Jo Vallentine, West Australian Regional Meeting.
Many Friends would have been distressed to witness the degree of vitriol in our Parliament lately. It’s embarrassing, and it’s demeaning for all concerned. Whether you think Julia Gillard’s stirring fifteen minutes of putting Tony Abbott in his place was justified, clever, hypocritical, whatever, let it be known that sexist attitudes have prevailed in Canberra for a very long time.
I’m sure that Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tagney – first women elected to Federal parliament during WW2, from either side of the country, and either side of politics – suffered being patronised, ignored, and grudgingly credited with having the occasional bright idea. It was a man’s world. A sticker someone gave me around my first election time (1984) read: “A woman’s place is in the house – and in the Senate”, was a good reminder that women were still considered outsiders, and that women needed to struggle for recognition, to be taken seriously, and to be fully engaged in the political process. The other side of that coin of course is that determined women can make their presence felt, can do a great job for the community, but that it’s often at personal cost, and as women often say, they have to be much better than men at any given job to get properly recognized.
All of which is still true.
In the old Parliament House, not long before I arrived, some of the men’s toilets had been “converted” for use by the slowly growing number of women, after much lobbying by outspoken Senator Ruth Coleman (ALP/WA). She had argued not only for more access to toilets, but also for the women to be “allowed” to wear pants in the chamber, and famously made the comment – when she was presiding over the Senate on one occasion – “I don’t have sex when I’m in the Chair.” She was trying to encourage non-sexist language of course!
The fact that we have moved slowly from no women in Parliament at all to 66 (out of 226) now, doesn’t excuse sexist behaviour, but it certainly helps to glean some understanding of it. Some men who represent us in Parliament, even now, went to all-boys schools, grew into unofficial fraternities in their chosen fields in law, business, banking, to name just a few of the more obvious areas. It is especially the case that if these men came from old-school religious families – where they have for centuries dominated every facet of life – they need to make a huge mental shift to encompass, even embrace, the idea that women can do as well as men in governance and decision making and policy formulation.
Clearly, some men have not quite made that mental shift, and still need to be reminded to be inclusive and respectful of all women, no matter how much they might love the women in their private family lives.
Equality on gender lines is still elusive.
When I was copping a particularly bad time in the Senate, I remember often wondering whether it was because I was a woman, because I was an independent, or because I was saying things that mainstream politicians and parties just didn’t want to know about. It was probably a combination of all three.
Only towards the end of my eight years did I discover that the Labor Party had appointed one of their then junior Senators to bait me on the floor of the chamber. He officially moved his seat very close to mine (where I had been sitting in rather splendid isolation, which I didn’t mind at all!) and nearly every time I spoke, he would be there goading me, undermining me, muttering that what I was saying was rubbish, usually so that others didn’t hear him, so he was never called to order for interjecting. He confessed to me, as I was leaving, that he’d really enjoyed himself trying to throw me off track.
Others were not so surreptitious – frequently I was shouted at, often very rudely. I would maintain my decorum in public, but when whatever episode was over, I would return to my office and burst into tears, or vent some rather un-Quakerly and un-Parliamentary language.
Peter Jones would remind me that I must be doing something right to be getting under their collective skins so often! I guess there was some small satisfaction in not being completely ignored!
On two occasions the Senate was shut down whilst I was speaking. A quorum having been called, the whips stood at the doors telling their colleagues not to enter, it was only Vallentine talking, and they wanted to shut me up! It only remained then for the whips to “draw attention to the state of the House” – i.e. to reveal that sufficient numbers were not present – and that was that for the day. But that might have been at 1 a.m. or so – I had become infamous for adjournment speeches, which in those days could be thirty minutes long. But because I was so often omitted from the speaking list, or left until last when time conveniently ran out, on most of those late night occasions I was simply wanting to get recorded in Hansard some of what I would have liked to have said earlier in the day!
Senators were often very conservative about standards fit for one who occupied a precious, much coveted, red leather seat. There was fury when I got arrested for example at Pine Gap for trespassing against an American military establishment on Australian soil. Disgraceful behaviour, they complained.
Senators just don’t do that sort of stunt.
Even worse when I got arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site in a huge mothers’ day action – an international embarrassment, they railed. One Senator put out a press release saying, among other things, that it was shocking that I wasn’t at home with my children on mothers’ day. Of course I had a response to that, noting all the men who are off fighting wars on any fathers’ day, and no one complained about that. Yet there was I criticized for speaking out for peace for all the world’s children – who just might be safer without the threat of nuclear war hanging over their heads.
I often had to garner my energies to face the hostility which mostly, but not exclusively, came from men. It was helpful to be reminded that “we are called to be faithful, not successful”. It was helpful when members of the community came in to Parliament House to meditate with me. It was helpful to remember my mantra “I will not be fobbed off” which I felt was emblazoned across my forehead. It was crucial for me to pay attention to a daily spiritual practice, which included exercising, cosmic greeting and prayers for strength just to get through that day.
And mostly, I felt support from Friends, which was also helpful. It was wonderful going to Yearly Meeting a few times during that eight years where I could just soak up the nurturing, without having to feel guilty for not going an on any committees!
There’s a quote from Lucretia Mott which has been sitting on my filing cabinet over many years: “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.” Just as well I enjoy a challenge.
My hope for the future is that women won’t be put off taking their places in parliament, because there is important work for the world to be done there. And my hope is also that more respect for everyone will be shown, regardless of gender. Namaste.