Given the events of the past week, it’s time to recognise some of the government’s outdated views on women.
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.
Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.
I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.
I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.
Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.
Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.
Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.
Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.
In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.
The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.
So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.
What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.
Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.
And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.
For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.
In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.
Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.