The politician, the victim and the sisterhood

CARMEN Lawrence, who grew up Catholic, would know about mortal sins. Her generation of parish-school children was taught that they were the worst sins, so grave that they killed off the grace in your soul until you repented.

Catholics have softened their line on what constitutes a mortal sin in the years since then. Have feminists?

Lawrence has been acquitted of charges that she knowingly gave false evidence to the Marks Royal Commission about the Easton petition. Her defence was that she could not remember being told of its details before it was tabled in the Western Australian Parliament.

The petition contained misleading allegations by businessman Brian Easton about his estranged wife, Penny, and the then Opposition Leader, Richard Court. Four days after it was tabled, Penny Easton killed herself.

Lawrence, at her trial, conceded that the petition might have been discussed with her before its tabling, although she could remember no such event. She acknowledged that she could not say firmly one way or the other, given that she had no memory of the meetings at which the petition was allegedly discussed.

The jury accepted that she was not guilty of lying, but her line of defence leaves open questions about the train of events in Perth in 1992. For feminists, they pose a particular dilemma.

The picture painted in her colleagues’ testimony is of a politician who committed the cardinal sins of the feminist catechism. To use a petition full of false claims to bolster one’s political position would be to abuse institutional power.

In this case, the person on whom events rebounded – the suicidal Penny Easton – was an icon of feminist victimhood: a fragile woman persecuted by a vindictive ex-husband who managed to harness the full weight of the patriarchy to his cause.

Where does all this leave the sisterhood?

Many women admired Lawrence’s personal style: intelligent, dignified, direct, seemingly focused more on policies than personalities. She showed up the aggro strutting of pigeon-chested pollies and personified the hoped-for feminisation of politics, its transformation from a Boys’ Own blood sport to a calling that could be respected.

Lawrence’s public image dovetailed with the idea that the purpose of getting women into the system is to change the way the system works. But if high-profile feminists defend those of their own who do not play the game so differently from the “boys”, does this mean they see it as more important for trailblazers to succeed in the system than to transform it?

Early Australian feminists never doubted that women should use their political power differently to men. Marilyn Lake, professor of history at La Trobe University, tells of suffragist Rose Scott, who believed that the women’s franchise would infuse public life with kindness. (“Yeah duh-uh,” Bart Simpson would say to that idea, but Bart always has had a wobbly moral compass.)

In her coming book, Getting Equal: The History of Feminism in Australia, Lake writes that Rose Scott deeply mistrusted traditional politics as full of selfishness, combativeness, greed and pomposity, but she knew that women had to enter political life in order to change the world. Her solution: women should avoid party politics.

Fellow activist Vida Goldstein agreed, arguing in 1903 that if women joined existing parties, they would have to “adopt men’s methods and men’s aims and simply help in perpetuating the old order of things”.

Today, institutional feminists too often analyse political power as just another right denied to women, just another career path barricaded. They criticise the unfairness of expecting a higher moral standard of women politicians, arguing that it turns them into “God’s police” and makes it harder for them to survive their inevitable mistakes.

The double standard does, indeed, suck.

Women do have to work much harder to succeed, and they are hounded longer and louder and more viciously when they fail. They are being sent into the piranha pit of politics but are forbidden to use the usual tactics to survive.

It shouldn’t be like that, but the fact is that it doesn’t let them off the hook with regard to their own choices. It doesn’t justify their losing sight of the reason they are there, which is to make a difference.

The standards are justifiably higher for feminist politicians, as opposed to women politicians generally, because they espouse a particular ethical stance with regard to the use of power. The rhetoric of feminism is empty if those who choose to wear the label do not uphold its ideals.

It’s not so old-fashioned a notion. That other child of the iconic post-modern family, Lisa Simpson, is every bit as much an idealist as Rose Scott. Simpson would no doubt argue that if politicians let the system determine their behavior, their behavior would never end up changing the system. She’s that kind of girl. Maybe she has no future in politics.

First published in The Age.