Sunday, February 23, 2014

Letters I've written

Now, this is going to make me sound really old, but in my day we didn't have facebook or email or skype - we just wrote one another letters... lots and lots of letters. During my teenage years, I corresponded with friends in other cities, love interests, boyfriends, mentors, pen friends overseas who I'd never met, and school friends who I saw every day. It was the way we expressed ourselves, and how we connected.

There is a box at my parents' place full of letters that I received, and cherished. This little box of treasures provides a glimpse into the 1980's teenage experience, expressed through the people I was communicating with. There are tentative reflections in french on a memorable night, angsty post-break up letters complete with lyrics from REM, tales of road trips and overseas travel accompanied by photos, drawings and mixed tapes, queries about life's purpose, declarations of love, and secrets shared that I have never disclosed. Boy-crazy letters and girl-crazy letters. Letters on pretty paper, neat paper, and on the back of recycled paper. Letters that followed ruled lines, and others that whirled across the page in a spiral. That was the great thing about those letters - there were no rules, and each person's style of writing and choice about the packaging said as much about them as the words they wrote.

While I hold some of the letters written to me, those I wrote are scattered around the world. I have since wondered who kept them, what they meant to the recipients, what I was saying back then, and where they will end up. After my grandfather died, and we were methodically and painstakingly going through his possessions, I stumbled upon a Valentine's Day card Grandma had written him early on in their marriage, when she was not much older than I was at the height of my letter writing era. I felt like an intruder into a time and intimacy that I hadn't been privy to before. I guess that's what happens with letters - sometimes they outlive those who cherished them.

After my friend David died, Lisa told me she had some of the letters I had written him over the years and that I could have them back if I wanted. He had kept them for over a decade. For those years since he died, I didn't feel ready to read them, perhaps scared to discover myself there - raw in black and white. What if I wasn't how I remember, or I don't like that girl? But one day I will read them, and like a voyeur again, I will be transported back into the experience of my 21 year old self, a girl who might seem as distant from my "today" self as the newly-wed woman was to my Grandmother. But that's the thing with letters...

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gender, peace and politics

The other day I came almost face to face with my political hero. I was in Hobart with family and had wanted to catch up with my mate Peter sometime during my visit. Given that Peter is such a very busy man, and doesn't have a mobile phone or answering machine and is never home to answer the landline anyway, it was agreed that we'd just meet at the anti pulp mill rally and go for lunch afterwards. As I glanced around the Parliament House Gardens looking for Peter, I noticed Bob Brown, casually leaning against a garbage bin at the edge of the crowd. I had to do a double take because he was in disguise - a blue baseball cap was shielding his face from the sun. Of course I was too shy to go and say hello, but it was very comforting to know that he was there.

Me and Peter at the rally. Bob Brown is somewhere in the vicinity.
I've been reflecting on why I am so fond of dear old Bob and why I finally joined the Greens last year. I guess I can blame Peter to a certain extent. The whole time we have been corresponding (since I was about ten), he has been modelling for me a life of activism and integrity; riding his bike to work, refusing to own a car or mobile phone, writing angry letters, teaching literature from a social justice point of view, handing out greens leaflets and generally encouraging every young person in his life to take a global perspective. He worked for Quaker Senator Jo Valentine when I was in primary school and took me on a private tour of Parliament House.

Skip forward a decade or two to my late twenties, and I was right in the thick of leading a Peter-approved life. I worked for an NGO, was vegetarian, didn't own a car or a mobile phone and was completing a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies. In a course entitled "Gender and the development of peace" I found myself writing an essay about the feminisation of politics in Australia. I could have written about anything from female genital mutilation to the Grameen Bank, but I chose the feminisation of politics in Australia. It was an odd decision in some ways, but I got a pretty good mark for it!

