A letter to my sisters

by gabeatkinson / 29 November, 2012
Marilyn Waring wrote this piece for the Listener in 1984, shortly before she left politics. National was defeated by Labour in the snap election that year.
To read the Listener's interview with Marilyn Waring in our December 8-14 2012 issue, click here.

LISTENER, MAY 26, 1984 #2311 p21

My dear sisters,

Marilyn Waring, photo Jane Ussher

NOW THAT I am to leave Parliament I suppose I should be flattered that so many want my opinion and ask that I write for them. Among those letters comes one from the Listener requesting “a frank personal account of what it is really like to be an MP in the New Zealand Parliament, especially from the point of view of a young woman". (It is difficult to see how it might be from any other point of view.) “Perhaps the article could take the form of a kind of odyssey from 1975 . . . "

So much that is past should be left that way. I address you to avoid playing games, to keep myself honest, remembering how easy it would be to package only the retail item. The editor of the Waikato Times told me on my first visit to him as a candidate in 1975: “I am a salesman. I have a daily product. I am not here to educate, I am here to sell.” And I have never forgotten it.

I address you too remembering Adrienne Rich writing in Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying — “We assume that politicians are without honour. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandal of their politics is not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political life."

And if I must write, then I am comfortable and comforted in addressing you. It has been important to feel thus, reinforced by my predecessor, Sir Douglas Carter, saying to me: “At the end of every day you are the person you have to live with" — advice for the mind and the spirit — as he marched me one hot December day in 1975 in and out of every government department in Hamilton, saying: “This is where your work is, this is where you help your constituents; Ministers and ministerial are last resorts” — advice for praxis.

Armed with little else but advice I went to serve — Raglan, and you, though I knew so little of your lives and our multiple oppressions in trivial ways, consumed with the myths of objectivity and measuring our invisibility by numbers.

We were four of 87 in Parliament, with a male Cabinet of 19, and five male parliamentary under-secretaries. All heads of government departments were men, and while there were nine women private secretaries to Ministers, all 43 principal private secretaries were men. Thirty-one men and eight women members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery fed their views from central government to 37 major metropolitan and provincial daily newspapers, all edited by men. The law courts were presided over by 23 male judges, and only three of the 26 major city councils by women mayors. (Now we have 8/92 in Parliament, 12/55 secretaries to Ministers, 7/26 members of the Press Gallery, 12/26 mayors of major cities, one head of a government department. There are still no women Cabinet Ministers, judges or editors of metropolitan dailies.)

Such lists were (and still are) endless - but I see them as illustrative of only a fragment of our powerlessness. Our oppressions far exceed any succinct numbering of our absence, they run deeper than our ability to count, and too frequently beyond our ability to express them.

I write my first letter to the Clerk of the House requesting a crèche or childcare facility in the buildings — not just for staff and members, but for the parents who come to watch and hear Parliament, who must stand waiting in corridors with their younger children while the rest of the family go in to watch, because children under eight cannot be admitted to the House. It would not surprise you to see which parent that inevitably is.

I watch the games and lines of caucus for the first time not recognising them; taken in, not realising I would become used to these moves. The most testing agenda items left until 12.45pm, with a conclusion of 1.00pm; issues like a national price for milk, or national two-channel coverage for television popping up and being a safe bet for an inconclusive and wasted hour when there was major electoral discontent that should have been aired.

The good old pre-Budget kite—flyers, to make the backbenchers feel they've been consulted: prescription charges, indirect taxes... When just enough new members enter every three years, and just enough older members think they might jeopardise promotion chances by getting involved, and just enough think it’s a pointless waste of energy anyway, old dogs don’t need new tricks.

I became involved in my first abortion debate and it highlights what I have slowly learned of the diversion of being beset by sisters . . . and the abject humility of being understood.

There is the re-writing of the Security Intelligence Service legislation, and Michael Minogue wins a commitment to an Official Information Act. I take down every word of caucus for this year and keep it with a copy of the official caucus minutes — still the student, I think the comparison may be of interest some day.

