't do. Her representation in my young eyes made me feel like there was no barrier to my own leadership potential and drive to change issues I saw as wrong.”
“I never had a specific moment; feminism has been something that’s grown with me over my life. My mum is a doctor who kept her last name when she married dad. Having her as a role model growing up instilled a strong sense of independence and belief in myself that has carried through to adulthood. When I moved to Wellington from Christchurch in 2013 for university, I met a range of people and took classes that introduced me to intersectional feminism; understanding how a variety of privileges and disadvantages alongside sexism affect people’s ability to live the life they want. I’m still learning, but my journey with feminism has shaped who I am and the career I’ve had.”
Elyssia Wilson-Heti, performance artist, activist, producer and member of Pacific LGBTQI arts collective FAFSWAG
“I come from a long line of really hearty fafine [women] in my magafoa [family]. I am of mixed heritage descent, Niuean and English. Both sides of my magafoa are deeply matriarchal. So with having strong nannies, aunties, cousins, sisters and then my mum who is the strongest person I know...this was my feminist awakening. Being born into this magafoa of the heartiest accidental feminists you will ever meet. Intergenerational bad ass power house fafine. Those bloodlines travel through my skin and bones. Strength and resilience has always been nurtured in me to always show up in my fullness. That has always been encouraged and I carry that with me always. My magafoa were my feminist awakening.”
Rogena Sterling, expert in identity, intersex issues, privacy, human rights, equality and diversity
“It was interesting to be asked when was my ‘feminist awakening’. The very question took me to some struggling and even somewhat dark place. It is highly linked to understanding my personal identity that I had been battling with over the many years.
I grew up in a misinterpreted identity that never made sense to me and my understanding of myself. It was a world of two sides: you were either a woman or a man. The two-sided social system never made sense to me both personally nor socially. At the same time, nothing in my education could aid me to explain why.
For me, my feminist awakening derived from my spiritual awakening of who I am. It was in my mid-life that I was able to understand who I was as an intersex person. For me, (not all intersex people), I began to understand my being as more than just physical sex variations, but there was a spiritual connection. My ancients through Hermaphroditus and Cybele indicated a balancing of elements in my being of maleness and femaleness. Drawing on my ancient genealogy enabled my life to make sense. It enabled me to understand that my identity went beyond my biology and extended to a spiritual being from which I could draw on my ancestors. My life centred after drawing on my spiritual roots.
My whakapapa has not only centred my identity, but also my philosophy of life. I realised that to improve rights and equality of men and women, and all the diversities of life, it was necessary to draw on and implement into the structures of life. Equality of females as the same as males would not solve the realities of life. First it ignores the diversity of life including the sex/gender and does not provide them rights except as the ‘other’ outside of the binary of male-female. Also, it fails to recognise that everyone has some element of and need to balance the masculine and feminine within themselves.
Feminism should not be about being the same as the patriarchal other side, but by embracing a balanced, ethical view of life that treats life with humanism. Drawing on my genealogy, I believe a stronger feminism can thrive that is enabling of humanity and our interconnectedness with our earth that we live upon and the universe around us.”
“I’m a lesbian, went to an all girls school, I’m the youngest child in a family of four girls and the only grandparent I ever knew was my super cool nana who spent her time playing golf and painting watercolour flowers – so there was never a time where woman weren’t amazing/terrifying/strong to me.
My introduction to ‘proper feminism’ probably kicked in near the end of high school (2009-2010) when I spent a lot of my time avoiding boys, sitting in my room and scrolling Tumblr thinking I was smart AF slamming the like button on every Judith Butler quote and image of a girl with a hairy pit. By the time I went to university and started hanging out with ‘sociology major lesbians’ I was well and truly primed to think critically and continually try to learn more and more about gender.
TL;DR I’m a 28-year-old lesbian who studied in Wellington cliche.”
“Truth be told - feminist was a dirty word in the ’90s, seemingly always paired by all the men and boys around me with the delightfully pejorative ‘hairy arm-pitted man-hater…’ As a half-Indian, monobrowed teenager who had never been kissed, I didn’t have the vocabulary or confidence to stick it to the man, yet.
