Humans unite: We badly need more than gestures

Apr 6, 2021

Dave Sharma’s token gesture on International Women’s Day, handing out single pink dahlias to female commuters, reminded me of my days in Moscow.

There 8 March was the one day of the year Soviet women received breakfast in bed and a single red carnation, the only flower available in early spring. That fulfilled men’s annual obligation. They could go back to their gruff, often drunken, ways and the women could get on with working and standing in queues for food. These days the flowers are imported from Holland and this year volunteer riding school students on horseback presented tulips to women visiting the Soviet-era VDNKH (Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy). Tokenism abounds everywhere when it comes to the Woman Question.

The cause of women has progressed since 8 March 1908 when they first marched demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, although we’ve yet to settle the question. Equal pay for equal work ought to be a no-brainer. Respect and safety too. That they are not points to entrenched power dynamics in the workplace but also to how we raise our children (see Paul Malone’s article in P&I) and to what society values most.

Reaching a new milestone in the battle for women’s rights will need more women in leadership but that won’t be enough. Look at the behaviour of senior government women in recent weeks. At least by being caught out expressing her contemptible view of Brittany Higgins, Linda Reynolds suffered a political price and the costs of defamation suit. Nationals MP Michelle Landry, while abhorring the actions – masturbating on a female MP’s desk – of a male staffer, also told reporters she felt “bad” for “the really good worker” who had lost his job. Member for Higgins, Katie Allen, who has been vocal about the need for change in the treatment of women not only at Parliament House but across Australia, could still make a bad joke on Insiders, asking “What am I missing out on?” when telling the host, David Spicer, she had never been subject to sexual harassment within her party. Speaking about Andrew Laming’s behaviour, she observed “clearly the stress must be getting to him”. Allen did also say Laming should quit politics, adding the expedient phrase, “at the next election”.

Women making excuses for men – their fathers, lovers, sons, colleagues – is familiar and puzzling. When violence is involved this comes down to self-defence. In a workplace like Parliament House is it the fear of losing out? That seems to be one of the ingredients in the Higgins case and may explain why the Labor Party has not been tougher on the Coalition, afraid perhaps of its own bad behaviour taking the headlines. Maybe it also explains why, even when women do make it into the higher echelons of parliamentary life, the culture doesn’t change. I don’t see things shifting while politics remain adversarial and factionalised.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, the focus was on class not gender, as Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) explained:

[Working women and working men are] united by their common lack of rights, their common needs, their common condition…such is the solution of the ‘woman’ question among workers.

Krupskaya was so devoted to Lenin and the cause that she was prepared to live with his relationship with another revolutionary, Inessa Armand. Even after Lenin had called the romance off, they all worked together for the revolution. In August 1919 Armand became the first director of the Women’s Section of the Central Committee (disbanded by Stalin in 1930 on the grounds the woman question was now solved) and chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women in 1920. That same year, persuaded by Lenin to take a break in the Caucasus, she contracted cholera. Just days before her death, she wrote:

In my life, in the past, there were a lot of occasions when, for the sake of the cause, I sacrificed my happiness and my love. But previously, it seemed that in its meaning, love had a significance equal to that of the social cause. Now, that is not the case…[N]ot for a moment do I cease to recognize that, however painful for me, love and personal relationships are nothing compared to the needs of the struggle.

A century later, we still haven’t found a winning formula to balance the personal with public service and the workplace, to establish parity of esteem between men and women. What strikes me in this last poignant missive from a woman of substance mostly remembered as Lenin’s mistress, is that women can’t have it all, not if ‘all’ is defined in the prevailing terms of power and value, which undervalue care, compassion and compromise. And why would they?

We also need to be more wary of ‘isms’, including feminism, because these encourage an ‘us-and-them’ mentality. We are all human beings; that’s the exclusive club we belong too. Within it, we have still to find mechanisms for coexistence that best harness differences and diversity which are, after all, the very foundations of life. The way I see this happening is by reassessing how society rewards the effort we put into fighting and caring for what we agree matters most. Class and gender wars still exist but now, with the existential threat of rapid global warming in plain sight, the time has come to unite the best of male and female traits to find ways to preserve the planet for all.

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