I have just returned from some work in Europe and, being an academic, I inevitably spent much of my time talking about politics.
It is speaking to Germans, Dutch and the good folk from Belgium that the strangeness of Australian political life is crystallised. Try explaining to someone that Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd, the elected Prime Minister, without an election, in a type of bloodless coup (no, the army was not involved). Oh, and then Julia Gillard was elected as Prime Minister. Three years later she was in turn ousted by Kevin Rudd. No, this was not a coup either.
These conversations invariably led to Julia Gillard’s popularity, her treatment by the press and "that misogyny speech" which many had seen. This led to two interrelated questions: “Are Australians ready for a female Prime Minister?’; and “Does Australian culture breed misogyny?”
The way Julia Gillard was treated has been detailed elsewhere so I won't discuss it here. Rather, my interest is the everyday language and behaviours – or simply, our culture – that perpetuates the feeling that women are somehow inferior to men, do not know their place and are behaving badly (or "destroying the joint").
Just like passive racism, many do not even realise we are doing it, but it is in these unguarded moments that we gain insights into what is at the core of our culture. In the spirit of responding to those who begin their sentences with "I am not a racist, but…", or in this case, "I agree that some sections of the press have been harsh but her voice really is grating", here are seven steps that we need to adopt if we are going to stop the perpetuation of misogyny in our culture.
1: Disagree but don’t insult
There are many female politicians I dislike: Sophie Mirabella and Pauline Hanson are two that come to mind. I find Sophie Mirabella’s ignorant attitudes towards Islam distasteful, lacking any basis in fact. There are gaping holes in her political, economic and social politics that have nothing to do with her looks, or the way she sounds, walks or combs her hair. I do not have to call her a bitch, witch or liar to make my point.
Cory Benardi's repulsive obsession in linking bestiality and same sex marriage has nothing to do with the way that he looks: it is sheer ignorance. Why are female politicians any different?
2: Don’t blame the victim
In Australia, a 2011 study on sexual violence conviction rates found that low rates can be attributed to, at least in part, to attitudes towards women. As the authors conclude, “misconceptions regarding the culpability of victims of sexual assault are still common”. In other words, male violence against women is justified by what a woman decides to wear or how much she decides to drink. This is echoed in a recent Canadian survey that found that one in five Canadians think that women encourage abuse by drinking.
Women have as much right to enjoy time out as men: but is seems they are judged harshly for their behaviours in a way men never are.
3: Don’t tell a woman to "calm down" for doing her job
For a long time women where discounted from leadership positions because they where seen as either too emotional or lacking strength of will or character. While the late Margaret Thatcher sorted out the later, the "too emotional trope" continues. This was highlighted last week when the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, responded to a line of questioning by Guardian Australia journalist, Bridie Jabour, telling her to "calm down". Not much different to Alan Jones’ concern that women are destroying the joint, this one confirms that things would be a little more civil if women better knew their place.
4: Don’t ask a woman leader for fashion tips
Does anyone ever care what Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd wear? Female politicians are constantly judged according to their fashion sense – and all too often judged harshly. As the New York Times recently outlines, even the choice of purse apparently reflects something about the women we vote for.
5: Never utter the words, "women have never had it so good"
A repeated line is that women today "can have it all", career, family and so on. They have never had it so good! Really? How about the fact that, in Australia, women earn less than men across the board? Or, the fact that women continue to proportionately carry the unpaid domestic duties burden. Even more concerning is that domestic violence continues to be the central law and order issue in Australia – much of which is attributed to the belief that men still have the right to dominate their partners. Sure, there have been dramatic gains for women in our society – but let’s not kid ourselves that it has all been sorted.
6: Don’t blame biology
In New Matilda last year I discussed the pseudo-science that confirms women are just a little "hopeless". You know, they can’t read maps, have no sense of direction and so on. This genre has given rise to a "new determinism", confirming stereotypes and pre-determining the future choices of boys and girls: men will lead, build things, and get paid more while women, in contrast, should care, follow and watch lovingly. After all, as I wrote last year, if you can't read a map, how could you be a CEO? It goes without saying that the circular logic of this new determinism, "we are right to tell women not to take leadership roles because they fail in getting there anyway", is absolutely toxic.
7: Don’t complain about "all the crap men have to put up with"
It is worth finishing with this one. You've heard it all before: "But James, Men have it tough too! Why isn't there an International Men's Day? Don't men need 'Masculism'?" There is no arguing that the masculinity expectations of our society continue to result in depression and even suicide. This is a serious and distressing issue, but it has nothing to do with the challenges that women face. Then there are the health issues: Why is breast cancer given priority over testicular cancer?
Here the message is clear: girls, we will get to your problems once we fix our own. So join us and wait in line.
Australia is not a sexist country, but our culture does have a tendency to breed misogyny and the treatment of Julia Gillard is only one example. It is really time for us to respond.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.