As a 13-year-old, I would listen to Fiona Apple’s Tidal on repeat but I didn’t find comfort or rebellion in the F word until 6th form Art History. We had a phenomenal teacher, who made us call her by her first name - at the time that act alone was revolutionary. Kate introduced us to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, the Guerrilla Girls, Berthe Morisot, Kara Walker, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and the canon. These artists became my heroes - the first skirt I made at Polytech, had the words ‘I shop therefore I am’ appliquéd on to it.
Although we’ve come a long way since the ‘90s we still have so far to go. My eldest shares my love for Fiona Apple and he often asks, ‘is it because of the patriarchy?’ so I’m working on it…”
“I feel like I was lucky in that my feminist awakening was sparked early by my mum. Susi came out in 1988, just two years after the legalisation of homosexuality bill passed in NZ, and I am proud of her for making the hard decisions that she did for herself when my sister and I were still so little. She worked as a policy analyst at the Ministry of Women's Affairs (as it was called then) when it was set up and through the '90s. Mum lived and breathed feminism, so for as long as I can remember she talked about it every day. My acts of tweenage rebellion were to grow my (until then) short hair and shave my legs (something I felt immense guilt about!). Turns out I was just conforming to patriarchal femininity...
My 4-year-old daughter uses my childhood desk as her bedside table. It has a 'girls can do anything' bumper sticker neatly stuck across the lid. I know things have changed in the intervening 30+ years, but I feel more than ever that this sentiment is just as important for her today as it was for me then.”
Jan Tinetti, Labour MP and Minister for Women, and Internal Affairs, Associate Minister of Education
“I never realised I was ‘doing feminism’ when my husband Dave and I had our boys – some 20 something years ago. We were both working as teachers, and we decided it was best for our family for me to go back to work and Dave stay home with the boys while they were young. I didn’t think that I should become the primary-parent just because I am a woman – we made a choice based on what worked best for me, for us, and for the kids.
That’s why I’m so thrilled this Government has extended Paid Parental Leave from 18 to 26 weeks, and increased Paid Parental Leave by up to $20 a week. Along with the bump in paid parental leave, we have implemented a wide range of support for parents – including boosting the Working for Families payments and the best start payment, which provides financial support for all families with a new born baby.
I am proud of the work this Government is doing to support women and their families when they need it. It’s clear there is still more to do for women – particularly as we rebuild and recover from Covid-19.
Women have directly benefited from our health and economic responses thus far, but it is also clear the economic disruption from Covid-19 requires a tailored-response for women - both to address the immediate short term challenges, and to build back better so that women are less vulnerable to labour market shocks like this in future. We may even see more men choosing to stay home with the kids like Dave did, when women are empowered to make the choices that work for them and their families.”
“I didn’t so much as have a single moment of ‘feminist awakening’ as such, more just moments of realisation that what I previously had thought was misogynistic or inherently patriarchal.
My parents who were both farmers, divorced when I was six years old, so I always grew up with a strong woman in my life. My mum raised us mostly on her own (in between different partners) - a fiercely independent woman, she moved to NZ alone from the UK at 22-years-old (something I never understood the magnitude of until I was in Europe at the same age).
My sister and I were lucky that we missed out a lot of the societal pressures on young girls because we lived in a rural community where kids were treated as kids and everyone helped out or played in the mud. Our dad always reminded us that we were privileged to live in a country where our vote was the same as anyone else's. The knowledge that Helen Clark grew up down the road from us was always there in the back of our minds.
I grew up a kid that read books, played for hours outside and hated pink with a passion. I would do anything if someone told me that ‘girls couldn’t do i’”, just to make a point (often at my own peril). I saw men and women as equal yet I didn’t want to be a ‘girly girl’, I wanted to be ‘one of the boys’. I fell into the misogynistic trap that many tomboy girls fall into - the feeling of superiority because of not fitting the stereotypical idea of a young girl. This damaging mindset was further cemented when I went to high school - and not just any, but a semi-private all girls high school. I felt out of my depth, often unaware of the nuances of friendship drama and sometimes just intimidated by my peers. I was shy; friends with other science nerds and quiet types, yet on the school bus I made jokes with a group of boys that became my close friends.
Up until I was 20/21-years-old, nearly all of my close friends were of the opposite gender - that’s where I felt comfortable but it was only as I became friends with other young women (many of whom are creatives) that I realised what I was missing in my friendships with men. For the first time I knew people who knew how it felt to be a woman in a female body.
