Australia: the Prime Minister who redefined misogyny

The Australian Prime Minister's recent speech about “repulsive double standards on misogyny and sexism” in the House of Representatives has recast the debate about gender prejudice in politics. Even if most its arch-custodians didn't notice, says Zoe Holman.

Head shot of red-haired woman. Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Photo: Paul Brown/Demotix
For around 14 minutes and 18 seconds in October, Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister I wanted to have elected. Impassioned but dignified, righteous but reasoned, irate but irrefutable. You could almost see the 'Failure to Compute' lights flashing above the head of Liberal party opposition leader, Tony Abbott, as his face fell from its quasi-permanent poise of insolent glee with her pitch-perfect obliquy.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.” she announced. “The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation. Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”

It was parliamentary question time and the Prime Minister was responding to Abbott's criticism over her defense of the house Speaker, Peter Slipper, who faced calls to resign in relation to a string of vulgar text messages amounting to a suit for sexual harassment against him by a former staffer. Slipper’s messages were as crass as they were banal (he likened female genitalia to shellfish of specific genus), and Gillard’s line on the incident was undeniably soft (she had previously strategically appointed Slipper to the post to rob the opposition a parliamentary vote). But to anyone watching the speech, it was clear that this was not about Slipper. Protester holds large placard: 'JuLIAR - Bob Browns Bitch' Protestors at an anti-carbon tax rally.
Photo: Phillip Minnis / Shutterstock.com
Over the course of her two years in office, the Labour PM has been publicly subjected to the full argot of gender-specific insults, and to many of them by the Opposition Leader himself (Abbott has been photographed at rallies beside placards calling her a "witch" and the Greens leader’s "bitch"). She has been the target of his rape gaffes, and ridiculed over her wardrobe and figure, after the ever-helpful Germaine Greer commented that she had a “fat bum”. Add to all this the usual unfettered slander of Australian partisan politics in which any leader finds themselves knee-deep. Only the previous fortnight, the notorious right-wing ‘shock jock’ broadcaster Alan Jones told a Liberal party convention that the PM's just-deceased father (who Gillard described as her 'inspiration) must have “died of shame” from all the lies his daughter had told the parliament. A close friend of Jones’, the opposition leader lost no time in reharking the line in the House. 

It was these tailor-made affronts, plus Abbott’s rich record of textbook sexism – his “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism” - which Gillard systematically catalogued. This was no impulsive outburst or political diversion-tactic. Rather, it was the natural, reasoned and articulate requital of an intelligent woman who had, quite simply, Had Enough. Or at least that is how it seemed to swathes of Australian women who flooded social media with virtual accolades and jubilant hash-tags (#smackdown, #gojulia and #badass.) So too, the international media rung with praise for Julia Gillard's speech, headlining news in the US, Britain, India, South Africa and Canada. Overnight ‘Gillard’ was among the highest trending Twitter terms and the YouTube clip quickly went viral with some 2.1 million views. The Australian-born managing editor of The New Yorker, Amelia Lester, even suggested that Obama might “take a lesson” from the PM's divesting of hypocrisy.

Indeed, it was hard not to be stirred watching Gillard's performance, her voice breaking as she declared her personal offence at Abbott's claim that “abortion is the easy way out”, carbon tax is “what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing” or women's under-representation in politics not necessarily “a bad thing”. Gone was the carboard-cut-out policitian with her tired soundbites and robotic policy-incantations. This was a Zizek moment: an emergence of ‘the Real’ from the usual depressing and incredulous ontological fabric of Australian political theatre, with its reactionary high-jinx and stranger-than-satire cast of villains and buffoons which Tony Abbott exemplifies. This was the honest, unpalatable reality of Australian chauvanism. Finally.

But no sooner had this exilharating breach in the mundane emerged, than the national media, led by the Canberra press gallery, rushed to patch it back up. By contrast to their celebration in social media, Gillard's words were condemned as "desperate", "completely over the top" and "flawed" by the country's most prominent mainstream columnists, both men and women. Rather than acknowledging this rare spell of Question Time radicalism, commentators focused on the narrow context of the Slipper rift, casting the speech as a contrived attempt at political one-upmanship, or “defending the indefensible.” The Australian mainstream media, it seemed, had completely missed the point.

Yet not only did this prudish reaction, deplored amongst independent media and feminist commentators, reveal the myopia of the press gallery, it also hinted at a more troubling hostility to Gillard's premise. As a journalist friend who works at one of the country's primary news outlets later described:   

“We were amazed that our 'top guns' in Canberra completely missed this key moment in Australian political history. There was a reason why this had come at this moment, yet this was a clear example of Canberra operating in a bubble, but also maybe something more sinister. Why couldn't gender be the top political story of the day in Australia, but one elsewhere?”   

