How to End the War on Women
As published in The Age newspaper
6 December 2014
As much as Victoria needs a royal commission into violence against women - as promised by the incoming Andrews government - we don't need a lawyers' talkfest or an inquiry that turns its back on the complicity of our institutions in the violence. An apology from the state to the women demonised by a succession of bad and misogynist laws is the bridge to the cultural change necessary to end the violence.
The epidemic of violence against women isn't an anger management issue or a consequence of alcohol or drugs. It's a crisis founded in the decision of an increasing number of women after the feminist revolution to assert their rights. The 60 women a year in Australia killed by "their" man, usually estranged, aren't dying at the kitchen sink in a moment of domestic tension. They are strangled, stabbed and shot for having the temerity to end relationships. The facts are clear.
From the time my 25-year-old sister was murdered on August 26, 1987, our late mother never stopped asking why. On the 26th day of every month, Lorna Cleary would lament her loss in a cluster of heart-wrenching words in her diary. "Vicki, 7 years 2 months. Miss her terribly," she wrote in 1994. Of the provocation verdict handed down to the killer, Mum would say "it was like having Vicki murdered again". It wasn't the paltry sentence, less than four years, that ravaged Mum, but the humiliation of seeing her daughter's right to leave a relationship transformed into a provocative act.Ê
Yet Mum and Dad weren't on their own in feeling abandoned by a legal system at odds with the avowed human rights of modern women. Based on the current figure of 60 "wife killings" a year, Vicki is one of close to 3000 Australian women killed by a vengeful man in the 44 years since Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch. It's impossible to know exactly how many of these "wife killers" walked from court with a manslaughter verdict, because documenting the killing of women in "domestic murders" never rated with combating the road toll.
What's not in dispute is that many of these killer men, aided and abetted by courtroom narratives that mocked the rights of women, were offered or received manslaughter verdicts. In researching the killing of women in the 1970s, I've unearthed a sad, infuriating and disgraceful litany of abuse that mocks the official account of this as a sexually liberating era.
When Gough Whitlam was buried this year, eulogies to his commitment to the rights of women inspired the gathering. As Cate Blanchett's tribute flowed, I thought about the violent backdrop to the Whitlam government's legislative commitment to equal pay for women, single mother pensions, the funding of women's services, and no-fault divorce, which Cate said "allowed women to exit from abusive relationships and re-engage with society with dignity and with equality",
We've never made films about men such as house painter Edward Quinsee, who drove from Brunswick to Bendigo and callously shot his terrified, estranged wife Bev dead in June 1972 only to be granted a provocation defence and found not guilty of murder. Mrs Quinsee "did a harsh thing when she left you", said the judge. Bev Quinsee needed more than no-fault divorce to be able to leave her violent and abusive husband with dignity and equality.
The Whitlam government was progressive, but none of its members asked why a stream of women like 23-year-old Bev were dying at the hands of violent men found not guilty of murder. Two months before Whitlam was sacked, painter John Charles Stewart discovered his 37-year-old wife Joan, mother to his three children, in bed with a boarder. Despite taking to Joan's head and labia majora with a meat cleaver, Stewart was found not guilty of murder, due to what the judge called "extreme provocation". Under the headline "Axe death husband is jailed", The Age reported how defence barrister George Hampel's arguments were sufficient for the crown prosecutor not to seek a murder conviction against Stewart "despite there being evidence of malicious aforethought". Sentenced to a minimum 15 months in jail, Stewart probably served less than a year. Such verdicts and sentences sent a chilling message to women and are, I believe, our guilty secret.
It mattered little to judges or juries how women were killed. Through trial after trial, a dead woman's sexual behaviour remained the pivotal defence question, no more so than when 41-year-old Norma Flanagan's strangulation death was examined at inquest in 1971. Lawyer Paul Guest was only doing what the law allowed when he asked a police officer whether his forensic examination of the dead woman "suggested sexual intercourse [with her supposed new boyfriend] had taken place?" Before the policeman could utter a word, coroner Harry Pascoe interjected: "Mr Guest, once again, there is no crime of passion in this country of ours." Unfortunately, Pascoe was wrong, for as the prosecutor's acceptance of Flanagan's manslaughter plea and Justice Lush's description of the crime as involving "no wickedness of mind" bore testament, the provocation law was the jewel in our patriarchal justice system's crown.
We can't bury this brutal history a day longer. It's a history in which the victims are not just the murdered women but the siblings and the parents and grandparents, thousands of them in Australia since the rise of feminism. We can't genuinely reform our culture and put an end to the violence if we don't apologise for the role our institutions, in particular our courts, have played in deepening the crisis. We won't achieve reform until we accept that Vicki Cleary and her murdered sisters were not only innocent victims of vengeful men but victims of barbaric patriarchal law. An apology is the first step to enshrining that truth.
When the provocation law was abolished in Victoria in 2005, then attorney-general Rob Hulls condemned it as a law that reduced women to chattels, a claim I'd made on the steps of the Supreme Court in February 1989. From rape laws that lampooned women for wearing lipstick and mini skirts to the provocation and defensive-homicide defences that stripped murdered women of their rights and dignity, we have much to apologise for. Once the apology is delivered, we can begin the work of hearing from the community health centres, refuges, domestic violence resource centres, community legal centres, activists and frontline magistrates on how best to change the culture and stop the bad men in their tracks.
These are the people - not barristers fashioned by legal orthodoxy -who know what must be done to end the war on women.