Saturday, April 13

What is keeping men out of the fight for women’s rights?

The Otahuhu of my youth was replete with quirky characters, many of whom were connected to our legendary Rugby League club. My mother knew and worked for a time with a former Kiwi international player whose exuberance would give Peter Leitch a run for his money. 

I liked to pop in to see my mother on the off chance this chap’s beautiful longtime partner may be there – a wahine Māori who was a former model. 

I never understood the relationship – sure, he was funny but as ugly as a bag of arseholes and balding. She was literally a model. Despite being 11 or 12 I considered myself the better pick. This was one lucky guy. 

He clearly didn’t appreciate his good fortune however because he would beat her up regularly, to the point that he made her deaf in one ear. 

His father was another joker, and, as a boy, I loved his energy. That was until I noticed a strange interaction between him and my mother.  He approached her from behind and touched her buttocks, causing her to shriek and turn around. Being a kid, I didn’t see this as sexual or inappropriate – more a fright prank. He laughed. She didn’t. And we promptly left the store. 

As we walked home, I asked her why she was so upset at ________, again being the dumb kid. My mother, who had been in and around Otahuhu since the late 1950s, starting as a barmaid at the Star Hotel, told me the harrowing story of the old man’s treatment of his wife, another beautiful woman who was punched, kicked, stomped, and tortured by her husband. I won’t mention what this torture was, but the account was one of the worst cases of domestic abuse I have heard to this day – and, astoundingly, it didn’t even take place behind closed doors but in the full sight of revelers at a garage party. 

My mother’s heart broke for this woman, who was – unsurprisingly – a degenerate alcoholic. The woman would prop up the bar at the Star. Her routine was to get blotto and sing Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go”. 

I never met or saw this woman: she was long dead, having committed suicide to escape her tormentor. But I could easily picture this scene and frequently did – a once-stunning woman, now with a pickled face, croaking out a song about a special man, wanting to transport the woman he is infatuated with to a special, magical place…

Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.

Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone. 

I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low. 

And tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go…

And then, we can assume, she’d stumble (or possibly even drive in those days) home, where she’d be quickly transported to a living Hell.

My mother was a victim of male violence, though she never spoke to me, or anyone in our family about it directly. Her first husband was a bad guy and did time for armed robbery. Maybe her way of working through this was telling me the stories of other abused women in the ‘hood. There were enough of them. 

Sadly, however, there weren’t enough men prepared to stand up for them. 

The thinking was that what happened between a man and his wife was their business. After all, we didn’t know how she acted when they were alone. She might be a royal bitch. She may regularly goad or nag him. When we saw her, this meek and mild thing, we were probably getting a routine: a routine designed to make her man look bad, while all along she was the true villain. I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth here. I heard all this stuff, spoken casually when I was a kid. Cowardly, pathetic men trying to convince themselves as to why they shouldn’t defend battered women. 

My father, my mother’s second husband, a red-headed Australian named ‘Blue’ was a meatworker, a boozer, a bar brawler, and an exceptional rock n roll dancer. He seriously could’ve made it to the final 4 in the High School Dance Contest in Grease. 

Our relationship was strained. He didn’t know what to do with an artistic son. I never felt I was manly enough or could be manly enough, at that time anyway, to make him truly proud. Our inability to connect meant conversations were few so he didn’t impart much to me by the way of wisdom. But one thing he did drill into me, repeatedly, was that a man who hits a woman is one of the lowest characters on earth. 

A rat.

A cockroach. 

A worm. 

What was I to do if I ever saw a man hit a woman? 

Break the bastard’s jaw. Drop the stinking bastard.”  

As the years have rolled on, and I have become more physically imposing and confident, I’ve been able to apply my father’s advice on a few occasions. 

The last time was in a gay bar in Christchurch. A man started verballing abusing a young woman at the bar for no discernable reason. This happened right next to me, and I stared at him, stunned at his chutzpah. 

Feeling my eyes on him, he turned to face me and hissed “You got a problem?” I turned away and he called me a coward. I stubbed out my cigarette, grabbed him by the shirt, and threw him into a table and chairs in the corner of the space. It was loud and looked painful. It was all a bit John Wayne. The young woman was grateful, and I was suddenly swamped by gay men all wanting to buy me a drink. I even obliged a few of them with a dance that would have paled in comparison to the rug-cutting of my father. Dad would have approved overall though… save for the dancing with blokes bit.

Watching the recent violence in Albert Park after women’s rights advocate Kellie Jay Keen-Minshull’s visit, hearing the incitement from politicians against women, and seeing the repugnant display of a young man slugging an elderly woman in the head, got me thinking about my father. At first, I didn’t understand why but now feel it is because I owe him much more than I had previously realized. 

That weekend had left me wondering if society was reverting to the 60’s South Auckland village, or if we never fully grew out of it: in the events aftermath, a similar cabal of denial has emerged. 

What is clear is, rather than feeling any compulsion to defend women, many men, and from unexpected quarters, still actively seek to abuse them, either verbally or, as we have seen, physically. Attaching to a moral crusade is wonderful cover for that. 

But it wouldn’t have fooled my father. 

And it doesn’t fool me. 

If you think I’m asking you all to turn Bud Spencer or Mike Tyson on everybody, you may need to reread the piece. That internal monologue I mentioned, convincing you that the abuse you see is somehow earned – that women wanting to voice concerns about their rights are asking for violence and intimidation – Well, you can start by canceling that transmission. 

The sad truth is that women’s rights have been with us for seconds rather than minutes relative to history’s clock. Plenty of women are currently in the trenches, but if we don’t want to see these rights retreat to the booze-soaked solace of a sad Jim Reeve song, men really need to do a lot more. 

And by more, I mean no more, than just be a man.