So what was going on? How was it that the mainstream Australian media was not just completely out of touch with, but apparently actively working against the grain of popular anti-sexism sentiment? One of Australia's foremost feminist voices, the social commentator and writer, Jane Caro, suggested the problem was bigger than Canberra's navel-gazing.  

“The male dominated mainstream media is literally deaf, dumb and blind to the way women experience the world,” she says. “You have to be a very unusual man to be aware of the everyday sexism women – particularly those who aspire to a seat at any decision-making table – experience.”

Hairy-chested man in swim cap and speedos exits a lake Abbott in a charity swimThat so few Australian women have yet made it to a seat at the decision-making table, let alone unshackled by the crude gender typecasts available to women in politics (i.e. the frump or the power-pussy), is itself testament to the machinations of everyday sexism in governing culture. For indeed, if one was to hold a mirror to contemporary Australian misogyny, the reflection couldn't look much more like Tony Abbot: a pair of Speedos, a school-boy smirk and the hypocritic guise of Christian family values. So too, his policy record reveals dubious opposition to accessible childcare, abortion, equal pay for women and paid maternity leave, amongst chauvanist gems such as his recent speculation that “men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command.” So myriad and colourful were Abbott's sexist trespasses that his rarely-seen wife, Margie, was obliged to go on a damage-control public relations drive to persuade Australian voters that, '"Tony Abbott gets women”. (She even added that he even loves “Downton Abbey”!)

Yet the very fact that a figure such as Abbott has risen to his current post, and until recently looked nigh-on reaching the highest elected office in the country, is symptomatic of a stronger machismo current in Australian party politics, if not within the electorate itself. It was this current that made it okay, in some circles, for Alan Jones to declare that women in high-office such as “Juliar” and the Victorian Police chief commissioner were “destroying the joint”, and one that would mitigate against any woman in power, no matter how anodyne. Let alone Julia Gillard. For if Abbott is the embodiment of modern misogyny, Gillard is its confounding. Unmarried, childless, de facto partnered to a hairdresser, the PM is an easy target for those wishing to play the cheap 'barren woman' card (as many in the Australian media have.) But Gillard is also neither particularly old nor young, not ugly or fat, nor conventionally sexy or glamorous, which makes her a more difficult fit for the usual prescribed sexualised tropes. This however has not exempt the PM from the complete repertoire of sexual denigration – from more subtle erosion of her credibility through the everyday media use of “Julia”, to viral pornographic web-imagery and public labels as a “unproductive old cow” from one of Australia's top CEOs. These quotidian abuses against women in parliament, such as the routine “braying” by members of the house when a female frontbencher takes the box, were detailed by leading feminist Anne Summers in August's timely Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture, entitled 'Her Rights at Work.'
 
“This is something that is beyond party, beyond political affiliation, beyond voting intention and beyond whether or not you like Julia Gillard,” Summers concluded. “We should all be worried about this vilification of our first female prime minister. I think the same thing would happen if she were from the Liberal Party.”

Indeed, Gillard's premiership seems to have entailed a broader, bipartisan trend of de-legitimising her authority, questioning her competence and vilifying her tactics, that it is difficult to imagine any male counterpart subject to. The most powerful example of this is the continuing preoccupation with the manner in which she took office in 2010, after then PM Kevin Rudd lost party support and resigned, and Gillard was elected unopposed as the Leader of the Labor Party, thus becoming Prime Minister. Whatever Gillard's role in the affair, her detractors have appeared unable to relinquish this indictment of 'dirty politics'. As if back-stabbing, Machiavellian artifice and conniving were not long-since the standard canon of Australian political power-grabbing, (Rudd this month likened the federal parliament to an unruly “kindergarten”), the tenacious focus on Gillard's wrangle with Rudd suggests that such tactics are not befitting of a female leader – that girls shouldn't play rough or dirty. (The fortnight of Gillard's speech saw mainstream political headlines proclaiming how she had 'Stitched up Rudd', alongside trending news about her tripping and losing a high-heel shoe in India.)

More surprising perhaps than callow partisan or media responses was antagonism to her speech from the left, where one might expect some support for rare feminist exclamations from Canberra. Writing in The Guardian days after the speech, renowned radical John Pilger claimed that its international characterisation as “a 'turning point for Australian women' is absurd.” Pilger disparaged Gillard's attack on women's rights through Labour policies towards social welfare, indigenous communities and same-sex marriage, describing her as the embodiment of “a number-crunching machine long bereft of principle” who came to power “by plotting secretly with an all-male cabal to depose the elected prime minister.” This line was not unique and his condemnation of Labour's abhorrent policy record is justified. However, in belittling Gillard's experience, and giving his own conclusive definition of “real” feminism, Pilger revealed a telling want of reflexivity tantamount to blindness. His claim that Gillard was “no feminist hero”, despite the inspiration her words afforded thousands of Australian women, evoked a familiar political paternalism, reminiscent of approaches to gender in old-school leftist, in particular, class politics.

