John Howard’s recent comments regarding women show how much there is left to be done, and how little that he understands the issue.
A few days ago at the National Press Club, ex-Australian PM, John Howard, claimed that it was just the “truth” that women would never achieve 50% representation in our parliaments (or anywhere else, I imagine) because of their caring roles. Well, Mr Howard, there is one area where women are rapidly approaching 50% representation and that is among the ranks of the homeless. It is estimated by those who work in the sector that 44% of the homeless are women. The fastest growing group without a roof over their head, in fact, are women over 55.
And I am sorry to be so blunt, Mr Howard, but I think it is attitudes like yours that have played a significant part in putting them there.
The idea of woman as the “natural” carer; the member of the family who will put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own; who willingly – lovingly even – takes the burnt chop; is a pernicious one. It makes women terrifyingly vulnerable and allows the rest of us to exploit, ignore and neglect the women we claim to love.
It enables legislators to create superannuation schemes that take no notice of the very different shape of women’s working lives, leaving far too many women eeking out their old age on the single pension – currently at around $390 a week. Try living on that, Mr Howard. It enables the more fortunate to rationalise a lifetime of fewer opportunities, lower wages and more insecure work for one half of the human race as inevitable and simply a fact of life – as you have done. They, like you, shrug their shoulders, congratulate themselves on their own (ahem) merit, and turn their backs on the terrible (yes, terrible) position their patronising and self-serving attitudes have placed so many women. But you did more than just shrug, didn’t you, Mr Howard. You indulged in a little social engineering via our tax system. Through Family Tax Benefits you created a real disincentive for women to give up their caring roles and return to the workforce leaving them even more vulnerable to poverty in old age.
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The reasons women find themselves catapulted into homelessness are not the same as those given by men. The number one reason is that they have had to flee domestic violence, the second is a health crisis or the loss of a job and inability to find another one – often because they are both too old and low-skilled. A lifetime of interrupted work to care for others, followed by part-time work and consequent low incomes predisposes women to toppling into homelessness. When things go wrong, Mr Howard, they literally have less to fall back on. As Betty Friedan said when confronted by women eulogising the housewife, helpmate, caring role for women: “Well, ladies, that’s all very well, but you are just one breadwinner away from the poverty line.” And so it has turned out for a growing number of desperate women.
And they are really desperate. Recently I participated in a callback segment on older women and homelessness on ABC radio. The stories we heard were hair-raising. One caller, Maree, 64, who had experienced homelessness and who wept as she told her story, is still living in very insecure housing.
“Every day I am facing homelessness. I worked really hard, I studied hard, but the main working period of my life after the kids are gone, I find myself too sick to work…but I won’t face homelessness ever again. I will definitely commit suicide before I have to do that again.”
Another caller who volunteers in the sector said she heard the same story often.
Not only must we have 50% of women in our parliaments and in every other corridor of power, Mr Howard, we must also have 50% of the caring responsibilities shouldered by men. Only then will we have a society that fairly distributes the responsibilities and the rewards.
Women are disproportionately finding themselves facing poverty and desperation in their old age precisely because they have relied on men to take care of their interests, while they were busy caring for others. They weren’t just relying on their husbands, either, they were – and still, sadly, are – relying on men in positions of power in government, business and every other sector of society to make decisions that took, and take women’s lives into account.
And, frankly, Mr Howard, you blokes have let them down. Every older woman facing the possibility of living in her car is proof of that. Women must take their seat at the decision-making table in equal numbers to men. Only then will they have any chance of improving their own lives.
Only then will they have any chance of improving their own lives.