It was Nationalist governments, not Labour, which changed the lives of Maltese women permanently for the better

Published: July 5, 2017 at 12:33pm

I have just read this article. It is completely irrelevant whether the new Nationalist Party leader is a woman or not. What matters is not the leader’s gender but whether the new leader can fight dangerous Labour. A woman who flops at it is going to do the country no more favours than a man who does.

And in any case, there are even fewer women queuing up to leader the Nationalist Party than there are men. So all this talk is just plain fanciful. It’s not as though there is a shop where you can pop in and take your pick of party leaders after some discussion.

But all that is beside the point, because the premiss on which the entire argument is built in that article is fundamentally flawed: that it was Labour which did so much for women because it had the first woman MP and made a woman head of state.

You can tell that article was written by a man because in reality, Labour governments did jack for women – and I speak as a woman who grew up and was married under a Labour government, which means that I speak from direct experience and not myth or fancy.

Women’s lives are not changed for the better by the appointment of women presidents or the symbolic election of token women to parliament. Our lives are changed by changes to the law.

In this respect, it was Nationalist governments which changed the lives of women dramatically for the better, by scrapping the abusive law which made married women little better than chattels in their own household, subservient to their husband’s wishes and with their husband in sole control at law of all household decisions, including decisions to sell the family home and property without their wife’s consent, decisions that affected the children, and decisions which directly affected the wife herself and her financial status.

Under Labour, it was only the husband who could obtain a passport for the children and he could use it to spirit those children out of the country without his wife’s permission. Under Labour, the husband could sell off the family home or any other jointly owned property, or hypothecate it to the bank, without even his wife’s knowledge, let alone her consent.

Under Labour, a married woman couldn’t open an ordinary current account without her husband’s permission, but he could take out a loan for tens of thousands of liri (the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of euros today) without her knowledge, forget consent or signature, for which she would then be liable too even though she hadn’t consented and knew nothing about it.

Technically, husbands could stop their wives leaving the country, could stop their wives taking a job. Could stop their wives buying anything which had to be bought on hire purchase or debt, because only the husband could sign for those things.

At law, the husband was the sole arbiter and decision-taker on anything which affected the family unit, which meant that the wife had the legal status of her own minor children.

The only reason women got married at all in those terrible legal conditions was because of the social pressure. Catch today’s women marrying under those ghastly and abusive conditions. You wouldn’t see them for dust. Those of us Maltese women who married before 1993 gave up almost all our rights and autonomy on marriage. The worst bit is that nobody told us.

Many women found out the hard way when they woke up to find that their home was being sold by court auction for a bank debt they didn’t even know existed because their husband hadn’t told them, let alone sought their consent. He wasn’t obliged to seek their consent. The law under Labour put him in sole charge even of things he owned jointly with his wife.

During 16 years in government from 1971 to 1987, Labour never even SPOKE about changing this highly abusive situation of extreme inequality between married women and married men. The Nationalists scrapped that law in 1992/93 and replaced it with the ‘equal partners in marriage’ law. But it never blew its trumpet about that, nor did it ever make the slightest attempt to counter the Labour Party’s fraudulent propaganda machine that fed the message into the system of how much Labour did for women.

The Labour governments of 1971 to 1987 went out of their way to keep women at home, because they didn’t want to create more demand for jobs when unemployment was so frighteningly high. When the Nationalists governments of post 1987 changed the economy immeasurably and beyond recognition, women were finally able to find work, and with that, income and financial autonomy. They could finally buy a dress or a tube of mascara without asking the household boss for permission and pocket money. So many women lived like that, begging for money in their own household, but it’s the secret shame that nobody talks about.

I knew some extent of it because I made it a point, through my natural curiosity and my work in journalism to talk to women from all walks of life – and it may come as a surprise to you that the women who suffered most in this respect were those at the topmost end of the social scale, because that’s where, traditionally, the men controlled the purse-strings and paid all the bills. In social classes where men took home their wages on Friday, the custom generally was to hand it over to the wife. So the wife controlled the money and paid the bills.

The Labour governments of the 1970s and 1980s even cheated women out of what should have been rightfully theirs, giving it all to the men instead. Those plots of land that the governments of the day handed out free or at a reduced price to ‘engaged couples’, on which to build their home, with a loan from the now defunct state bank Lohombus Corporation?

Those women will find that at law, their husband is the sole owner of the property, because the government of the day transferred the title for the land in the man’s name only and the Lohombus Corporation loan to build the house was in the man’s name too. And because this was all done before marriage, the woman has no legal title even if she helped pay off the loan, meaning that for the last three decades these women have depended on their husband’s goodwill (or lack of legal knowledge) not to rip them off everything especially if the marriage fell through. I know this because I have had to help, with lawyers, women who were in precisely this situation and who were shocked to discover that they had no legal title to the “plot from Mintoff” or the house they helped build with their job on the factory floor.

The vote? Oh please. Maltese women got the vote in the late 1940s, after World War II. It was the changed post-war world that gave women the vote, not “Labour”. What are we suggesting here, that if “Labour” hadn’t “given” women the vote in 1947, we women wouldn’t be voting today, and our mothers wouldn’t have voted in the swinging Sixties or the frumpy Fifties? That’s ridiculous.

The Labour governments of 1971 to 1987, praised so highly in this piece for doing much for women, did the opposite of that. Perhaps my colleague at The Malta Independent has forgotten that under Labour, women civil servants were forced at law to give up their job on marriage to “make way for breadwinners” – because breadwinners were men, of course – and were told that a married woman could live off her husband and didn’t need a career or income of her own, that by staying in their jobs they were taking them from men.

Labour governments treated women shamefully, and make no mistake about that. And nothing has changed in that respect. The Labour government of the last four years continued what it had been doing for the previous five in Opposition: completely excluding lesbians from any talk, event, billboards or advertising about gay issues, which only features male couples, and young ones at that.

And the “successful/acceptable woman” image promoted by the Malta Labour Party is the total opposite of what Europeans understand it to be: a dolly-bird plastered in thick make-up, with carefully curated hair, wearing shoes that only hookers wear in European capitals, who begins chasing the botox, silicon and surgeon’s knife at the age of 35, and who is careful not to seem too ‘bossy’ by coming across as more intelligent than the men. In other words, definitely not Germany’s Angela Merkel, but her polar opposite.

I’d rather vote for a man who grew up knowing that men are not the default position and women are not there to be tolerated and accommodated with patience and understanding, than I would vote for a woman who, like Helena Dalli, typically of her generation despite being responsible for ‘civil liberties and equality’, goes out of her way to bat her eyelashes and schmooze the men and pander to their egos, like the silly beauty pageant participant she once was back in the dark ages of the Labour government when women were chattels in their own homes.