 And yet, his stance did highlight what seemed the real problem with Gillard's speech. For indeed, Gillard was not the Prime Minister I had wanted to elect. Like many left-wing Australians, I had voted for her out of a mixture of defeat and duress; a desperate bulwark against the Abbot alternative. Admittedly, I was heartened to be voting for a female PM, and an unconventional one at that, but Gillard's gender was one of the few saving graces. I expected little and she delivered less. She embraced a number of deplorable political stances (on refugees, Wikileaks and gay marriage), her mechanical public defences of which seemed an insult to both speaker and the listener. It was thus perhaps because of and not despite this grim track record that I was ready to embrace Gillard's recent bravado with such enthusiasm, as if wanting to believe that this was the real Gillard, that her former plastic persona was the mere product of a chauvinist factory. So then how can the PM's fresh feminist stance be reconciled with her right-wing agendas? And herein lies the paradox: for all its gusto, Gillard's speech was not so much a political expression of feminism as a personal one. We cannot know how much of Gillard's hitherto dry political presentation is born of necessity or of her own making. For as Caro notes, “there is no right way to be a woman in power. If you are too feminine people don’t take you seriously and many women leaders try to over-compensate by being more blokey than the blokes which Gillard also falls victim to. She is a feminist Prime Minister, whether she is a leader of feminism is another thing entirely.”

However, the riddle of this paradox between Gillard's words and politically-expedient actions does reveal the difficulty of not only being a woman in government, but of being a feminist in government - of reifying sentiments like Gillard's in a concrete political agenda. For if there is no right way to be a woman in power, there is no precedent for being a feminist in power. Where Gillard's speech highlighted startling misogyny in Australian politics, it equally highlighted its startling absence from political discussion. Until now, perhaps.
   
The ardent social-media response to the speech indicates an anti-sexism zeitgeist that the political strata may be compelled to keep apace with. Popular enthusiasm for Gillard's performance was quickly reflected the following week in a five point rise in polls, boosting her approval as PM to 47 per cent amongst men and women (her disapproval rating among men also fell five points). A month later, Gillard's rating having risen to a further 50 per cent, another survey revealed that 39 per cent of Australians considered the opposition leader's behaviour as sexist and 78 per cent thought the PM's response justified. The results are not radical, but they indicate a heartening re-conceptualising of sexism in the Australian mainstream.

Just days after Gillard's performance, editors of the Australian Macquarie Dictionary announced a change in their definition of misogyny from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women", claiming the public debate had highlighted the need to expand the term's meaning. (The decision was disparaged by opposition representatives.) The move was quickly mimicked in the US by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, whose editor claimed that the term referred to “a very broad range of behaviours, attitudes, policies etc.” With the murky waters of misogyny encroaching ever closer to the seat of power and political practices, its seems those in government may need to watch just not their mouths, but their feet.

“Gillard gave powerful expression to something that is roaring back onto the agenda – feminism,” says Caro. “Thanks to social media, for the first time in history, women have unmediated access to the public conversation. If an unreconstructed Catholic conservative like Abbott has to be seen as a feminist to have a chance to be elected, women are back!”


And if international enthusiasm for Gillard's speech is anything to go by, the spread might not stop in Canberra. Australia's peers in the British media love to mock the parochialism of Antipodean culture, (albeit fondly, as to a pre-pubescent little brother). Yet Australia's nascent debate over misogyny in its public and political institutions may signpost a front on which Britain cannot, for once, claim progressive superiority. After all, Britain has had only as many female Prime Ministers as Australia (and a damn sight more gentleman's clubs.) For all its crudity and brazenness, sexism in Australia is at least, relatively easy to spot (and not only when clad in budgie-smugglers). But Abbott is clearly not its only political incarnation, and Britain would do well not to consider misogyny airbrushed away under better manners or fancier legislation. From all the British media's recent opprobrium over sexual abuse revelations one might believe that institutional misogyny in this country were a hitherto unheard of phenomena, not in fact a widespread set of everyday behaviours, attitudes and policies. Britain must thus also exercise caution against letting its own pre-occupation with a sanitised public culture of political correctness and equal opportunities obscure the more subtle, complex and dirty existence of sexism. Let not legislating-away prejudice make us forget how to define and recognise common and garden misogyny in all its forms, or how to call a spade a spade. And it is for this frankness, if only for this, that I thank the Australian Prime Minister.

About the author

Zoe Holman is a London-based Australian PhD candidate and writer, working on projects related to politics and the Arab Middle East. She has lived and reported in Syria, Lebanon and Cambodia, and written for outlets including the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, The Guardian and Lebanon’s Daily Star. Her doctoral thesis examines British policy in the Middle East after the Iraq War