The room where it happens

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My husband is a political animal. It’s how he’s built. Addicted to the news and likely to have strong opinions on issues I haven’t even heard of, election day sees George outside our local primary school handing out how-to-vote cards, chatting happily to the volunteers from rival parties and munching away on a democracy sausage.

Woman videoconferencing with baby on her lap (damircudic/Getty Images)

George is actively involved in a political party at the grassroots level. It’s not something I take much interest in, except that it gives my husband joy. But last year, things were different. In what was quite possibly some new form of Stockholm syndrome, I eagerly attended every Zoom trivia night, cocktail party and discussion forum the party had to offer.

A week ago, the executive had its first in-person meeting since the beginning of last year. The vice president, who has asked that I call her Doris — incidentally a name so fitting that I’ve adopted it in real life — suggested that it be ‘more of a social thing’ and fire up the barbecue. With a thrill of anticipation, I put the date in our calendar. It would be wonderful to connect face-to-face with the people who helped sustain me through lockdown.

On the day of the barbecue I carefully roasted chickpeas and cauliflower, sweet-talked our teenage children into babysitting their younger siblings, and turned up at Doris’s house with a nice dress and a nice salad.

Doris looked politely surprised when we arrived. When I stepped inside her home I realised why. There was the treasurer, the secretary, the membership officer. There were various committee heads and the chair from the federal branch. There were no partners. This was not a partners thing. 

It’s hard not to feel mortified at a time like this, even though everyone was warmly welcoming. After I’d finished helping Doris’s husband with the dishes, scouring my memory for any snippets of conversation that had led me astray while I scoured the veggie-burger frypan, I crept back into the meeting. Was I even allowed to be here?

 

'When the price of admission is high, as measured in family strain, the people involved become a self-selecting group.'

 

I looked around the room while George and the secretary discussed draft motions. There was something miraculous about that room. Times tables charts and chores lists were taped to the wall. A basket sat opposite, piled high with washing to be folded, among a scattering of toys. Under the table, a sleek labrador nudged my leg. Occasionally Doris’s three young children wandered in, to investigate the food situation or to ask their mum a question.

There seems something profoundly feminist in the act of running a political meeting in the midst of family life. One of the barriers to female participation in politics (and elsewhere) is family commitments. Doris’s brand of radical hospitality changes this. By unapologetically opening her home, with all the natural interruptions of family life, she accommodates the needs of her family and gives others permission to do the same. What’s more, she puts issues that most concern family women front and centre to men who (God love them) might otherwise be oblivious.

It takes courage to open your home to others. I’ve made it my goal for 2021 to be more hospitable (actually I made it my goal for 2020, but we all know how that turned out!). My house tends to be chaotically messy and I find it hard to let go of my pride. Doris has shown me that hospitality goes beyond how one treats family and friends. Hospitality can be a political act.

I’ve often bemoaned the absence of people in parliament who represent me. There is a scattering of women with young families in politics, but they seem to be the exception to the rule. This applies to more than just parliament. I wonder who will be most represented at the Church’s Plenary Council, if delegates are required to fly to another city for extended periods of time. When the price of admission is high, as measured in family strain, the people involved become a self-selecting group.

Perhaps COVID has something to do with the barriers between family life and professional life being removed. It is difficult to work from home without family life spilling in from the edges. My friend works at a university and commented that while once a toddler’s presence at an online team meeting was an amusing novelty, now it is a matter of course and barely acknowledged. What if COVID proves to be the great leveller in providing access of involvement for people with families?

Dessert came out at the end of the meeting and at the sound of it being served, the children reappeared and jostled into place. Munching on baklava and joining in the banter, I felt right at home. I still think there’s a long way to go before I feel properly represented in the political process. In the meantime, if I want a seat at the table, perhaps I need to set it myself.

 

 

Kate MoriartyKate Moriarty is a freelance writer. She writes the 'Home Truths' column at Australian Catholics and blogs at Laptop on the Ironing Board.

Main image credit: Woman videoconferencing with baby on her lap (damircudic/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Kate Moriarty, politics, COVID-19, accessbility, family, inclusion

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you, Kate Moriarty, for a wonderful article which highlights how radical a political statement hospitality is - especially in an age as atomised as our own. I have previously mused in these (virtual) pages about whether COVID marks a new accessibility for people with disabilities. Now, as more and more data piles up, I suggest that keeping our feet and wheels in the door is going to be essential. I suspect that societies formed in patriarchal and ableist habits will revert to type as soon as they can and only continuous raising of these issues will prevent a slide back to what used to pass for normality.
Justin Glyn | 29 April 2021


Dear Kate, I do so love your concept of ‘radical hospitality’ and I will start using it forthwith. I am sick of writing letters to the Canberra Times, to Eureka Street, and to friends who don’t reply. Even if people leave comments, I am destined never to meet them. We do open up our home most nights to friends for what I call ‘scratch tea’ but they still ask what should they bring which makes me feel they’re more worried about the food than keen to join in a conversation with my household. Admittedly they sometimes have dietary problems like coeliac disease but we could surely work something out and cook it together while we talk. I have even asked the local coffee shop if they could designate a particular table for conversation between strangers. This is apparently unworkable. From one who is as desperate for constructive and politically-creative conversation as Olive Kitteredge, thank you Kate for seeing the potential of radical hospitality not just for committees but for for all types of focused and meaningful conversation. Many of us are lonely and longing for it and we need change on this planet... and fast!
Jill Sutton | 29 April 2021


Kate has a delightful way of delivering a significant message couched in humorous narrative. When her byline catches my eye, I fast track to her article and I'm never disappointed. Here is yet another fine example.
Lorella D'Cruz | 30 April 2021


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