There is too much to do, so much to learn, so much to learn, so much I don’t see clearly, so much I don’t say — but Huntly needs $1 million of energy resources levy, and a National Roads Board priority for a bypass, and a poll for a Trust tavern, and I am meeting with Eva Rickard about the Raglan golf course . . .

I do as much as I can . . .

I arm myself with Katherine Mansfield for bold encouragement, and on my wall I write “Risk anything. Care no more for the opinions of others; for those voices. Do the hardest on earth for you to do. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

It joins T. S. Eliot’s

“And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying . . ."

Photo Paul Estcourt

I go to Public Expenditure Committee meetings and ask about all the unutilised and under-utilised departmental housing. It is considered unimportant. A sub-committee of one - me — is appointed to investigate while the full committee spends weeks on a complaint about a Consumer report on Hobbs kettles. I find 200 houses all over the country that should, I argue, be handed to the Housing Corporation for tenancy. There is no interest and no support. Eight years later, in quite different socio—economic circumstances, and with no small amount of insensitivity, such a policy is adopted.

I ask why we don’t have a management audit of the Legislative Department. This is tantamount to treason - I am transferred from the Public Expenditure Committee to the Statutes Revision Committee for hearings and deliberations on the matrimonial property legislation. The management audit goes ahead seven years later, initiated elsewhere, and its conclusions bring considerable savings.

But on the Statutes Revision Committee I celebrate that the quality, argument and persuasiveness of the submission by the Women’s Electoral Lobby with advocate Ruth Richardson is heard by a willing committee. A major change in the division of property after a marriage is on the way. A 50-50 division, to be altered only if such a division is repugnant to justice, changes not just the lives and chances of many of you, but your status, and without a great battle.

Meanwhile the Boundaries Commission abolishes the seat of Raglan and sends it spinning in three different directions. The conservative women of Waipa mobilise, and I am selected as party candidate on the first ballot, and elected as MP for Waipa in November 1978.

I am the only woman in Government. I feel the aloneness — and not just that form of aloneness. We return to the Government caucus depleted in number, all humming the same tune. The Prime Minister made life easy in the 1975 campaign; in 1978 every candidate wore him as the albatross around their neck.
They all say it — especially those who have been defeated, who return to this first caucus rehearsing how they might say so when asked for their last few words. But they are dazzled by the presentations of silver trays, and their tongues are still on the subject. “Lying is done with words, and also with silence," says Adrienne Rich.

I'm not a martyr, and I don’t find it easy to take personal criticism either, but in the absence of anyone else speaking I finally offer some quiet reflection on the campaign — and take up my work and quit the room at the resultant invitation to leave if I don’t like it, delivered in the manner to which we are all now accustomed.

I begin three years of spinning in too many directions, rescued occasionally by flight from the country. During the first of these, to Britain as the guest of the British Government, I fly to Vienna to observe the preparatory conference for the UN half-decade conference in Copenhagen of the Commission on the Status of Women. The New Zealand delegate is former MP Colleen Dewe. When she is hospitalised it takes the Cabinet three days to approve their only woman colleague in Government as the alternative. I learn quickly, helped by the inevitable caucus kick of “how would you know?”, that I am clearly unsuitable to represent you and that they know more of the prospects of birthing, the plights of married women, and our “discrimination” (we are not oppressed, I am told) than I will ever know.

But Oparau and Ngutinui need upgraded telephone services, Cambridge needs a bypass, the Te Awamutu MOT licensing station needs more staff, Mangakino needs a doctor, they are still clear-felling the Pureora Forest . . .

There is another abortion debate.

I accept the challenge of chairing the Public Expenditure Committee and cannot believe the furore when I suggest we visit some departmental offices (what is there to hide? How could it hurt?). We compromise: the State Services Commission suggests whom we might visit.

A storm breaks when I ask for all the management audits conducted on departments to date, alerted to their existence by a Minister who had inordinate difficulty getting his hands on a copy of the audit of his own department. “The assurance of confidentiality is vital to the continuation of the programme of audits," I am told.

