It’s been a long time baby: the fight to end violence against women

Dec 18, 2021
Support among females is the lowest in the Liberal Party’s history. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Men’s abuse of women is still a significant problem, but our government seems unwilling to genuinely acknowledge this fact.

Kate Jenkins’s report on behaviour in federal Parliament is the latest disturbing revelation about men’s disrespect for women. Males start abusing girls when they are teenagers and are still at it well into middle age.

For well over a century, women have been campaigning to end this scourge of violence yet it’s still a major problem. That should rate as a national scandal. But hey, only half the population is at risk so how good is Australia!

Remembering that long history is not just a bit of nostalgia.  We should learn from it and use it relentlessly to discredit anyone who pleads ignorance. Remembering how long the problem has been swept under the carpet should fuel both our outrage and determination to eradicate this cancer.

In 1888 Louisa Lawson, in her journal Dawn, campaigned to end domestic violence. The suffragettes wanted women to have the vote and be part of the decision making process so that violence against women would be tackled.

In the ’70s and ’80s we established that middle class men were just as likely to be abusing their wives as alcoholic boofheads. Domestic violence was widespread. I remember the endless battles with men in the public service who tried to block funding for women’s refuges. Their objection? It would encourage women to leave their husbands. Sexual harassment had zero recognition until, in 1975, when it was given a name thus kick starting the campaign to make it unlawful. Despite decades of effort the issue of consent in rape cases is unresolved. A mere 40 years ago a man had the legal right to have sex with his wife on demand. Rape in marriage was only written into the criminal code in 1980. Susan Ryan’s bill proposing a Sex Discrimination Act was fiercely resisted. One advertisement for a rally opposing the legislation demonstrates the climate at that time:

“Stop Ryan — Australia’s feminist dictator — Stop Ryan’s ruthless juggernaut and anti-female Sex Bill. Join the National Coalition Rally” (The Sydney Morning Herald, October 8,1983)

Rightly we are praising the young women who have reenergised the fight against violence but have forgotten the first brave woman to make a public stand for her right not to be abused. The 1983 case O’Callaghan v Loder and The Commissioner for Main Roads established the principal that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination. It was a ground breaking decision in a new area of law and was praised by the legal profession as “a well-argued and courageous judgment in difficult circumstances”. No surprise the judge making that decision was Jane Mathews — the only woman judge within the NSW court system at that time.

A David and Goliath battle, the case attracted considerable media attention. Sue O’Callaghan, the complainant, was a junior lift attendant in the Department of Main Roads operating the boss’s private lift. She alleged that boss, Bruce Loder, had sexually harassed her. Not only was he the Commissioner of Main Roads he was chair of the Australian Road Research Board, a man highly respected throughout the transport industry.

O’Callaghan claimed sex discrimination on the basis that, in being sexually harassed, she had been treated differently and less fairly than a male employee. The complaint she lodged with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board in 1981 outlined how, at the invitation of Loder, she had visited his office on many occasions. From the time O’Callaghan lodged her complaint until the Supreme Court of NSW delivered its judgement in September 1983 was almost two years. What a stressful time that must have been for her.

O’Callaghan knew about her rights because Main Roads had a sexual harassment policy — a legal obligation inserted into the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in 1980.

Loder adamantly denied the allegations. The Court did not believe him but did not find in Sue’s favour. It ruled that, although Loder’s behaviour was unwelcomed by her, Sue had not made that clear to him. In those early days, issues of power imbalance were poorly understood. Male egotism being what it is I bet, short of Sue slapping his face, Loder would have assumed a low ranking employee would be flattered by his advances.  So in Australia’s very first sexual harassment case a powerful man got away with indulging his unreciprocated desires.

What courage it must have taken for that young working class woman to take on and persist with that unprecedented battle against a very powerful man. She was truly a trail blazer. O’Callaghan’s brave stand may have won a great victory for Australian women but brought her only heartache. We should remember and honour her.

Loder died in 2016 and his obituary, published on the Australian Road Research Board’s website, is full of praise. He is described as “..a man of great integrity and intellect and one of the giants of our business.”  Using his power to sexually exploit a young and vulnerable employee made not the slightest dint in his reputation. Another example of how much our culture needs to change.

For all the flowery words about mothers, our culture does not value or adequately support women’s contribution to our social wellbeing. Yet the bearing and rearing of children is absolutely basic to our survival. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the caring professions which are largely staffed largely by women. This work is under paid and often has  poor working conditions.

Overwhelmingly, we reward competitive, aggressive men. For decades, governments have spent vast sums of money promoting the warrior and performance in war as the pinnacle of who and what we should honour. Has this had the effect of distorting the perception how a bloke should behave? Of course we should honour those who put their lives on the line to defend us but lots of other skills are just as important in maintaining a healthy society.

Historians rate the feminist revolution of the ’70s as one of history’s most significant movements. We achieved worldwide social change on many fronts and for a brief moment we thought we were well on the way to equality. But we will never be equal while male violence persists on an industrial scale.

Growing up in the world created by their mothers and grandmothers, today’s women have the self-confidence to speak out about stuff once too shameful to mention. Their voices are making the  Me Too movement a powerful force. But it faces a massive challenge. Men must change.

It’s possible, through legislation, to force behavioural change in the workplace. Such proposals will meet with resistance but are achievable provided there is the political will. Let’s hope there are some present day politicians to rise to that challenge.

But what of life outside the workplace? A woman is killed every week by a male partner, women are murdered on our streets and, in the pub, drugs are slipped into women’s drinks. Making the suburbs safe will mean dramatically changing our culture.

Already there is a movement on the internet promoting the notion that men are the victims, deprived of their rights by feminism. So how do we deal with this intrenched sense of male privilege and make the Aussie bloke want to change? That is a huge and complex challenge.

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