Gillard’s speech to the parliament this week about Abbott’s misogyny is a watershed in her leadership. It was an "about time" moment, especially for many women listeners. It was "about time" in that many media commentators have lamented the lack of "real Julia" presented to the public, and "about time" in relation to an increasing tirade of sexist and offensive comments that have been directed at the Prime Minister by fellow politicians, the media and the public.
I should begin by saying I am not a fan of Gillard’s leadership. More than a decade ago I attended one of her early Emily’s List fundraisers, excited at the prospect of a progressive female candidate making a bid for the Senate. She did not succeed on that occasion, but later went on to do so.
By deposing Kevin Rudd, the price of leadership for Gillard was too great; she made compromises with the ALP’s faceless men that required her to abandon principled positions she had previously staunchly taken on same sex marriage, asylum seekers, and a range of other matters.
I support Stephanie Convery’s view that feminist credentials require advocacy and support for women from all walks of life. On the same day Gillard delivered her feisty anti sexism speech, the government approved a bill to cut payments for single parents, "a measure that will disproportionately affect [the most vulnerable]women".
That said, misogynist commentary has shrouded Gillard’s prime ministership. A female prime minister is symbolically and practically significant. I often marvel at Gillard’s resilience, strength, and grace under the incessant pummelling of the opposition, media, and segments of the public.
I am also encouraged that as my eight-year-old daughter’s awareness of the world unfolds, she sees on television a woman PM. Playing Gillard’s speech on my computer this week, I could see my daughter edge over behind me; we were both captivated. It was thrilling to see such passion from Gillard about the issue of sexism, whether or not the purpose of her comments was ultimately politically expedient. Any woman who has experienced sexist comments or behaviour in work or public life is likely to have felt enormously validated by Gillard’s delivery.
Until this week, Gillard has usually avoided direct engagement with the issue of sexist commentary relating to her Prime Ministership. Her responses to comments and incidents of sexism by Tony Abbott and Alan Jones have been innocuous and deflective; one might say "statesman-like". Women in leadership tread a precarious line; we must be seen to succeed "on the merits" without reference to the impact of sexism on our endeavours, or risk being construed as whinging incompetents and excuse makers.
Even though there have been innumerable occasions for Gillard to comment on Abbott’s sexism, especially in relation to her personal and unfair treatment as Prime Minister, she used the matter of the Peter Slipper affair to introduce the topic. Although she invoked personal examples of offence taken and poor behaviour from Abbott, she raised the issues under a broader framework of the opposition’s motion against Slipper. She did not invoke the spectre of sexism to protest her own unfair treatment as Prime Minister. Instead, she drew upon it to suggest that Abbott’s "road to Damascus" discovery of sexism was a tool to depose the speaker. From a gendered perspective, it was a politically clever move. Gillard was able to keep the faith with her political strategy of generally not invoking the gender card in her own defense, but was concomitantly able to introduce the issue of Abbott’s misogyny in the parliament.
It will certainly be one of the most remembered moments of her Prime Ministership. During a week in which Margie Abbott attempted to stem the hemorrhaging of women’s votes from the Liberal party, Gillard pointed out just how far Tony Abbott was from having an interest in, or commitment to women’s rights.
She was careful to draw distinctions between her individual views as a woman (for example on the issue of abortion, a political hot potato with conservative electors, but also a non-negotiable right in the eyes of most women’s lobbies) and issues that could be seen as offensive to all Australian women. Her choice of Abbott criticisms was carefully sequenced, leading to a climactic admonishment of opposition front benchers for remaining silent in the face of Alan Jones’ grotesque comments about her father.
The sense I’ve gained from women colleagues and friends this week is that Gillard’s speech felt cathartic; it was a symbolic response to a growing disgust amongst Australian women (and many men) regarding expressions of patent sexism in the public arena. Recent examples range from the purile and degrading comments of Kyle Sandilands, to those of Alan Jones who said current women leaders were "destroying the joint". And while some might not consider Jones’ comments about Gillard’s father sexist (I do), they were nonetheless innately vile.
In another sexist display, Lindsay Tanner, and especially Christopher Pyne, behaved appallingly toward Kate Ellis on last Monday’s Q & A. The brazen attitude underpinning this behaviour is provocative; it is one thing to hear sexist comments in private, but to hear their unfettered expression by prominent public figures is another.
The opposition is clearly aware it has a "woman problem". Whatever its views of Margie Abbott, the press was in furious agreement that her appearance reflected poor polling for Abbott. And is it any wonder? As Ellis explained on Monday, neither she nor women voters need to be convinced of Margie’s love for Tony. It is Abbott’s position on women’s issues and rights that worry women. This problem would not be fixed even if Wonder Woman was to stand alongside Abbott and proclaim his comfort at living among her sisters on Amazon island.
History’s greatest misogynists have lived with women – even "strong women". This is no badge of feminism. Judgments of Abbott by women, and progressive men, are based on his past and present comments; his own words and deeds rather than constructions of them. And Gillard’s passionate oration this week offered some salve to those of us who have screamed silently at the radio and television while the likes of Abbott and Jones set the cause of equality back.