Gillard's Misogyny Speech - What Have We Learned?

The dust may finally have settled on the gender debate sparked by Alan Jones’s ‘'destroy the joint’‘ comment and the viral spread of the Prime Minister’s misogyny speech.

So much offence taken, so many apologies issued, so many hash tags generated, so much angst and opinion shared on social media.

But what has really been achieved? One positive is the visibility of women angry about the gender discrimination that limits their opportunities. Previously, Australia’s first female PM had refused to fly the feminist flag. This may have been for fear of being accused of ‘'playing the gender card’‘ and because she thought there were no votes in it (a fear proved wrong by a bounce in her approval ratings in the first poll following the speech).

Gillard’s speech may also have seeded what may come to be known as third-wave feminism. In every generation, young women are last on board the feminist train. This is the result of understandable denial (who wouldn’t prefer to already live in a world that judges them on the content of their character rather than having to fight for one?) and the fact that most young women have not yet experienced the gender equity train wreck that is motherhood.

But Gillard’s speech, and the potential consequences of an Abbott-led government it gestured at, has energised not just young women but a heartening swathe of gender egalitarian-oriented young men. In its wake, both have been signing their names to petitions, liking Facebook pages and even joining real-world campaigns to challenge the attitudinal and structural barriers preventing women from being judged on their merits and achieving their potential.

But whatever the merits of Gillard’s speech and the bounties it has brought, there are always lessons to be learnt – things we might do differently the next time, and the next, so the battle for equal rights can be won. Compare these statements and pick the one you find the most persuasive.

  1. That minister is a misogynist. He never would have spoken that way to a man.
  2. That politician is sexist. As a woman, I was offended by everything he said in that speech.
  3. That politician is sexist. He said he believes women are less suited than men to exercise authority and issue commands, and backed that view up when he was in power with a political agenda and voting record antagonistic to women’s reproductive choice and sexual equality in the workplace.

My money says most people – particularly those undecided on gender matters – would choose the third. They would choose it because the male politician is being judged as sexist on the basis of a direct quote and – more importantly – what he did with his power in relation to women when he had it. It lacks both speculation about the feelings and motives driving the politician’s sexist views and behaviour and an inference that women have a right not to be offended (they don’t) rather than a right to equal treatment (they do).

Gillard accused Abbott of misogyny (the hatred of women by men) and sexism (unjust discrimination on the basis of gender). By confusing these two very different terms, she inadvertently allowed the ensuing debate to focus on what Abbott feels about women. Not only are feelings and motives hidden and so unprovable, they are irrelevant in Abbott’s case because his ample record gives us a far sounder basis for speculation on his future policy approach to female equity.

Speculation about Abbott’s feelings and motives buried ample evidence of his expressed sexist views and demonstrable facts about how he has used the power of elected office to ignore or undermine women’s quest for equality. These include his tenacious fight as health minister to retain his veto power over Australian women’s access to the World Health Organisation’s ‘'essential medicine’‘ RU486, and his role as – and I’m quoting him here – one of ’‘eight Catholics … in the Howard cabinet’‘ that provided ’‘additional financial support for one-income families’‘.

More uncontestable and recent facts include Abbott’s choice of an opposition health spokesman who voted to keep the ban on RU486 and the presence of just two women in his 20-member shadow cabinet. The voting record of his parliamentary secretary for the status of women suggests she is antagonistic to the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality in low-income countries.

It took the overt sexism of one of Australia’s most listened-to shock jocks and an intervention by the Prime Minister to drive the gender inequality problem on to the national agenda. Who knows when this will happen again? While growing numbers of men recognise that sexism raises the same fundamental questions of justice and fairness as racism, some of the blokes still running the joint persist in seeing the issue as marginal.

Congratulations to the PM for her passionate determination to display a problem so fundamental to the life choices and chances of half the population. May her next intervention come soon and leave less room for the philistines to confuse the issue, trivialise the concern and shut down discussion of policy solutions.

Publication history

Let's Keep Gender on the Agenda   Sunday Sun Herald