Scott Morrison may have gone viral after he marginalised the concerns of pregnant women, but it is his androcentric approach to COVID-19 that is far more telling.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” So said Christine Blasey Ford when she gave evidence about her alleged abuse at the hands of now US Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanagh and his friend Mark Judge when they were all teenagers. Indelible in my hippocampus is that phrase. When she first spoke those words they hit me with the force of a blow. Blasey Ford is a decade younger than I am, but my memory of the laughter, the scorn and ridicule that greeted my attempts as a young woman to get taken seriously is as powerful now as it was then.
Whether I was afraid, humiliated, suffering or just filled with enthusiasm about something, getting mocked for expressing it – for the sin of taking myself seriously – was an ever-present risk, particularly by men. It isn’t just a memory, either. It is still the default position for many men – particularly conservative ones – when faced with an inconvenient reminder that women and their messy bodies and lives are fully human. I have heard the sound of the dying patriarchy and it is an explosion of scornful, contemptuous male laughter whenever a woman attempts to assert herself.
We heard it again in the Australian Federal Parliament on 18th June. The Prime Minister was asked an entirely reasonable question by the Member for Canberra Alicia Payne. It was about the lack of maternity services for women who live in rural communities outside Canberra. Many are living more than an hour away from the nearest facility and this had led to some women giving birth by the side of the Barton Highway.
As some obstetricians have been quick to point out, this is very risky, both for the health and wellbeing of the mother and the baby. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked if he was concerned. Instead of taking Payne’s question – and the plight of birthing mothers – seriously, Morrison decided to brag about how much money his government was spending to improve the highway.
His facial expression as he responded revealed how extremely clever he thought he was. The explosion of male laughter that greeted his answer confirmed his view, although I suspect some was from the shock that he would answer such a question in such a way. The video of this revealing moment has, of course, gone viral on social media. It is an archetypal example of how women and their needs and experiences are still not taken seriously. We are a joke, it seems, to far too many of our leaders.
I have heard the sound of the dying patriarchy and it is an explosion of scornful, contemptuous male laughter whenever a woman attempts to assert herself.
Indeed, back in 1964 when the US Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act, women’s rights were included literally as a joke. Introducing gender was an attempt by anti-civil rights Congressman Howard Smith to de-rail President Johnson’s bill. Smith’s amendment was greeted with ‘guffaws’ from the men who then overwhelmingly dominated Congress. As one of the 12 (yes 12) female members at that time, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths commented in response “If there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second class sex, the laughter would have proved it”.
The Australian government’s response to the COVID-induced recession has been an exercise in refusing to take women seriously. This is despite it being women – particularly low-paid women – who have disproportionately manned (if you’ll excuse the expression – as Hannah Gadsby says – men have named almost everything) the frontline during this pandemic. The government’s neglect is so obvious and the results so devastating, the recession in Australia has been dubbed a pink one. More women than men have lost their jobs, yet sectors dominated by women (already more casualised and lower-paid) like universities and the arts, were excluded from rescue packages like JobKeeper. The first industry to be cut off from JobKeeper, months earlier than any other, is one of the worst paid and most vital – childcare.
The government’s “snap back” to the old childcare model is anti-women, anti-children, anti-educators … and it’s just bad economic policy. Right at a time when we can’t afford bad economic policy.
I’m on @TheBigSmokeAU today: https://t.co/PiqHhtaeic
— Polly Dunning (@PollyDunning) June 10, 2020
The lack of seriousness with which the LNP government takes women’s right to economic independence could not be more clearly demonstrated than by the disarray and contradictions surrounding the policies regarding childcare – a service that is vital to women’s ability to return to paid work. Australian women already struggled with one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world prior to this recession. A great many of them will likely give up the fight altogether now and just stay home. I don’t know whether this is deliberate or not – getting women out of the unemployment figures will certainly make them look better – but it is serious. Quite apart from making women much less able to escape unhappy marriages, including those involving domestic violence and abuse, when women are not in paid employment they do not accumulate superannuation and the face of poverty in old-age is already a female one.
My generation of women will retire with an average of half the super of men (and men don’t have enough) and fully one third retire with no super at all. The fastest-growing group among the homeless is women over 55 (stand by for that to get worse – this government gave money to tradies and home renovators but nothing for social housing). And the majority of those living on old-age benefits are women. The reward for a lifetime putting caring for others ahead of your own right to earn an income is the very real risk of living out of your car in this country.
Australian women are among the best educated in the world. We outperform men and boys at school and university, in every subject. Yet, we languish down around 44th in the world for workplace participation and achievement. This is another example of how female effort, industry, aspiration, talent and skill is still not taken as seriously as that of their male peers. And, it is access to affordable childcare that is one of the major barriers holding women back. Although built-in disincentives in the tax system keeping women in part-time work play their part.
I am often lectured about how much providing free childcare would cost – $8 billion terrifying dollars of taxpayers money. Yet, the Grattan Institute estimates that if women increased their participation in the workforce by just 6%, it would add about $25 billion to the economy. Talk about a decent ROI. There has even just been a study from the WGEA that shows companies headed by women provide much better returns to shareholders. Yet none of this logic, evidence or even hard, cold economic benefit appears to be making a dent in the stubborn refusal by conservative men to take the contribution and rights of women seriously.
Feminism is, I now believe, nothing more and nothing less than the fight by one half of the human race to be taken seriously by the other half and, if the recent performance by our PM and parliament was any yardstick, if the blithe lack of concern about how women are faring in this recession means anything, we still have a depressingly long way to go.