We compromise again and the State Services Commission gives us a précis of the recommendations on each. Dissatisfied with management systems in the Ministry of Works and Development, and urged onwards by an Auditor-General’s report, we decide on a division—by-division sub-committee examination of that department, starting with the water and soil division. The dam bursts. We compromise and examine the architects.

I am invited to a Unitar seminar in Oslo on “Creative Women in Changing Societies" as the Oceania representative — Germaine Greer cannot go. I am excited, surprised, delighted to be there, and very humbled. These women are here as creatures of their essence: I am here because of what I do with my status.

As my candidacy for the 1981 general election is confirmed, and the Labour candidate for Eastern Maori helps the editor of the Waikato Times in his quest to sell, with headline assertions that the Government’s policies on women are influenced by barren lesbians, I am rescued from a downward-spiralling fatigue with an offer of a teaching fellowship at Harvard for four months. This is a constructive and cathartic period, to prepare for the horror of the 1981 Springbok tour.

On this subject there is much I know I will not tell you about just yet. I did a lot I cannot tell you about. There were gestures I might have made that I didn't make; but to this day I cannot think of anything constructive that might have changed the course of the event, that I did not do — any opportunity that I did not take. This gives me no comfort; nothing diminishes the guilt I still feel.

I read recently reports of a speech by Salman Rushdie, author of Shame and Midnight’s Children, which summed up the period for our country. He said: “We live in an age in which the people who control history, who control reality, are increasingly telling lies about it. Politicians have understood it. In order to control the future, it is necessary to control the past. And it is the people who control the memories of nations that control its destiny. When Mrs Gandhi says there was no forced sterilisation programme, then simply an act of memory becomes a political statement... So we find memory politicised in an age when controls tamper with history. So fiction becomes truth, while politicians tell us lies.”

What will be recorded? Answer me this: did the Government ever ask the NZRFU to stop the tour? Or more to the point: did the Government actually oppose the tour?

And I learned of another way in which I was seen by the men I worked with, neatly summarised by Doris Lessing in an interview about Zimbabwe in 1980: “There are always a few mad people screaming ‘For God’s sake, look, this is what’s going to happen! They got put into concentration camps or ignored or treated as we were treated, a sort of humourless patronage: ‘Oh, listen to them.’ I mean, there are many different ways of dealing with minority opinions. It’s often just as effective to treat people with indulgence as it is to put them into concentration camps, you know. If the object is to silence people there are many different ways of doing it."

Photo Paul Estcourt

THE GOVERNMENT wins the 1981 election with a majority of one. Most of my colleagues are fearful to be politicians. But what are they doing here if they have never contemplated the possibility that it may have to be there solitary vote that changes the course of something? Isn’t anything that important to them? Oh, I know only too well how one wishes it was somebody else in that position exercising “power” you don’t seek or want to have. It occurs to me that wars may even have been averted if one or two more men had been prepared to do their job rather than secure a political future.

There is another abortion debate, and now there are eight of us to work together. I have been joined now by Ruth, who unburdens me, and is a skilful woman warrior. She confesses her realisation that my reports of the battlefield, which she has heard with some scepticism, were always understated.

We watch our six sisters across the House, feeling with them as they quietly leave the chamber when their Palmerston North colleague launches an attack on the domestic protective legislation; as their colleague from Porirua downs all forms of childcare facilities. (You will not find these speeches in Hansard: members learned a long time ago to save their most pernicious remarks for the unreported committee stages of legislation and estimates.) and I wonder how much longer the women opposite will be prepared to have their independence, good sense – certainly their feminist consciousness — shackled by the ludicrous caucus rule that states: “If elected, I will vote on all questions in accordance with the decisions of the caucus of the Parliamentary Labour Party." We will cheer mightily the day they say “to hell with it!" and don't look for a conscience-vote cop-out.

