Many women in my country and also in my State would have found moments to meet triggered by what was happening in our Parliaments. In the national legislature a woman who had bravely reported being raped in a minister’s office watched along with the rest of the public have her voice drowned out by numerous verbal gymnastics about what was known or not known, seen or not seen, heard or not heard by her employers, law enforcement agencies, peers in the train of investigation. For some this would have been a story of workplace misconduct, for others it would have triggered memories of being sexually assaulted in places that might have been deemed safe such as their work sites or home. Then there is the experience of the witness, people who knew, saw, spoke up or turned away. And then there is us, we are now all witnesses to what we have seen and heard. What would we say if we were to be called up by the court? I would say I saw a woman of courage who was willing to speak up and make visible a crime of power. I would note that the boss of the worksite was unable to understand what the alleged crime was all about and unable to man up and called upon his wife for guidance being bereft of a moral compass of his own. I would point to the way in which the public discourse was going so a bigger frame of patriarchy, power and privilege was unfolding in the conversation and arrows of the gender wars were flying about. Away from the stand, as I doubt I would be asked such a question, I would wonder if the woman from a non-dominant culture or First Nations, or from a non-government political party, whether the story would be in the public domain.
In my State parliament after decades of debate and community led lobbying and meticulous campaigning, abortion was decriminalised. The Bill was brought by a female Attorney-General and almost exclusively the people speaking agains the Bill were men, and almost exclusively women members of the parliament voted to support the Bill which was passed on a conscience vote. I have had so many women talk to me over the years in the privacy and intimacy of friendship of their experience of abortion. I have never initiated a conversation, it usually starts with them stating they know I am a Christian, a Catholic, and so don’t want to offend me and then as they notice a listening ear tell me something of their circumstances. These are not conversations I invite, they come often because they are sharing a moment of grief, providing an example of an irreversible difficult decision, a step deeper into friendship, and a few times it has been because the person was looking for someone to authorise their loss because there isn’t any ritual they were able to find for this kind of mourning. To bear witness to these disclosures, I feel is holy ground, between what is seen and unseen. As the debate wound its way to a conclusion, I expect there were women in the debate, women in the circles of the men speaking who had first hand experience of abortion, although they may not have known that. The debate and now the legislation would have triggered others and like me been a trigger for memories of the women who have shared their story with me. In solidarity I witness these women.
While the debate in the public places of the media and in the corridors of parliaments across the land, and on the floor of the Houses around our nation raises the issues, the concerns, struggles to make and implement laws, women in private places like kitchens, cars, counselling corners, continue to do the work for us all. They find ways to work through power and privilege and untangle moral codes of others as well as their own. Silence is rarely a place of safety and as the adage goes sunlight is a the best disinfectant. The value of these moments this past week feels like some sunlight was beamed into the chambers. While some of the public statements made in the press and those recorded by Hansard by male leaders and elected representatives might feel like a return to the bygone era of 1950s, as a witness to these events, I am meeting these two moments of the week, by celebrating courage and tenacity and noticing a shift in the tectonic plates of patriarchy.