She taught a generation of Kiwi women how to defend themselves and, 40 years on, Sue Lytollis is still fighting for feminism.
The word “angry” comes up a lot in conversation with Sue Lytollis. Half an hour into our interview and the word has made more appearances than Simon Dallow on the 6pm news.
Sue is angry about the level of violence and abuse in this country, particularly against women and children. She’s angry about the skyrocketing rates of homelessness and mental health issue and, 40 years after marching for equal pay and rights, is wondering why they still remain out of our grasp.
“The fact that we’re having these conversations in 2021 means toxic masculinity and verbal, sexual, psychological and physical abuse are still very much a part of our society,” says Sue, 62, rolling her eyes skyward. “Today, social media and the sheer availability of pornography has added cyber abuse to the mix, which keeps a slow burn on the ways women and girls can be preyed upon, and allows abnormal sexualised behaviour to become more accepted. You can see why I’m so pissed off!”
That’s the Sue way: take no prisoners and call a spade a bloody shovel. It’s how she blazed a trail through Aotearoa, as the first Kiwi to create a self defence programme for women and girls.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, up and down the country, Sue taught women how to knee attackers in the groin, gouge them in the eye and build confidence to fearlessly deal with any situation.
Woman editor Sido Kitchin was one of them. In a draughty community hall in Nelson, Sido and her mother learnt how to defend themselves from potential harm.
“The ’80s were a time of huge sexual violence against women in NZ,” says Sido. “Women were really afraid, so Mum made sure I went to Sue’s lessons. I remember being told to hold my keys between my fingers as I walked down the street – something I still do now when I’m walking to my car at night. Sue taught around 20,000 women each year, so she had a major influence on a whole generation of Kiwis.”
So strong was Sue’s voice – and her left hook – that she was in the vanguard of New Zealand’s feminist movement. She talks about that in a new TVNZ documentary, Six Angry Women. Released to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, the film details the story of this country’s feminism, of women fighting for rights and safety in their communities, and a group of vigilantes taking justice into their own hands after Mervyn Thompson, a University of Auckland lecturer, was accused of rape.
“It was such a horrible time because men could do whatever they liked,” Sue says, of an era where it was legal to rape your wife (a law that was only scrubbed from the statute books in 1985). “And if you were attacked, your family and the police often didn’t believe you, so many women didn’t even bother reporting sexual violence.
“I was living in Japan when Mervyn was kidnapped and tied to a tree, but four or five women in my self defence classes had previously told me he’d attacked them, so when I heard about what happened to him, I considered it rough justice.”
Sue (Raukawa, Tainui) has been fighting the good fight as long as she can remember. Born into a working class whānau in Panmure, the youngest of three girls admits food and shelter weren’t in short supply – but love sometimes was.
“My mother was abused as a child and could be violent to her husband and children,” Sue explains. “When I was in my twenties, I found out Mum had been a bit naughty and my biological father was someone different to her husband. Sadly, my biological father died before I could meet him.”
Although Sue’s mother was sometimes difficult, she was also sassy, which rubbed off on her youngest daughter.
“Once the neighbours at our Housing NZ flat were having a party and Mum went over to ask them to turn the music down. Half an hour later, they cranked it up again, so Mum went back and punched the guy!” Sue recalls. “And we’d go to the cinema, where gang members with big afros would sit in front of us. Because we’re all short, Mum would say, ‘Could you move, I can’t see a thing’ – and they’d move.”
Academically gifted, Sue was a key member of Tamaki College’s debating team when they placed second at a regional competition. But at the school assembly that followed, the principal only mentioned the rugby team’s victory.
“I was incensed,” she recalls. “I marched into his office and demanded he apologise at the next assembly and mention the debating team’s achievements, which he eventually did.”
Sue was also an athletic child, and fell into martial arts when she 10. Not only did this lifelong passion help her segue into her eponymous self defence classes, it also earned her accolades from national and international judo and kendo tournaments – including from the days when Sue was the only women fighting males at international level (she was also the first Kiwi woman to reach the highest kendo level).
Career wise, Sue leaned towards journalism, with work on several Canterbury newspapers, including The Press in Christchurch. But, alarmed by the rising levels of sexual violence against women, when someone suggested she use her judo black belt to teach self defence classes, her second act began.
“There were no classes back then by women, for women. I tried a class taught by men which was about what to do if someone sticks a gun in your back and advice like, ‘Don’t go to this place’ and ‘Don’t wear revealing clothing’. It was all about victim blaming and I knew I had to change the narrative.”
So she did, flying around the country to teach women how to protect themselves – “The Topp Twins were in my first ever class!” – and eventually training other women to lead her eight-hour programme.
But the sexual violence and harassment trenches were a tough place to be. “I’d have women come to my classes the day after being raped. I was dealing with so much angst and pain that after a few years I burned out and went to live in Japan.”
Back home, Sue landed a job as a social worker, another front-line role that exposed her to issues most of us don’t want to think about. After six years with Child, Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki), Sue took herself on a belated OE to London.
That’s where she met her partner Liz Dutton, a British registered nurse. “I met Liz at a kendo class in 1999 and we’ve been together ever since,” says Sue. She’d previously dated men but, when she was 19, she fell for a woman. “I thought, oh so this is what love feels like.”
Sue, Liz and Liz’s son Ross (now 35), settled in Wellington, where a succession of government communications roles paid the mortgage. But three years ago, after her third redundancy, Sue called time on her comms career.
“I thought about what I wanted the rest of my career to look like, and social work popped up again,” she tells.
She initially got involved with elder abuse cases, but for the last two and a bit years, she’s been with the Wellington City Mission, working with clients across the board – from homeless people and fractured families to those seeking health treatment.
“I work with anyone who walks through our doors. I absolutely love what I do, especially being able to help those who really need it. I’m also enjoying mentoring younger social workers because I’ve been around a while, so I’ve learned a few tricks I can pass on.”
I absolutely love what I do, especially being able to help those who really need it
At an age when many of us would be thinking about easing off the gas, Sue is doing the complete opposite. Awarded a QSM (Queen’s Service Medal) for Services to Women in 1995, Sue is actively involved with many organisations: Mosaic-Tiaki Tangata, which works with male sexual abuse survivors; Outerspaces, which caters for LGBTQ+ youth groups; and the Hutt Minoh House Friendship Trust, which fosters relations between New Zealand and Japan.
And then there’s Liz, the couple’s two dogs, Jazz and Milo, and Sue’s beloved martial arts.
“Liz and I still show up at kendo like two old ladies to beat up the young ones!” Sue laughs. “But I enjoy it and will keep kicking butt as long as I can.”
Despite the roll-call of issues that make her angry, Sue is a big old softie.
“I’ve mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older,” she says. “I’d like to think I’ve passed the baton on to the young women coming through now to keep fighting and keep the conversation going, because we can’t be quiet about issues that affect so many of us.”