Playing the Gender Card: Gillard, Abbott and the Slipper Texts

We look at the aftermath of an extraordinary week in politics, talking to Ben Eltham, national affairs correspondent of New Matilda, Stephanie Convery of Overland, feminist writer Alison Croggon and philosopher Damon Young - and drawing on the week’s news coverage.

Julia Gillard’s parliamentary attack on Tony Abbott, calling him out for various cited instances of sexism and misogyny, has dominated headlines for the past two days. But the coverage has been wildly divergent: between the Australian mainstream media and the world media, and between the mainstream media and social media. It’s almost as if different versions of the same event were viewed in different places.

‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,’ Gillard said, responding to Abbott’s call for Peter Slipper to be fired as Speaker, argung that his private texts comparing women’s genitalia to ‘mussel meat’ make him unfit to hold office. ‘If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,’ Gillard continued, of Abbott, ‘he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.’ She supported her argument by quoting comments by Abbott on abortion being ‘the easy way out’, his appeal to the ironing housewives of Australia, and his implicit support of protestors calling her a ‘witch’ and ‘a man’s bitch’.

Desperate or bad-ass?: The media reaction

International reactions ranged from US feminist website Jezebel’s admiring of Gillard as a ‘bad-ass mother**ker’ and commentators at the New Yorker and Salon wishing they could ‘borrow’ Gillard to call out notorious US politicians like Todd Akin (who believes women’s bodies shut down to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape), to the UK Telegraph’s acknowledgement that Gillard’s failure to condemn Slipper could cost her politically, while admiring her ‘political nous’, ‘aplomb’ and ‘composure’ in deflecting attention onto Abbott.

The *Herald Sun* responds to Gillard's speech.

The Herald Sun responds to Gillard's speech.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the mainstream media seemed to respond more slowly to the event than the international media, and more critically. Michelle Grattan’s comments in the Age were typical of the Canberra press gallery reaction: ‘The Prime Minister threw everything into her argument, which revolved around trying to pin the “misogynist'” label on the Opposition Leader. It was perhaps the only weapon available to her, but it sounded more desperate than convincing.’ In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher called her speech a refusal to stand up for respect for women, saying, ‘The Prime Minister gained nothing and lost a great deal.’

‘The Australian media often misses the story’

Why were the local and international media reactions so different? New Matilda national correspondent Ben Eltham told the Wheeler Centre that he thinks it’s partly due to the Australian political media being too close to the story, and thus missing its broader significance.

‘Perhaps it’s because overseas journalists don’t have the baggage that comes with domestic politics,’ concurs philosopher and writer Damon Young. ‘They’re not privy to the Machiavellian machinations, but they also lack the prejudices and biases. In Gillard’s televised speech, foreign journalists simply see the most obvious thing: a strong woman attacking sexism and hypocrisy.’

‘The Australian media often misses the story,’ says feminist writer Alison Croggon. ‘In this case, it really exposed how badly they can miss it … It baffled me how the press gallery, in unison, could be so blind to the significance of that speech. Whatever you think of Gillard – and I have serious criticisms of many aspects of her policies as PM – this was a stunningly successful political moment.’

Slipper and the V word

Today, feminist commentator Clementine Ford questioned just how offensive Slipper’s comments are. ‘The vast majority of women I’ve canvassed about the issue are either wholly unmoved or merely embarrassed for him at having such a naff approach to courtship,’ she said. She suggested that perhaps ‘people are so uncomfortable with talk of vaginas that they can’t help but assume any mention of them at all is depraved and unseemly’.

John Birmingham, on the other hand, believes that Slipper’s texts are evidence of ‘a much deeper problem with women than the Leader of the Opposition’; a view that seems to be shared by the majority of writers published on the subject.

‘It was great political rhetoric and I’m sure it will be much remembered, but it was also done for political reasons,’ Overland blogger Stephanie Convery told the Wheeler Centre. ‘This wasn’t done to make a point about how abhorrent sexism is – even though that’s how it will be remembered. It was made in the context of a broader political struggle – one that has everything to do with the increasingly rightward-moving Labor Party’s bad polling and the very real prospect of them losing the next election, and very little to do with women’s rights.’

