Ernies mark 21 years of outrageous sexist behaviour

Ernie Awards diehard: Margaret Jones.

Ernie Awards diehard: Margaret Jones.

It's the awards night no one really wants to happen.

But, kept alive by a reliable stream of offensive comments, the annual Ernie Awards for Sexist Behaviour has become a uniquely Australian institution.

Laying claim to the most Ernie "wins" in the history of the awards and a near-perfect attendance record, 86-year-old Margaret Jones reckons the Ernies are particularly relevant to her generation.


While younger women can sometimes shrug off sexist comments as ignorance, such remarks are unwelcome relics when paired with the Australia Ms Jones grew up in.

"Women like me who had to listen to that shit all our lives really enjoy [the Ernies]," Ms Jones said.

It was an Australia where sexist comments were unexceptional, common and constant, ribald and obscene, Ms Jones said.

"We just put up with it," she said. "Then the Ernies came along and here was another way for us to get back at the blokes, because they had been laughing at us for all these years."

An "Ernie" officially goes to the man or woman who uttered the offending remark.

But the trophy, and the glory, belong to the woman who nominates the comments that are booed the loudest on the night.

As enjoyable as the Ernies are, Ms Jones is unconcerned by the prospect of a year without the awards due to a lack of contenders for the prize.

"I wouldn't worry, I'd be delighted," Ms Jones said.

But Ernies founder and former politician Meredith Burgmann said that each year the comments keep coming and "they're always dreadful".

"By making [the comments] public, it makes men aware of their sins," Ms Jones said.

While many men take the awards in good humour, Dr Burgmann said others seem to miss the point.

She remembers how Bill Heffernan rang to argue the toss with her, the year the Liberal senator was awarded the Gold Ernie for suggesting that Julia Gillard was not fit to lead the country because she is "deliberately barren".

"He said, but I'm a farmer, I know about sheep and cows," Dr Burgmann said. "It wasn't that he was offended, he just couldn't understand what was sexist about it."

The night attracts around 400 women each year, but Ms Jones is one of few who contribute to the award's success by collecting nominations throughout the year.

"It's obviously important to her, but it's really important to us too," said Dr Burgmann.

And the awards do mean a lot to Ms Jones. She protests that people, especially older women and women who are lesbians, are "invisiblised" by society.

But the awards night is one where she is unmissable.

"I'm with my sisters ... and I feel part of the tribe," she said. "That's important, you get a lot of support."

Ernie categories now include the Elaine (women unhelpful to the sisterhood), the Clinton (repeat offenders), the Warney (sport) and even the Good Ernie (for encouragement).

The awards are named after Ernie Ecob, who was the secretary of the Australian Workers' Union.

Mr Ecob's infamy within the feminist sisterhood was already well established when he proclaimed that women only wanted to be shearers because they're "after the sex".

The Awards were launched in celebration the year he retired from office. A sheep sits abashedly atop the Gold Ernie in his ongoing honor.

The 21st annual Ernie Awards will be held on Wednesday, October 9.