PM's outburst lays bare sexism at heart of body politic

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

Julia Gillard’s attack on misogyny has been hailed by many women as a turning point in Australian public discourse, writes ALISON ROURKE

WHEN AUSTRALIA’S prime minister, Julia Gillard, told the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, this week that if he wanted to know what misogyny looked like he should pick up a mirror, it was seen by many women as a defining moment for feminism in the country.

“I almost had shivers down my spine,” said Sara Charlesworth, an associate professor at the University of South Australia. “I was so relieved that she had actually named what was happening. She was so angry, so coherent and able to register that enough is enough.”

Gillard’s denunciation of sexism in politics came during a debate about whether Peter Slipper should resign for sending text messages that denigrated women. Abbott told Gillard that unless she sacked Slipper over the texts, she was just as bad as him. *

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever,” she fired back across the dispatch box. “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 is writing out his resignation.”

It was the first time an Australian leader – and possibly any world leader – had delivered such a forthright attack on misogyny in public life.

Gillard cited Abbott’s past description of abortion as “the easy way out”; his characterisation of Australian women as housewives who did the ironing; and his suggestion that men were better adapted than women to exercise authority and issue commands.

She listed Abbott’s calls for her to, “politically speaking”, make an honest woman of herself, as well as his appearance at political rallies in front of placards that described her as a “witch” and another man’s “bitch”.

Prof Barbara Pini, who teaches gender studies at Griffith University in Queensland, said it was a watershed moment. “It’s incredibly significant to have a prime minister powerfully state that she has experienced sexism and even more powerfully state that she will refuse to ignore it any longer,” Pini said.

“That the sexism which is so deeply embedded in the Australian body politic was named may give some women licence to express and seek to counter the sexism they have experienced in their working lives.”

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in five Australian women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. A recent study by Monash University in Melbourne showed that 57 per cent of women who worked in the media had experienced sexual harassment. It said women were badly under-represented in top levels of media management, holding 10 per cent of positions, compared with an international average of 27 per cent.

The report’s author, Louise North, said her findings might go some way to explaining why much of Australia’s mainstream media concluded that Gillard’s speech was a political disaster. “PM will rue yet another bad call,” said one comment piece.

“Gillard’s judgment was flawed. All she achieved was a serious loss of credibility,” said another.

That response was in stark contrast to much of the commentary in social media and conversations between women around the country, which were alive with praise for the prime minister’s stance.

“Leader writers are generally white, middle-aged men and they have no perception of gender bias,” North said. “They don’t want to acknowledge that it happens within their newsrooms and they certainly wouldn’t be open to challenging some of those positions and changing the public discourse either.”

– (Guardian service)

*  This article was amended on October 13th, 2012