Misogyny at the heart of our Australian parliaments

Apr 5, 2021

In the normal course of events, one might expect the Roman Church in Australia to have something to say about the sub-culture within the Liberal and Country Parties in Canberra, and about the treatment of women in our community. After all, this institution used to be the self-appointed guardian of morality and the police official responsible for identifying and controlling sins and peccadillos of a sexual nature.

But the silence of the members of the hierarchy has been truly deafening. There was a time, not so long ago, when the men in red cassocks would have gleefully spoken out about the Church’s notorious position on all things sexual. However, none of them has stood up straight, poke his head above the trenches and make his voice heard about the roar.

The noisy silence of the episcopacy, however, can be easily explained.

The proliferation of sexual scandals deep within the heart of the institution has undermined the moral authority which the Roman Church enjoyed in the Australian culture and which the bishops and their seconds took for granted. Celibacy and the outward appearance of immaculate chastity were the sparkling jewel in the clerical crown – a source of pride that a large body of men could so publicly live the life of perpetual sexual abstinence – a life of sacrifice – a superhuman life of discipline and virginal virtue meant to show the world that the members of the Roman Catholic clergy were a cut-above the sinful hoi-poloi walking the streets, above those who walked the corridors of power in Canberra.

But with the startling, almost daily revelations of clerical misdemeanors and criminal behaviour, the institution has lost its ability to speak with conviction and be heard above the static on moral issues of any kind. Their pulpit has been demolished. Defeated and humiliated by an own goal. Now our parliament is going through a similar, shameful process.

Then, despite recent and rather pathetic attempts to make women more visible in the organization and give them a modicum of power, women are still second-rate shareholders of a male-dominated, patriarchal corporation functioning like a men’s shed somewhere on the periphery of society. Completely out of step in the modern world, with the upper echelons of power and prestige open exclusively to the male membership. Trapped in the past, with no wriggle-room – no organizational flexibility to plan a trajectory into the future. The so-called enlightened leaders pretend to be making provision for the involvement of women in the life of their corporate entity, but because of its essentially conservative and powerfully reactionary, rapidly ageing management, they are free to construct only minor and inconsequential adjustments to the status quo.

Let’s face it – the Roman Catholic church, like the Jewish world before and after Jesus, like western civilization since Plato, Aristotle and Theophratus, since Homer, Hesiod and the poet Semonides, like our federal parliament, has always had misogynistic attitudes and practices haunting her corridors of power, poisoning the minds of her leaders.

Three examples must suffice.

The great bishop of Hippo (a flourishing town in North Africa of the fifth century) was the son of a most attentive and saintly mother, and for some years the intimate partner of an unnamed mistress – the mother of his only son. Commenting on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, Augustine observed that there was really no difference between a wife and a mother, or any woman for that matter. As far as he was concerned, they were all the same – all tarred with the same brush – all females. Whoever she was, It was still Eve the temptress at work. And, he added, if it was good company and enjoyable conversation that Adam was looking for, then it would have been much better if the Creator had established a happy relationship between two male friends in a monastery or some quiet club, rather than create a female companion for his primordial creature in the Garden of Eden.

Members of exclusive male clubs do not have to suffer the incessant, trivial chatter of the female species. Women are so fickle, so illogical and unreasonable, so sly and difficult. But conversations between members of the male species can be serious and stimulating as superior minds meet behind closed doors, to plot the future of the planet and discuss the problems of the world. As they open another bottle of wine or discard the cork of another bottle of whiskey, our male parliamentarians in Canberra, inheritors of a noble tradition, settle in for a long session of planning and plotting, of policy discussion and factional number crunching. As some of our more outspoken female members have told us recently (Henderson, Andrews and others), they have not been welcomed to these social events. They have not been part of the inner circle where serious matters are discussed and important decisions taken. Bishop Augustine (and the army of bishops and archbishops, of abbots and archimandrites down the centuries) would concur – keep the women out – as far as possible away from the levers of power. They talk too much and only screw things up.

