New Zealand's Women's Minister thinks beauty pageants are great for girls

Women’s Minister Louise Upston.

Women’s Minister Louise Upston.

She might be New Zealand's new minister for women but don't call Louise Upston a feminist.

The Taupo MP is under fire for singing the praises of beauty pageants, which she says give contestants confidence.

Upston became a fan of pageants at a Miss Tokoroa contest after being impressed by the talent and self-possession of the contestants.

Louise Nelson during Miss Universe New Zealand beauty pageant rehearsals.

Louise Nelson during Miss Universe New Zealand beauty pageant rehearsals.

"The confidence that these girls had at the end of it - you literally had to see it to believe it," Upston said.


"What are the things that make a difference to young girls, and setting their sights high? It's about confidence, it's about having belief in their ability.

"And for those 20 young girls I saw, if it was participating in that programme that gave them that, then absolutely."

There was no bikini section to the Miss Tokoroa competition earlier this year, Upston said.

Miss Universe New Zealand director Jack Yan said his show had jettisoned the old-fashioned swimwear section, and now met the needs of 21st century women such as Corporal Louise Nelson, a competitor this year.

(I'll just let that statement hang there with you.)

"We're very glad that the minister has had a first-hand encounter of the positive effect the competition has for young women," Yan continued.

But Upston's views have not impressed one veteran pageant protestor.

It was shocking for the Women's Minister to speak positively about pageants, which prioritised looks over brains and ability, said former pageant protestor Maxine Gay, now retail, finance and commerce secretary for First Union.

"Beauty pageants pander to brands and to men. There are better ways to build confidence," Gay said.

Gay was also shocked Upston did not identify as a feminist.

"I just think that's ignorance. What is a feminist? It's somebody who knows and understands women's issues, and tries to do something about it," Gay said.

"One would have thought that being a feminist is a prerequisite to be minister of women's affairs."

Upston said she did not want to be seen as having a feminist agenda in future roles.

"I've never called myself a feminist. I'm not interested in being a flag-waver," she said.

"I'm not interested in having colleagues who get there because they're a woman, and they're the token one. That diminishes our contribution, and I don't ever want anyone to look at me and say 'she's there because she's a female'."

Upston was a fan of old-fashioned chivalry, such as men opening doors for women, she said. "I'm quite comfortable with it, and I think that's probably why a real feminist wouldn't call me a feminist."

Despite her conservatism in some areas, Upston strongly believed women needed to aim for better in their careers than traditional service roles.

"It bothers me greatly that in 2014, the top career choices for girls continue to be hairdressers and air hostesses. It's just like, really? Where's the scientist, where's the engineer, the IT expert? Where's the mayor, where's the entrepreneur?"

Upston took over at the Ministry of Women's Affairs in October, four months after it was severely criticised in an annual trans-Tasman briefing report rating public-sector performance.

The ministry was not proactive under former minister Jo Goodhew, and it was not clear what staff did, the report said. Upston's priorities include ending sexual and domestic violence against women, promoting women to positions of leadership, and financial equality for women.

The ministry had been tipped to close when National came to power in 2008, but Upston said it still had an important role to play.

"There is still a gender pay gap. Women are still highly represented in low-paid jobs, and they are still victims of sexual violence and domestic violence in numbers far in excess of males," she said.

"Unfortunately, there are still many out there who think the fact that we got the vote, that we have MPs in Parliament, that we have ministers - that we're kind of done.

"No way. While there is still a gender pay gap, we're not done."

 - Stuff