Gillard Rides The New Wave Of Feminism

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Two things happened in federal parliament yesterday. One was that the Speaker of the House of Representatives resigned, after it became clear that he had lost the support of half the members. The other was the Prime Minister gave a speech about misogyny.

It’s pretty clear which was the more important moment. Peter Slipper’s resignation as Speaker is important in the narrow sense of the governance of Australia’s Parliament. But it has minimal significance for the longevity of the government or the numbers on the floor of the House.

The Prime Minister’s speech excoriating Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is by far the most important speech she’s given as Prime Minister.

Not for the first time, the Canberra press gallery largely missed the significance of yesterday’s events, this morning concentrating on Slipper’s resignation rather than Gillard’s attack against sexism. In part, this is entirely understandable. Events moved quickly last evening, culminating in a tearful resignation speech from Slipper and some serious back room manoeuvres for the position of Deputy Speaker.

But ordinary punters care little for the internal tactics of parliamentary politics. In contrast, many Australians care deeply about the increasingly nasty tone of the attacks on Julia Gillard as a woman. The rapid and widespread social media sharing of the video of Gillard’s peroration shows the chord it has struck. For those outside the bubble of Canberra politics, the key point was that Gillard stood up to the routine sexism and denigration directed at her from the Leader of the Opposition, and indeed much of the Australian right.

Gillard’s speech reaches over the grubby politics of the Slipper affair to speak directly to Australian women. If you are a woman in Australia, it is almost inevitable you will have experienced the dead hand of misogyny at close quarters, either through sexual harassment, routine sexual vilification in the workplace, or in the insidious "boys’ club" mentality that still grips many Australian social environments — including newsrooms.

Many men simply don’t see this sort of stuff, and many have trouble acknowledging it even exists. Most men, after all, don’t have to encounter an environment in which their very gender is a source of routine gossip and innuendo. Most men don’t have to work in organisations where most of the senior leadership roles are filled by women. Most men will not be groped by a co-worker, or have their appearance or dress remarked upon in a sexual tone.

Perhaps this accounts for the wide gender gap that has opened up in perceptions of the Prime Minister. Men are consistently more disapproving of the Prime Minister. According to recent analysis of Nielsen poll data by the Australian Financial Review’s Edmund Tadros and Andrew Clark, the gender gap in approval ratings for Gillard has been a massive 15 points.

A recent Essential Poll found a whopping 19 point difference between men and women over the question of whether Julia Gillard "had been subject to more personal criticism than a male prime minister would be". Sixty-one per cent of women thought this was true, while the figure dropped to 42 per cent for men. Most men thought that Gillard had been subjected to "about the same" amount of personal criticism as a man would have been.

I find that a pretty shocking poll result, actually, because it should be bleedingly obvious that the nature and level of the personal attacks on Julia Gillard have been vastly more influenced by her gender than previous criticisms of male prime ministers. For those unconvinced, the evidence base is laid out in forensic detail by Anne Summers in a recent speech (NSFW) at the University of Newcastle.

For those of us that believe in gender equality, it has been depressing to see the first female prime minister of our nation subjected to some of the grubbiest sexual slurs and innuendos. But perhaps we are now at an inflexion point. The sheer vitriol directed against Gillard may prove to be something of a catalyst for the reinvigoration of feminism as a social movement in Australia.

For many years, feminism has not been a popular adjective among Australian women, particularly younger women. But a new wave of feminism appears to be asserting itself in this country, perhaps driven by the growing realisation that the work of earlier waves of feminism remains incomplete.

Like many social movements, this current groundswell appears to have been first articulated in the arts. It’s impossible to put an origin on such matters, but an important early signpost was the debate over the representation of women in creative roles in the Australian theatre that exploded in 2009.

Another important moment was a speech to the Melbourne Writers Festival by writer and editor Sophie Cunningham last year, in which she called for "new ways to advocate for women’s voices, in the face of their ongoing marginalisation, both cultural and economic." The Slut Walk marches of last year were also important, because they demonstrate a grass-roots protest movement organised around recognisably feminist ideals. Summers’ speech to the University of Newcastle this year marks a fourth significant moment.

Now, the most powerful politician in Australia has stood up and made her views count. That will matter, whatever the press gallery thinks.

Savvy feminists are newly assertive, with new tools to express themselves. The Destroy The Joint campaign against Alan Jones, for instance, has been focussed on Jones’ misogynistic comments about the Prime Minister. Along with the Change.org petition, it has been immensely effective at damaging 2GB’s revenue base by scaring off advertisers. I have heard one story of a large brand that advertised on Jones’ show receiving 25,000 emails in three days after its email address was listed on the Destroy The Joint Facebook page. It pulled its advertising shortly afterwards.

These are not the actions of an isolated few, but rather the reawakening of a broader social movement that represents one of the most historical forces of the last fifty years. That is why Gillard’s speech yesterday is resonating far afield from the politically connected, out into broader Australian society. That is why the rest of the world has shown such interest in a speech in Australian parliament, with the international media widely reporting on the event.

Feminism is back. In the short term, that’s probably good news for Julia Gillard and Labor, given Labor’s obvious lead over the Coalition on gender and family issues.

But the real impact is likely to be social, not political. An upsurge in men and women prepared to strongly articulate feminist ideals is good news. It’s good for business, which continues to exclude half the population from its upper echelons of leadership. It’s good for politics, which is still highly sexist in all sorts of ways, as Cheryl Kernot reminds us today. It’s good for the media, which lags well behind best-practice in embracing the talents and voices of women. Best of all, it’s good for our society at large, which remains blighted by the stain of misogyny and patriarchy.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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