I WANT TO tell you that male Parliamentarians are not unfeeling: I have seen them weep during debates on abortion and adoption, and with horror in recognition of the reality and depth of domestic violence. They weep in greater numbers, however, in saying farewell to Parliament. You will not know this: such incidents are not news, and “weakness” on the part of the patriarchs must not be revealed to you.

My electorate executive don’t like it if I am reported to have wept; or to have acted on my conscience in the abortion debates; or to have carried out party policy to oppose the racist Springbok tour; or to have asked for constructive implementation of our policies on nuclear arms: they must suffer the tedious" and arrogant letters of other National Party electorate executives “disapproving of " or “condemning” the Member of Parliament for Waipa.

I wonder how many such letters are sent to the electorate executives of alcoholics or adulterers — but I forget —that's “normal” behaviour and we all understand that doesn't cost votes. It’s just thinking and feeling and researching and honesty that cause so much trouble.

There have always been moments of comfort — supportive words on the street, kind letters, some real people who work in Parliament Buildings and, having no games to play, become touchstones for sanity: librarians, messengers, secretary-typists, catering staff. There are those who bring flowers and those who are, unasked for and so welcome, at my door when I need them. There have been, too, colleagues who would bring me water when my voice broke, handkerchiefs when I wept, who would shift from their allocated seats in the House to sit close to me and quietly talk me through the speeches I found most difficult to deliver, whose quiet simple notes and reassuring phone calls I have cared for and needed.

There have been few moments of open laughter, few events I found good-naturedly funny. There is always wry humour (where if you didn’t laugh you’d cry), such as reading an interview with Helen Caldicott in the Listener of May 21, 1983, where she speaks of missile sizes and phallic envy, and recalling a recent Disarmament and Arms Control Select Committee meeting where a colleague, armed with a USIS publication, points to the central spread featuring a Soviet submarine, and is utterly consumed with its size and its weight — “Look at, look at how big it is!" Who cares? I wonder, when the Trident can carry more nuclear-headed missiles and fire them with more accuracy. (By the way, have you noticed the shape of every war memorial ——' in fact all memorials to famous men? I don't suppose they even notice how perversely obsessed with that shape their world is.)

Then there is the omnipresent “boys” brand of humour, delivered over the tables at Bellamy’s, now drawn together in one long line in the Members Only dining room, so that they can still all pretend they’re prefects at a boys’ boarding school and act in much the same way. Lunch can be a gross experience.

MP No 1: How can you legislate against rape in marriage? It couldn't be implemented.
MP No 2: That’s not the point — why should you be able to rape your wife in the bedroom but not beat her up in the kitchen?
MP No 3: Then beat her up in the bedroom and rape her in the kitchen!
Honourable Members: Ha ha ha.

On such occasions I feel invisible — and ill. Our invisibility runs to every policy area, and is of far greater depth and significance than our utterly disproportionate representation everywhere (except in parenting, of course). More than 1000 questions to Ministers in the House in nine years bear no fruit.

The Minister of Social Welfare replies:
“There is no known figure which can provide an estimate of the number of children in unsupervised daycare situations on an average weekday.”

The Minister of State Services replies:
“There are approximately 2000 cleaners and 700 tea attendants employed as short-hours wage-workers. It is thought that those employees are predominantly female. No precise details are available."

The Minister of Statistics replies:
“The specific exclusions [from the New Zealand System of National Accounts] are those activities taking place within the household sector whose products are seldom or never marketed, e.g. services of housewives and household maintenance... [These non-market activities] are relatively unimportant in a developed economy."

THERE WILL be those who will say this is a bitter letter. They will be the same people who have been confused by a lack of personal ambition in office. You will know otherwise: from the beginning the issues have been paramount — and utterly simple. I write to report to you, and you will know I have hardly scratched the surface.

Perhaps one day I will be free to write again, but for now there are women to be appointed to statutory boards and commissions, rural maternity hospitals to keep open, rape laws to be changed, voluntary and (unpaid) housework to be included in the census, a select committee report on disarmament and arms control to table, some (any?) progress to make on childcare . . .

I don't believe we shall ever be finished.

In sisterhood, and with heartfelt thanks,

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