Now at 25 I look back at those years in shame and confusion: how did I fall into the trap of thinking I was superior to other girls and young women just because we enjoyed doing different things and dressed differently? How did I manage to internalise so strongly that masculine values and characteristics were somehow better than feminine ones while steadfastly calling myself a feminist since I was a young child and fiercely believing in gender equality?
I am now an openly and proudly queer, with a collection of close women and non-binary friends across New Zealand and the world. I still don’t like pink but I respect every woman and person I meet, trying to reserve judgement and minimise my personal biases. I am aware of where I have fallen down as a white woman and where I can do better. Feminism is intersectional, it’s trans-inclusive, sex-worker inclusive and ever evolving and I will evolve with it - continually questioning my thoughts and actions and their impact on others.”
“Honestly, witches. My feminist awakening was sparked by witches. At age 10 and under, witches in books (Serafina Pekkala, Alanna), movies (Practical Magic, Ursula) and TV (CHARMED) really did something to me. It was really only a start eg. these women are all white (well one is part octopus), but the drama and magic they came with was aspirational, and they gave me something outside of princesses and blonde high schoolers to try and see myself as.”
“I don’t think I ever had a single moment of feminist awakening. As a child my mum was always the main breadwinner, the feistier and more stubborn parent, so I don’t know how conscious I was of ‘feminism’ in the current way I see it. My mum never shaved her armpits which I used to think was gross but now I see as feminist before feminism was cool.”
Karyn Hay, broadcaster, author, public speaker and host of RNZ’s Lately with Karyn Hay, 10-11pm weekdays
“When I was younger I didn’t really know the meaning of the word ‘feminist’. I suppose I could have looked it up in the dictionary but it felt like a word to be avoided because it was always delivered in the form of an accusation. ‘You’re not one of those bloody feminists are ya?’
Well, yeah, I guess I am. Being treated equally is just being treated fairly. I do the same job as a man so I should get paid the same money as a man. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are even women who do the hiring who, either consciously or unconsciously, add more money into the deal if it’s for a man. It’s hard to be brave when you need the money, when you like the job, but be brave! Choose to challenge. Ask for the same pay rates, ask for equity. Do it professionally and respectfully. Be a bloody feminist.”
“As a naive 11-year-old, I was obsessed with the Spice Girls and their brand of Girl Power. I was enthralled by their friendship, sense of self and outspokenness - mouthy women who seemingly were being exactly who they wanted to be, not concerned with pleasing men while uplifting the women around them. I thought that was feminism. I was way too uncool to know about Kathleen Hanna and Riot Grrrl and Sassy magazine, and despite being surrounded by a wider matriarchal family, things like feminism just weren’t really talked about. So pop culture in its most basic form was the initial spark for me.
I know now that what the Spice Girls represented was problematic: they fostered the mainstreaming of a gross kind of surface-level, marketable feminism, and Girl Power was an empty slogan that lumped together the experiences of all women and glossed over the real issues (today that’s just evolved into #GirlBoss).
Despite all of that, I know that they opened my eyes and ears and brain to conversations around equality and empowerment, and were the prompt that saw me go in deeper and educate myself as a teenager and beyond.
I also credit reading The Beauty Myth in high school for completely blowing my mind and forcing me to question everything when it came to women, pop culture, mass media and the magazines I had come to love. (Learning about the power and influence of beauty advertisers was shocking to me; so naive!). The culture chapter in particular encouraged me to begin thinking critically about the imagery and content I was consuming, and would later have a hand in creating as I began my career working in fashion and “women’s interest” media. That book is probably also part of the reason that I have always had such a love/hate relationship with it.
(It's a bummer that the book's author, Naomi Wolf, has turned into a crazy anti-vaxxer).
I’m still learning. Today’s conversations around feminism, gender and language can be challenging, because it’s so complex and I’m mindful in my privilege of getting it wrong. But seeing the work of younger people in creating a more intersectional and inclusive feminist wave is a sort of new awakening, as a not quite so naive 36-year-old.”
“Growing up in a household with a staunch feminist mum and even distribution of chores (dad was forced to make our school lunches, even when he tried to sabotage them in a desperate attempt to be fired) I didn’t so much experience a feminist awakening as more a later-in-life realisation gender wasn’t an even playing field.
