SEXIST comments are alive and well, judging by recent parliamentary debates, but it's interesting to compare them with comments made by politicians 40 years ago when the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) was founded and published its famous ''form guide''.
In the months prior to the 1972 federal election, WEL interviewed every candidate in Australia and quizzed them at public meetings. These techniques were new, but later became more common. In Victoria, a four-page ''Women Voters' Guide'' was published in The Age in November.
Most of the candidates were ignorant about women's issues and gaffes were frequent. In the Sydney electorate of Bennelong, veteran politician Sir John Cramer was quoted as saying ''a woman must be taught that virginity is the most valuable thing she possesses'', and refused to attend WEL's public meeting.
The leader of the Country Party, Doug Anthony, answered two questions about birth control and family planning and then refused to answer any more. He told The Age's Michelle Grattan that WEL put too much emphasis on sex.
The WEL newsletter reported that Bob Hawke, then president of the ACTU, said women were important because they spent the housekeeping money. Speaking at an election meeting in Brighton, he said every now and then he would ''toss some money over'' to his wife, but she decided how to spend it. A decade later Hawke would be prime minister and bring in major reforms for women, but in 1972 he said voting was like shopping, women should choose the item or party which offered the best value.
The WEL questionnaire arose from an article in Ms Magazine that published a survey of US presidential candidates and their attitudes to women's issues. Beatrice Faust called together 10 women in her Carlton lounge room to see if they could do the same.
The women were hand-picked for their skills. Sally White and I were journalists with The Age, Carmen Lawrence (later premier of WA) was a psychologist, and there were some sociologists and a librarian.
WEL spread quickly to Canberra and Sydney and by the end of the year membership was up to 6000 with branches in all states and as far away as Darwin and Norfolk Island. Groups formed in each electorate.
The questionnaire covered issues such as birth control, family planning, childcare, the workplace, education, and discrimination against women. Two women conducted each interview and as one MP complained, ''they hunt in pairs''.
It was not only the candidates who were learning fast. At a meeting of the co-ordinating committee I watched as Carmen Lawrence breastfed her baby and said to the group, ''we must feed our babies in the boardrooms of the nation''. I looked at her in alarm.
While the candidates were being interviewed, the designer Mary Featherston produced a poster and car sticker with the slogan ''Think WEL before you vote''. Another WEL member coined the slogan ''Get WEL and truly''.
When the form guide appeared, two candidates in Victoria got a perfect score of 40 - David McKenzie in Diamond Valley and Gareth Clayton in Isaacs. The lowest score in the state was Peter Howson, the federal minister for the environment, Aborigines and the arts, with minus 4.
The prime minister, Billy McMahon, got a score of 1, while the leader of the opposition, Gough Whitlam, got 33. Malcolm Fraser, a future prime minister, got 15.
When Whitlam became prime minister in December 1972 he immediately started implementing reforms for women. In his first week of office he reopened the federal equal pay case, removed the tax on contraceptives, and announced funding for birth control programs.
Over the next three years he acted on practically every reform in the WEL questionnaire. State governments picked up the lead, and over the next two decades many areas of discrimination were abolished.
We have come a long way since those early days of WEL, when there were no women in the House of Representatives, no women in any cabinet in Australia and almost no women on boards. Today we have a female governor-general, a female prime minister, a female Speaker, a female leader of the Greens and a record number of women in the federal cabinet.
But having women in high places is not enough. When comments about female politicians including ''ditch the witch'', ''deliberately barren'', ''a menopausal monster'', ''a lying cow'' and ''political slut'' can be voiced publicly, we still live in a dark age of inequality.
Iola Mathews was a founding member of WEL.