Suzy McKinney: Growing up Helen

My outbound flight to Bangkok en route to Copenhagen was stressful, for a number of reasons. I sat in the back of my parents’ car in a robe and crimson hood, because I had just attended my own graduation – and by that, I mean I turned up to the procession part, walked down Queen Street and then left my colleagues at the entry to the Aotea Centre to high tail it to the airport without a degree. My impending flight wasn’t the only reason I was stressed, though. I sat in the back of the car, on the phone, primarily concerned with the fact that my Helen Clark badges had not yet arrived. They were meant to have been couriered urgently to my workplace the day before, but come graduation I was badgeless.

After many stressed phone conversations, the badges were reprinted and urgently couriered to one of my delegation colleagues at her law firm, who was scheduled to take a later flight than us.

When I suggested at our Women Deliver delegation training weekend earlier that I have some sort of Helen Clark paraphernalia made, the nine other young woman who made up our delegation responded with glee. It was the best idea ever. We were excited. We were Helen Clark’s number one fan club. We had been watching carefully ever since rumours around her nomination to the UN Secretary General race started to circulate in the international ether. 

Why was this? What does Helen mean to us?

I think for the most part this delegation of successful young women and young feminists does perhaps lie to the political left more so than anything else - although we come from diverse backgrounds, and our unifying characteristics are absolutely a passion for gender equity that exists outside of political ideology or partisanship rather than anything else.

I think it would be fair to say that as a group, our political ideas and allegiances have little to do with our support for Helen. 

I’m proud of Helen for her liberal internationalism and promotion of democracy and human rights. I’m proud of her developments in the health sector, especially the anti-smoking bill. I’m proud of her government’s advocacy for same sex couples and sex workers, and I’m proud of her development of plans for economic support for low and middle income families.

It would be reductionist of me to say that I agree with every single one of Helen’s government’s policies, or to say that she was the perfect political leader, or even a perfectly transformative political leader.  But this article isn’t a dissection of Helen’s time as a Prime Minister – many people have done that before me. 

I am absolutely and completely reverent of Helen Clark because of what she meant for me growing up as a young woman in New Zealand in the 1990s and 2000s.

I grew up in crest of the third wave of feminism. My sister and I loved the Spice Girls, and our lovely and very feminist mother raised us with a message that we could be anything we wanted to be – and that whatever we wanted to be, be it a truck driver or a doctor or a traveling candle-stick maker, was ok. I was never dressed in pink.

The message that, “girls can do anything” was certainly a very enduring and persuasive component of my childhood – but I think all the more powerful reality was that I actually got to see a woman really doing it. It wasn’t just a message, it was a reality that I could see depicted in the newspaper each day. It wore red blazers.

I can remember the media coverage around Princess Diana’s death in 1997. As a very small girl, I was pointed towards the television and and told to look at the princess. I can remember thinking that she was beautiful and that I liked her dresses, and it seemed that everyone was very sad that she had passed away. Despite this, she had no lasting impact upon me aside from the voyeuristic pleasure that is the aesthetics of a younger Prince William.

Two years later, Helen Clark as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party won the 1999 election. She continued to hold power for nine years as I went through primary and secondary school.

As young person, I wasn’t politically engaged until my late teens. I can’t necessarily comment on the nuances of Helen’s policies, but what I can comment on is how she made me feel. Children notice emotions, styles of communication and the details of social interaction far more sensitively and greatly than they are given credit for.

We also remember. 

I saw Helen Clark endure criticism about her sexuality, her looks, her choice to not have children and her capacity for great leadership at the same time as having breasts while maintaining a perennial professionalism and sense of personal strength which made her, and her integrity seem golden and untouchable.

Growing up with Helen didn’t make me believe that being a woman in leadership or a woman who was very successful in her chosen area would be easy, or that successful females would be free of certain types of inequitable and patriarchal criticism, or that any of the structural barriers to women succeeding would be magically dissolved in a Helen acid. More importantly, it made me believe that I could handle it, it wasn’t important and furthermore that succeeding in that kind of environment was not only possible but a challenge with a particularly golden kind of reward.

Growing up Helen wasn’t a magic pill or intergenerational sceptre that immediately granted female empowerment: it was simply a part of my life that gave me the self-confidence and assuredness of my own value as a female to allow me to back myself.

I was able to apply to medical school and become a doctor, to travel widely overseas alone, to speak to and take on leadership roles in NGOs and to publicly publish my own personal and private thoughts that I think may be interesting or beneficial to others. I am able to get sweaty and climb mountains without worrying about how I look. I am able to dream and make big plans for the future, and support and encourage other women to do the same. Nothing I have done reflects anything like personal ability or talents as much as a capacity to take risks and back myself.

Although I’m proud of some of the things I’ve done, I’m only starting out: there is lots more to come. I’m sure that many of the challenges ahead of me will require skillsets that I have yet to acquire, and I will fall short. I have failed and I will fail. I think often too many women hold back because we are taught to be careful, to be safe and not to take risks.

I feel able to take risks because growing up Helen allowed me to become assured enough of my own sense of personal agency and value to know that these are separate things to the fallout of the interactions between women and a society that is designed for men.

Today I’m sitting in the Bella Centre, watching the President of the World Bank and the Queen of the Netherlands talk about investing in women’s economic empowerment. I’m here leading a delegation of women from New Zealand to this conference about the health and rights of women, and a few days ago our delegation was lucky enough to meet with Helen Clark.

In Auckland, I got Helen Clark badges made because I didn’t know how to thank her. 

Here in Copenhagen, instead I wrote this. Thank you, Helen. You have meant so much to me. 


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on May 20, 2016 and filed under Women Deliver 2016.