After serial rapist Malcolm Rewa broke into my student flat in 1996 (we were thankfully unharmed), the attending detective poured over our belongings before coming to the bookcase and asking, in disparaging tones, who the feminist was. I replied that I was taking Women's Studies at university. 'Ugh, an aspiring feminist', he replied. 'Nothing worse'.
10 years later, I lost a PR contract with a men’s fashion chain after they found out I was pregnant with my first child. I feel very lucky to have spent much of my career working for and with incredible women in female-focused industries. But I’m not sure that set me up well with strategies for dealing with the patriarchy, other than blind rage.”
"A movie where men are heard but not seen with a theme song by Destiny's Child? Yes, a thousand times, yes. Charlie's Angels was released when I was singing the Y2K song at school, and I didn't realise the private conversations that it had with my subconscious, specifically with the part of me that knew the colonial patriarchy must fall. As I watched the VHS tape, I saw a Chinese actress in a non-Asian movie for the first time, who spent 98 minutes kicking ass with her best friends and saving the world.
As with 96 percent of the movies made up till now, the film featured a lot of problematic tropes and out-of-touch scenes. There really isn't much excusing that. Pop culture is a mere reflection of society, and both have somewhat developed since. Just like Charlie's Angels, I also have a lot of room for improvement. My feminism isn't perfect, but thank you Lucy Liu, with my girl Drew, Cameron D, And Destiny for letting me think that I could be anything - including one third of an elite crime-fighting team backed by an anonymous millionaire.”
Stacey Lee, director of documentary Underplayed, which debuts on Amazon on International Women’s Day
“Growing up in the Mount, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a ridiculous abundance of talented and inspiring female friends (Marle, LaTribe, Hannah Design Studio, M11, byclaire) who have given me confidence (perhaps a false sense?) that the rights and privileges afforded to women are equal. Through their own female entrepreneurship and the power of our collective rising, it wasn't until I moved country and changed careers that I felt the full of effects of gender disparity first hand and the true awakening of my feminist spirit.
As context, a recent Women in Hollywood study found that of the top 100 grossing films of 2019 women represented just 10.7 percent of directors. For women of colour the statistics are even more grim.
Breaking into the director circle as a 30 year old woman was tough. I watched as my male colleagues found ease of representation, got paid what they were worth ("it's not about the money, it's the opportunity!") and didn't suffer any of the stereotypical prejudices of being hit by briefs for tampon, diaper and make up commercials on repeat. (Hello? Have you seen my reel?) Furthermore when I was pregnant and looking for a production company to represent me in the United States, I found myself wearing oversized blazers and pretending my impending motherhood was non-existent for fear that it negatively affected them hiring or not hiring me.
It was for this reason, that when I did finally find representation and earned the privilege of becoming a director that I have dedicated my life to telling stories that turn the tide on gender inequality and elevate the female perspective wherever I can. And although it might seem on the surface that we are making progress, thanks to the cultural groundswells of movements like #metoo and #timesup, the UN's latest report states that it is still going to take over 100 years to close the gender gap. That is not in my lifetime...and unlikely in my 4-month-old daughter's lifetime. So the work we need to do is not only necessary, it is urgent.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the birth of my first child, Otis, coincided with the awakening of my feminism and the acceleration of my directing career. Within eight weeks of my son's birth, I was officially signed by a production company and found myself on more than 45 planes chasing jobs all over the country - all in the first year of his life. Otis came with me everywhere both out of necessity and as a valuable prop to help educate the film industry on the needs of filmmaking mums.
To paint the picture of my contrasting reality, I have a very distinct memory of shooting a rap video in Atlanta with a mob of rowdy teenagers and having to zip off to the production vehicle to pump between takes. (Thank god for car adaptors and tinted windows). Even though a lot of producers were also Dads, it was still a revelation to them when I requested a private space to nurse, or a bag of ice to keep my expressed milk safe or a PA to deliver my milk to Otis if I wasn't able to bring him to set. With female directors making up less than 10 percent of sets and even less mothers, I feel it is my duty and responsibility to educate my co-workers on how to tailor film sets for filmmaking mothers, so a) it’s normalised and b) the next generation are better supported when it is their turn to do double duty. Because ultimately it's not just a women's job to fight the good fight for gender equality, it is going to take all sides of the gender spectrum to help solve the disparity issues. And the more educated we all are, the faster we will get the job done.”