The Sexism The Polls Don't Show


What an appalling week for Australian women. It started with a debate about the joker in the pack — the gender card — after the PM made a speech that tried to unite women voters under the ALP banner.

Right now it’s hard to tell just who is playing which gender card: Julia Gillard or her detractors. However you cut the deck, it is stacked against her. Gillard is subject to sexist treatment because she’s a woman, and she’s copping flak for discussing women’s issues. She is invoking sexist treatment as grounds for women to vote for her, and she’s being told to toughen up and stop spinning gender. There is obviously more than one gender card available for play.

When the PM delivered her speech to the Women for Gillard event early last week, many viewed her effort to claim the feminist vote with cynicism. But as the week went on, the call became more urgent.

Gillard's misogyny speech in October last year struck a chord because she gave voice to the inchoate rage felt by so many women at being told what to do and how to think. She articulated something of what it’s like to feel you’re not taken seriously because you’re a woman.

Her stand against sexism and Abbott’s galling hypocrisy was all the more admirable given the tenor of the nasty personal attacks that have been directed her way since she took office. There were plenty of women who don’t vote Labor who nevertheless cheered when she roared that she would not be lectured on sexism by that man. Why? They could relate to the sexist gibes the PM has endured and were delighted to see such a thorough response.

I experienced a similar twinge of recognition when I heard Sattler’s bullying interview. I don’t think I’m alone in recognising the smug needling tone that Howard Sattler adopted when he talked to Gillard. “It’s what people say, isn’t it?” That insinuating pose of civility gets used to push women around too often — and it’s just as disingenuous as Sattler’s claims that he would have retreated had she asked him to. This sham gentlemanliness is a mask for the everyday bigotry women are routinely asked to tolerate.

It got worse: The PM mentioned abortion at the end of her speech, warning that it could become the “plaything” of men if Abbott is elected. Abortion was not the focus of her speech but Gillard was nonetheless criticised for being alarmist and straying beyond her jurisdiction. We know about the fragile web of state laws that allow women to access safe abortions, but as Jenna Price wrote in The Conversation, “while abortion is funded through Medicare it remains a federal issue”. Gillard was hardly scaremongering when she pointed to the real access issues that currently exist for many women. Listen to what veteran women’s health campaigners Caroline da Costa and Deb Bateson had to say about it on Life Matters recently.

As if that all weren’t enough, we heard about ADF personnel trading videos of their sexual conquests. Need it be stated that the mindset that helps some jerk chop up a woman’s body into a menu item allows other jerks to film their sexual partners without consent and circulate it? When Janet Albrechtsen says feminists should focus on more “serious” issues such as female genital mutilation, as she did on 730 last week, she ignores the fact that this practice too relies on the dehumanisation of women. To speak in terms of degrees of seriousness sidesteps the constitutive connection between these various forms of violence against women. These aren’t isolated instances of sexism, they’re symptoms of a sexist society. Call it patriarchy.

Essential polling released last week showed that 61 per cent of women and 41 per cent of men think sexism is a problem. A week later, just as I was wondering whether a shocking week for women in politics would change those figures, polling was released that showed a decline in male support for Gillard. We shouldn’t take the polls as gospel, but it’s hard not be be disheartened by such a slump.

When the history of Australian women in the first decades of the 21st century is written Gillard’s contribution may be hard to measure. She’s our first female PM, a huge achievement. As many have observed, her lawmaking hasn’t included a huge number of substantial reforms to benefit women — and has involved some damaging cuts, most notably to single parent payments. Women continue to carry the burden of poverty under a female prime minister.

She certainly hasn’t slacked off the job. Gillard leaves a strong legislative record and has held together a minority government under extremely difficult conditions. There are more women on her front bench than across the chamber and she has shown considerable grace under fire. She has shown — as if it needed to be shown — that women are capable of meeting the demands of high office. Remember those feminist slogans about a woman needing to do twice as much as a man to be taken half as seriously, or Ginger Rogers doing the same thing as Fred Astaire but backwards in heels?

But perhaps, sadly, Gillard’s most immediate legacy will be one that you don’t need numbers to measure. We don’t need polls to tell us that many Australian men are not comfortable with a female prime minister. The indisputably sexist attacks against Julia Gillard forces us to acknowledge the deeply ingrained habits of sexism in Australian public life. If the Prime Minister is treated this badly, how do less powerful and privileged women fare?

We know that women are paid less than men. We know that women are underrepresented in boardrooms, in the media, in politics. There are all kinds of inequalities that we’ve been able to quantify for decades. But the assaults on Gillard reveal the unspoken double standards that govern the treatment of men and women.

Because it is so often administered sotto voce, in the fashion of Sattler’s “that’s what people say”, this pervasive sexism is hard to explain; we're expected to laugh off. The intensification of the barrage against the PM this week has made it impossible to deny that she’s copping unfair treatment. Even after Anne Summers’ convincing and widely circulated speech on misogyny last year, there are plenty of punters ready to dismiss claims that Gillard is getting a raw deal.

As Gillard battles to the end of her second term — and Mary Delahunty’s characterisation of her as a warrior is very apt — she’s put to rest any furphies that women get treated just like men. Just as the ascent of a women to the highest office in the country was a clarion call about women’s capacity and accomplishment, the abuse meted out to the PM is a deadening and undeniable reminder that sexism flourishes.

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