Secondly, Lotario dei Conti di Segni was destined to become Pope at the tender age of thirty-eight. As Innocent III, his reign climaxed the years of the medieval papacy. And as a deacon, and just before the end of twelfth century, he wrote a widely read and influential ascetical treatise with the catchy title of On the Misery of the Human Condition. After an enthusiastic diatribe on “the supreme ugliness of sexual pleasure” which, according to him, was “accompanied by a foulsome stench and uncleanliness”, the author addressed himself to the problem of choosing a wife and settling down.
“When we purchase a horse, an ass, a cow, a dress, a bed, a chalice or even a water-pot, it is only after having first tried them out. But a man’s fiancée is scarcely shown him lest he reject her before marriage. After marriage, however, he must keep her in any case – be she ugly, smelly, sick, stupid, proud, nagging or exhibiting other blemishes.”

A man never knows what marriage involves until he is well and truly stuck with the merchandise. No guarantees. No fit-for-purpose test. No right of return if dissatisfied.

“A wife is the only thing that is not displayed for assessment before purchase. This is because the family is frightened that the item might not come up to scratch.”

These quotations, almost word for word, can be traced from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer at the end of the fourteenth century, to the twelfth century in The Misery of the Human Condition, to Jerome’s treatise Against Jovinian which was written towards the end of the fourth century of our common era, and back to Theophrastus’s work On Marriage which he wrote sometime during the third century BC. – a time span close to seventeen centuries.

Then the author changed the tone and topic of his ascetical work, to reflect on the mechanism the Creator had devised for nourishing a child in the womb. Many mothers might find his words offensive.

‘It is evident that the embryo is fed by the menstrual blood. This substance is said to be so detestable and impure that it makes trees barren and vineyards unproductive. It can kill grass and if a dog eats out of it, rabies result. Should the menstrual blood infect the male seed it may cause leprosy and elephantiasis in the child.’

Some might think that like Dr Andrew Laming of the federal parliament, like Michael John Johnsen of the state parliament, or the staffer who masturbated on the tidy desk of some unsuspecting female member, Deacon Lotario, was displaying inappropriate signs of ingrained prejudice, of serious misogyny and crass stupidity. He was clearly in need of special remedial training. His condition could have been treated successfully, without much fuss, if he only had signed up for a post-graduate course in empathetic behaviour. I wish Dr Laming the best of luck with that.

Finally, Saint Albert the Great, one of the notorious Dominican theologians of the thirteenth century, a philosopher and scientist to boot, and the esteemed teacher of Thomas Aquinas, would have us believe that, because she contained more liquid than her male counterpart, a woman was less qualified than a man to act with moral probity. Since it was of the nature of liquids to absorb things easily, to slush and splash around all over the place, he told his students and readers that women were similarly unstable, inconstant and curious. They were by nature unfaithful and untrustworthy. Drawing on his limited life-experience as a monk, Albert observed that –

‘When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time.’

He invited his readers, almost exclusively male monks and clerics, to trust ‘an experienced teacher’ like himself. He told them that a prudent man would never share his plans with his wife. Quoting Aristotle, he observed that a woman was a misbegotten man, and as a result, she had a defective nature. For this reason, women were insecure. What they cannot achieve with her own gifts, they seek to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions.

“And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. In evil and perverse behaviour, a woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than a man. Her feelings drive her in the direction of evil, just as reason impels a man toward good.”

Despite his scholarship and his religious way of life, Albertus Magnus shared many of the ingrained convictions and poisonous prejudices of some of our male parliamentarians and their male staffers, some of the boys at our exclusively male, private schools. The sub-culture within the monasteries of the middle ages was in many ways similar to the attitudes and unconscious beliefs floating about in the offices and corridors of Canberra or Macquarie Street, and drifting about in the atmosphere of our western world.

This is the terrible challenge which faces Minister Marise Payne and her female team, the Australian of the Year (Grace Tame), the courageous Britttany Higgins and the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins. They up against an army of deeply entrenched forces. For centuries the ecclesiastical forces have held the line against formidable attacks, and the parliamentary forces may eventually prove to be exceedingly obstinate. To succeed, the women will need fire in their bellies and all the diabolical cunning they can muster. Let us hope they will be victorious.

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