The emergence of former PM Julia Gillard on the book campaign trail, and related discussions of the role sexism played in her defeat, has uncovered a curiously blinkered view of sexism in Australia.
It’s as though some progressives see sexism as such an essential influence in shaping Gillard’s story that they’ve co-opted it as her burden alone and not one also borne by all other women.
This seems particularly the case when considering whether female politicians from the other side of the political divide are subjected to prejudice because of their gender, or abuse that manifests the bigotry.
Last week, I looked at the prospects of Liberal Deputy Leader Julie Bishop ever becoming PM, and argued that sexism within her own party as well as that in the broader Australian community and the media would likely prevent her from ever reaching that goal.
The column provoked considerable discussion. Many of the commenters refused to accept that Bishop, or any other woman from the ‘right’, were subjected to sexist abuse. Some readers wrote to me on Twitter, saying these women were spared from sexism because they shared the same politics as the sexists. Other commenters refused to believe that at least some of the attacks were coming from progressives and Labor supporters, because in their view progressives wouldn’t stoop to gendered abuse.
But the reality is that sexism is an equal opportunity employer: both the perpetrators and targets cross party lines. All women in politics – be they Labor, Greens or, yes, even Coalition – are subject to blind prejudice because of their gender.
That prejudice creeps within all aspects of our society – the community, the media, and political parties, including progressives and members of the Labor Party.
A comment from Razget on my column last week is representative of the sexism Bishop faces from her own “kind”. Claiming that “theres nothing special about Julie Bishop that makes her more powerful than say…the immigration minister Scot Morrison” [sic], Razget goes on to declare that Bishop has probably benefited from reverse sexism:
Smells like feminism to me…lets give a woman a job because of her gender, not because of her actual performance. It doesn’t help anyone to get a quota because of race or whatever, ahead of superior competition.
Meantime, one only has to take a look at what Labor supporters and other opponents of the Abbott Government also have to say online to see that society’s dark vein of sexism flows through the “left”. The prejudice may not have the same breadth and depth as that levelled at Gillard, but it is there nonetheless. Scan the #730, #lateline or #qanda hashtags when a female Coalition MP is being interviewed to get a sense of it.
During one appearance on Lateline, Kelly O’Dwyer was variously described on Twitter as an “interrupting cow”, an “annoying rude bitch”, a “female attack dog”, one of the Liberal Party’s “hideous women”, and the product of “some sort of LNP Island of Doctor Moreau breeding [of] feral women”.
In another example, John Graham, a cartoonist for the “the journal of democracy and independent thought” Independent Australia, depicted Julie Bishop in one caricature as wearing a short, low-cut dress and boots, with legs astride as missiles fall from her nether region. Another shows Bishop in the same dress, bent over in front of Abbott as he lifts her skirt from behind saying “Hey boys I think I found one”.
The PM’s Chief of Staff gets the treatment too. Those who make witty bondage allusions with Credlin as Master and Abbott as slave don’t seem to realise the inherent sexism in this scenario, nor do those who suggest Credlin holds the position because of an alleged affair. Most offensive of all are comments that seek to diminish Credlin in the most vile terms by suggesting she’s a man.
Of course, these are the tame comments – just Google your chosen female Coalition MP plus the word “c*nt” to see a broader range of more colourful slurs, threats and epithets.
While it is true that Labor MPs generally have not engaged in the type of reprehensibly sexist language used by Coalition MPs against Gillard, there are still glimpses of gendered slagging, such as Federal MP Steve Gibbons calling Julie Bishop a “narcissistic bimbo“, NSW Labor MP Amanda Fazio describing another state MP’s partner as resembling a porn star, and another Federal MP David Feeney’s series of tweets labelled “The different emotional states of Christine Milne” (which admittedly did not target a Coalition MP).
It is due to examples like these and many more that last week’s column argued there’s nothing to suggest sexism is the sole preserve of one side of politics or the other:
“The gendered abuse currently being generated online … casts just as ugly a light on perpetrators from the left as it does on similar abuse coming from the right.
The point being made is not some type of Four Yorkshiremen attempt to claim the magnitude of sexist abuse levelled at these women is more than that endured by Gillard. It clearly is not.
But it is sexism just the same, and by any measure sexism is unacceptable.
In all cases of sexism, the holder of the prejudice believes they are superior to one, some or all women. And they believe this superiority gives them the right to verbally, psychologically or physically dominate or abuse those women.
The use of gendered terms such as “cow”, “bitch” or “c*nt”, or use of ridicule or abuse to diminish a person’s female attributes, are all sure indicators of a person’s sense of superiority over some or all women.
Some forms of prejudice may be created and driven by politics, but in the case of sexism, it is a more fundamental power differential that resides within a person’s core values.
It may be easy to dismiss gendered bigotry as a construct of the right, but there is much to suggest both men and women of the left consider themselves superior to those of the right and have let that power differential creep into the language they use to denounce the other side.
Sexism is not an acceptable way to try to balance the ledger after the appalling sexism and yes, misogyny, of the Gillard years.
Having endured sexism shouldn’t be a reason to fete a politician, nor should bigotry be a legitimate form of political attack for any side of politics.
The inequity that arises from sexism can only be addressed if prejudice is challenged wherever it appears – even when it comes from progressives who see gendered ridicule and attacks on politicians as nothing more than robust political debate.
It is unlikely that real progress will ever be made in combating sexism if progressives don’t accept they are part of the problem and do something about the need to change.