The Speech Heard Around the World

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By now we all know that the Gillard speech, whatever you thought of it, has reached millions.

The YouTube clip alone has been viewed more than two million times, while the coverage has extended beyond our national media landscape to include dozens of outlets overseas including the Guardian, London’s Telegraph, The New Yorker, CNN, the BBC and many others. If the local political journalists are right and it was a tactical error with little meaning beyond the Slipper affair, why is everyone outside Canberra still so interested in it? This article by Guardian journalist Alison Rourke appeared as late as Monday.

I agree with the press gallery on one thing — many Australian people either haven’t seen the speech or if they have, couldn’t care less. This is true. I need only talk to some of my family members to gauge this. But why did so many people, who are usually disengaged from our political processes, seek out this speech and consume it? How did it cut through?

There are a number of answers to this. Obviously, it could be seen and shared. Until recently, if you didn’t watch the televised Question Time, or consult Hansard directly, your understanding of what took place in parliament was necessarily filtered by the press gallery journos who were there — they reported, analysed, filed and we read it in the paper next day. Clearly, the fact that this speech was available to be shared online so quickly made a huge difference.

But material is often shared online to no avail. The internet is a big place and merely uploading content is absolutely no guarantee anyone will see it. Why did so many seek out video and transcripts of this speech?

It was posted and reposted, linked and shared, and covered in newspapers, websites, blogs and social media. Journalists from four different countries contacted me for comment on it. I overheard people of varying ages and backgrounds discussing it animatedly on public transport (including a teenaged boy who thought it was "fucking awesome").

I took part in an impromptu event discussing the speech at the Wheeler Centre and hundreds of people turned up — even though the event was only publicised for 48 hours. My parent friends called me to say they needed help explaining what misogyny was, as their kids had come home from school asking about it.

Meanwhile I was reading in the newspaper that it was a mistake, that it was tainted by association with Slipper, and that it signified little.

Yet foreign journalists compared Obama’s limp performance in the first presidential debate to this dynamo in Australia and asked why he wasn’t able to call on such conviction and eloquence when it really mattered. (Knowing better, we might ask the same of Gillard.)

Ironically, the word we’re all avoiding is "statesmanlike" because there isn’t a satisfactory non-gendered equivalent. It might have been praised as an impressive example of political oratory but what I sensed was huge admiration for a leader courageous enough to call a lie a lie. Or a misogynist a misogynist, as the case may be.

Unquestionably, there is currently a global mood of defiance and anger at the erosion or denial of women’s rights, including responses to the GOP’s War on Women in the state legislatures of the US, and condemnation of the appalling attack on Malala Yousoufzai in Pakistan. In the UK, campaigns to stop Page Three Girls and highlight Everyday Sexism are gaining momentum and traction in the public sphere, while the SlutWalk movement attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters globally, and sparked protests in hundreds of cities.

Here in Melbourne, a Reclaim the Night march on Saturday night saw 5000 people walk in Brunswick, so chosen after the horrifying rape and murder of Jill Meagher, undoubtedly to honour her memory but also to condemn violence against women. Despite the success of SlutWalk, these kinds of numbers haven’t been seen at RTN events in many years. The invention and revival of these movements, respectively, are also possible because of the effectiveness of organising online.

A campaign called Destroy the Joint, named after Alan Jones’s idiotic remarks, saw 20,000 supporters join a Facebook campaign, and has had huge success lobbying advertisers and generally keeping the pressure on 2GB. And a letter Tracey Spicer wrote (called "Dear Mr Sexist"), revealing the appalling treatment she received in the newsreading business, went viral and has just been picked up by the Guardian.

Do I think Gillard’s speech resonates differently with men and women? Yes, undoubtedly. I know many men who are utterly thrilled by the speech, and any perceived gain for feminism, but most of the women I spoke to talked about recognition. That sting of recognition that you feel when someone articulates what you wish you could say to all the people — the men — who’ve undermined you simply because of who you are.

Recognition that sexism and misogyny exist and we’re not all imagining it despite the gaslighting and the white-anting and the absolute inability to acknowledge privilege.

Recognition of the look in her eye when she finally stood up to a bully that had dogged her for years with his snide remarks and dog-whistle politics.

Recognition of Gillard’s superlative skills and the incredible toughness that must be required to put up with this abuse day in, day out, all while holding a position of authority over her tormentors.

Recognition of all the times we’ve been on the receiving end of a taunt, a joke, a wisecrack about our sensitivity, our hysteria, our body, our self — and what that does over time, and how we must push back against it, even if it’s sometimes terrifying.

What do I think the long-term impact of this speech will be? I want to go on record saying it will change us. At the very least it has galvanised and energised feminists and activists, who will go on to change even more. The Redfern Speech did not solve the problems of Aboriginal Australia but who would deny it was a powerful step in acknowledging responsibility and bearing witness? Not everyone remembers the precise context of the Redfern Speech, or what was happening in the parliament at the time. But it was a great speech, in the literal and historic sense, because it was the right words, said the right way, at the right time.

Gillard’s speech not only modelled behaviour that we should value in leaders — restraint, assertiveness, passion, marshalling of evidence, guts — but it showed every person who was moved by it that they can stand up to a bully. For people who are kicked around for having a disability, for being fat, for being black, for being Asian, for being Muslim, for being poor, for being too loud, too ugly, too sensitive, too different — this kind of example matters. It not only illustrated that at the highest level, sexism is still enough to disempower someone, but that they can take that power back. If Gillard loses the election and it’s connected to this, at least she went down swinging. But what I hope is that this is the moment she won the election back.

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