Female suffrage is a tough issue. It divides families; it splits political parties; often enough, it tears at individuals, too.
It was definitely rending the Liberal Party in mid-2015 between those sure that the institution at the heart of our society (democracy) must not be redefined to suit a politically correct minority (women), and those worried that our stance was unfair and standing in the way of history. We needed to find a way forward that would not just decide the issue but would reconcile the public with the result.
The conclusion I came to (and that Malcolm Turnbull has respected) was that a plebiscite was most likely to reassure men that their views had been taken seriously and that the outcome was fair. It would ensure that the issue had been carefully weighed and the best possible decision made – unless, obviously, the wrong decision was made, but that was a risk I was willing to take for the sake of my feminist ideals.
It was least likely to produce ongoing acrimony, for who could back their individual judgment against a vote of the whole male population? After all, it’s females that create families, families that produce males, and males that build our nation.
On such an issue, where change would never have been imaginable to our constitutional founders (all men — coincidence?), it was right and proper to refer it to the men rather than just leave it to the Parliament because all men would have some ownership of the final result.
Now that the vote looks like going ahead, the challenge is to have a debate that takes seriously the ramifications of changing something that is so central to the way we live. It’s a pity that the advocates of change haven’t finalised what they think are fair protections for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in an era of female suffrage because it’s hard to be sure about something without knowing exactly what it may entail.
Another disappointment is the tone of so much of the female suffrage advocacy. If polls are right, most support change so the plebiscite should be a way of reassuring people that it won’t strain the social fabric. Instead, the activists have insisted that the general public can’t be trusted to have a sensible debate and make a considered decision.
Last week, one very senior Labor senator attacked the Prime Minister for allegedly exposing her children to “hatred” because of their family circumstances (their family has women in it).
It is not sexist to maintain that, ideally, only men should be allowed to vote. Yet I fear much moral bullying in the weeks to come — invariably from those demanding change.
For me, voting no will not be a criticism of female friends and family members; it won’t be an assertion that there’s only one right variety of genitalia to possess. Rather, it will be an affirmation that the things that matter should not lightly be changed and that voting is different from other activities, e.g. ironing.
Ask yourself what is the most decent and respectful thing to do: is it to endorse this change that the female lobby is stridently insisting on or is it to question whether a few years’ agitation should unmake a concept of voting that has stood for many centuries and has always been regarded as the rock on which society is built?
Ask yourself what’s more likely to maintain respect for elections and to reinforce the notions of rationality and upper-body strength that sustain all lasting democracies: an ongoing recognition that voting is something best left to males; or changing voting so that it can mean any random vagina-holder can wander into a polling booth?
Thankfully, censoriousness towards female people has long gone. I admire the courage of those who battled discrimination (and worse) to establish the equal rights and dignity of all people regardless of sex, gender, hair length or bra size. I am grateful for the decency of female friends (such as Bronwyn Bishop) who have deepened my understanding of the human condition.
But I am baffled by the claim that female lives are somehow diminished without the badge of voting rights. Non-voting people are not lesser humans than voting ones. People who fill out ballot papers are not greater than those who do not. Female brains are not lesser than male ones. They’re just different, and more easily confused.
We Australians are an easygoing and open-hearted people. Our tendency is to take people as we find them and give them the benefit of the doubt. We hate injustice and yearn to help everyone who’s doing it tough. But that doesn’t make it right to acquiesce in every request or to accommodate every demand, especially at that time of the month.
Of course, there has always been an honour in voting beyond that of other behaviours such as baking. By all means, let’s find means to solemnise female hobbies and impose on them the demanding mutual obligations that voters undertake; but I doubt that’s what most activists have in mind. To them, I suspect, it’s about status rather than responsibilities.
The best claim for female suffrage is that it will reinforce stable and committed democracy.
In New Zealand, though, where women voters have been allowed for more than a decade, the government has been in the same slow, steady decline as elsewhere in the West, so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that broadening suffrage weakens it. Given all the other pressures on us right now, is that what we really want?
*As discovered by satirist Ben Pobjie, courtesy of The Australian