Gillard’s rhetoric versus policy

Convery was just one feminist to voiced her concern that, ironically, Gillard’s policies did not match her rhetoric yesterday, when she helped pass legislation that will move 100,000 single parents (mostly women) off the Parenting Payment and onto NewStart, reducing their already miniscule incomes by $100 per week.

‘Abbott got the serve he has so richly deserved for so long, and I was riveted to every second,’ said Shakira Hussein, in Crikey. ‘But at the end of the day, I will not be lectured on sexism or misogyny by Julia Gillard on the very day that she has driven so many women deeper into poverty.’

‘Her most important speech as prime minister’?

‘I thought it was her most important speech as prime minister,’ says Ben Eltham. ‘Ordinary punters care little for the internal tactics of parliamentary politics,‘ he wrote on New Matilda. 'In contrast, many Australians care deeply about the increasingly nasty tone of the attacks on Julia Gillard as a woman.’

Tony Abbott speaking in front of signs that attack Gillard on gendered grounds.

Tony Abbott speaking in front of signs that attack Gillard on gendered grounds.

He cites a recent poll that shows a 19 point gap between men and women on perceptions that Gillard has been subject to more personal criticism than a male prime minister would be (61% of women agree, though only 42% of men). Feminism is a growing force as a social movement in Australia right now, he believes, and yesterday’s events will only underline that.

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

Philosopher Damon Young believes that having a female prime minister makes the issue of feminism and the treatment of women ‘harder to ignore’.

But Stephanie Convery says ‘it would be unwise to think that, on its own, [the speech] will make much material difference for women. It’s our response that will make the difference.’

‘A genuine defence of the right of women to exist in public life’

One reason that many women have responded so passionately (and positively) to the speech is that Gillard openly addressed an issue that has been brewing beneath the surface, or as a subtext, of political life for some time.

Indeed, since she became prime minister (and before that), she has been attacked for her childlessness, her lack of domesticity (the famous empty fruit bowl), her unmarried status and her wardrobe (the last, by Australia’s most famous feminist, Germaine Greer) – not to mention the more sinister gendered insults such as ‘Bob Brown’s bitch’, and, just last week, attacks on a Facebook forum ostensibly to discuss education policy that called her a ‘slut’, among other things.

Julia Gillard at home in Altona with the famous 'empty fruit bowl'.

Julia Gillard at home in Altona with the famous 'empty fruit bowl'.

Alison Croggon believes that the speech was embraced for its ‘strong public statement that clarified some of the toxic debate about misogyny that’s been fouling the political air recently’. She says it was ‘a genuine defence of the right of women to exist in public life’.

Sexist, misogynist or neither?

One aspect of the debates that has some commentators uncomfortable is the conflation of sexism (prejudice or discrimination based on gender) and misogyny (hatred of women). There is the question of whether it is fair to call Tony Abbott sexist, but even if that case can be proven – is it fair to extend that to misogyny?

‘It muddies the debate considerably,’ says Alison Croggon. ‘If Tony Abbott is accused of being a misogynist – a hater of women – that’s a serious personal accusation that can sincerely be addressed by, for example, his wife, who can quite rightly say, well, I know Tony, and he doesn’t hate women.’

Tony Abbott with wife Margie and daughter Frances.

Tony Abbott with wife Margie and daughter Frances.

‘However, he is clearly sexist, which is not about whether or not you like women (or men), but whether your attitudes and actions towards people are prejudiced and filtered by gender. That is clearly the case with Abbott, and that sexism is what can be properly addressed and criticised.’ ‘I’ve seen no evidence that Tony Abbott feels hatred towards women,’ says Damon Young. ‘I have seen evidence of sexism in Tony Abbott’s statements. For example, in 1988 Abbott questioned whether under-representation of women in power was a “bad thing”.’

Ben Eltham believes that sexism and misogyny ‘shade into one another in a spectrum-like manner’.

‘I don’t think Tony Abbott is a misogynist is the way that Alan Jones is. I do however think that Tony Abbott has done far too little to combat the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in conservative politics in Australia; indeed, he has stoked that misogyny for his own political purposes.’

The gender card

In the aftermath of the speech, Abbott has called for Gillard and Labor to ‘stop playing the gender card’, and promised to keep up his criticism of Gillard ‘when she does the wrong thing’.

For her part, Gillard has vowed to continue to ‘call out sexism and misogyny’ wherever she sees it.

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