In my essay I critiqued the adversarial nature of politics in Australia, describing it as patriarchal and violent. Our political climate was and still is dominated by men and operates in a culture of competition. I was writing at the height of the Iraq war when, as now, we had a conservative government that was trying everything it could to divert resources away from basic needs such as health, education and humanitarian aid in order to justify military interventions in places where we should have been offering development aid and diplomatic support.

What was needed, according to feminist theorists was a feminist approach to politics. Anne Summers was amongst those arguing that increasing the representation of women in parliament would transform the nature of politics. There was the discussion of whether quotas were important, or needed. Bronwyn Bishop was saying we didn't need quotas, since she had made it. Joan Kirner was arguing that we do, because greater numbers of women will break down the male dominated factional leadership. Yet, the fact remained that in spite of quotas in the Labor Party, very little had changed in the way the game was played. After all, people like Amanda Vanstone were asserting that the system ain't broke: "Look Susan. It’s an adversarial system, and you’re never going to change’s probably my legal training, but I think the adversarial system is the best way to get as close as possible to the best result, to what the truth is" (from "The Scent of Power" by Susan Mitchell).

In a mentoring session with Meredith Bergman, she told us essentially the same thing - to power dress and act more like men if we wanted to be taken seriously in male dominated arenas. I have taken on board her advice to introduce myself by both names but feel uneasy about changing aspects of my personality or wearing shoulder pads in order to fit in. Rejecting the notion that for women to succeed they just needed to be more like men, and play the political game, I was drawing on feminist and nonviolence theory to argue that this didn't need to be the case. Women have strengths to offer politics, and, I argued, the political system could do with a bit of an overhaul and this required more than an increase in representation of women in parliament.We needed to challenge and replace the patriarchal and violent structures that underpin politics in Australia.

One theorist (Rod Cameron) was arguing that feminisation of politics would not only involve greater representation of women in leadership roles, but also a change to our definition of strong leadership. Leaders of the future would be increasingly judged on their humanity, intelligence, honesty and creativity. We will be looking for leaders who are in touch, honest and direct.

As I read further, it became clear to me that there were in fact alternatives to the existing model already being tested. It was our friend Jo Valentine and my beloved Greens party that were actually exploring different, more feminised, if you like, ways of doing politics. Jo Valentine told me all about her attempts to model nonviolent behaviour when interacting with other politicians. Using her background in nonviolent civil disobedience, she cited times when she had changed hearts and minds through taking a more patient, listening and collaborative approach to points of difference.

In a book co-authored by Bob Brown entitled "The Greens", society is condemned for being selfish and consumer-driven, and not meeting the needs of the current generation, let alone the needs of future generations and non-human species. They describe the Greens party model as non-hierarchical, networking and alliance-building. Decisions are made by consensus and women were equally represented within the membership and leadership, not because of quotas, but because the greens arose out of activist and community groups where women are already well represented. Policy positions, decided in consultation with members, seemed to reinforce values of cooperation, compassion, integrity and a concern for future generations. The qualities traditionally associated with feminism seemed to be lived out and considered valuable and important qualities in future-thinking politics by the Greens.

Whenever I have heard Bob Brown speak since, he has lived up to the values that are now so important to me - integrity, compassion and a participatory approach to democracy. He always modelled a style of leadership that is in touch, honest and direct. Women and men in Australian politics could learn a lot from Bob. Although he has now left politics, and so was wearing his "concerned citizen" cap rather than his "Leader of the Greens" hat, I admire and thank him for his contribution to Australian politics.

As I sat down to lunch with Peter and a bunch of our activist and Quaker friends, I felt reinvigorated. While the situation we find ourselves in today is pretty dire - even more dispassionate approaches to asylum seekers, reductions in overseas aid, funding cuts to basic needs, and a female Prime Minister who was treated appallingly - there is hope. Since joining the Greens I have met so many gorgeous, charming, welcoming, committed, passionate and intelligent people to add to the list of pretty amazing Quaker friends, flatmates and colleagues who will be part of making this clunky old political system of ours into one that is more community based, nonviolent and future thinking. All of them are my political heroes too.