Marilyn Waring
Michael Gross

In 1975, at the idealistic age of 22, Marilyn Waring took her place among the all-male body politic as a Member of Parliament. She did more than hold her own, among other things crossing party lines to cast a decisive vote that helped institute New Zealand’s No Nukes stance.

After nearly a decade of service, she traded in politics for a blend of academics and farm life, all the while continuing to challenge mainstream constructs. In 1988, the maverick economist published If Women Counted, a book that points out the shortcomings of ignoring women’s unpaid work in economic tallies. She later produced a documentary on the same topic, Counting for Nothing.

She’s known for making even the most bewildering economic theories accessible to regular folk, an ability that she attributes to her mastery of the art of asking the “dumb question.”

“One of the things you learn,” she says, “is that nearly anywhere that you are and you ask a dumb question, three-quarters of people in the room are really pleased you did because they didn’t know either.”

Her farm north of Auckland is a hilly haven of angora goats and sheep, where rare kereru pigeons swoop from the trees, Tammy the pig follows her on her rounds, and she’s got things rigged for maximum simplicity and self-sufficiency.

“I’m trying to do really simple things, like having tools the right size for a woman’s hand, having the bike in the trailer I have to use to feed out hay in the winter,” she says. “Getting things where, in a really basic way, I can maintain them or I can totally handle them.”

Life on the farm keeps her grounded, and keenly aware of environmental issues like the depleting ozone layer that leaves her livestock vulnerable to skin cancers.

When she’s not farming, she’s lecturing in economics and traveling the world as an economic consultant. She says she does some of her best thinking in the goat shed.

“There’s a lot of things to do on a farm that are good, intensive labor — they keep you fit, but they don’t require a lot of cerebral activity…so you’re free to think kind of creatively.”

She prefers the rugged, real-life challenges of the farm to the political struggles she found as an MP.

“Here, you’re working all the time with elements that are more powerful than any humans can ever be, and the only way to survive is to work with them. Whereas politics is really brutal — that’s humans assuming they have power.”

From the Interview:

“I’ve just happened to find myself at some unusual places at some unusual times and there are certainly times when I wish my brain would stop… One of the great things about farming is that I can take a little bit of time off, you know, worrying about the war crimes tribunal or [whatever]… but of course I can’t stop worrying about foot and mouth disease. It just gives you a break, gives you some context…it’s grounding.”

“Too many of us are taught in contexts where we’ve been encouraged to think that you have to embrace a political ideology — or it could be a religious ideology — an ideology, and somehow there’s a central committee, you know, determining what the right way is to do something.”

Marilyn Waring

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