Julia Gillard, atonement and a wonderful wave of lady rage

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Julia Gillard gives first public talk

While it was difficult to lose the ballot against Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard says she decided to give the party 'the gift of silence', in her first public interview at the Sydney Opera House.

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In her first public appearance since being deposed as Prime Minister Julia Gillard was welcomed onto the Opera House stage to the song ‘Respect’.  The audience rose to echo by action, those words of Aretha Franklin.  Because respect was a sentiment Gillard was rarely shown in office.  

It was a friendly crowd – but not just a feminist’s night out that can be dismissed as a leftie cheer squad.  Many were not there to laud Julia Gillard’s every achievement but to celebrate her survival of a sorry sexist system.  To give her a group hug in recognition that their nation had bad misogynistic manners.  And to thank her for going first.

It felt like a public atonement for a revolting time in recent history.  While we were not the crowd who needed to be forgiven, we still needed to tell her we were sorry for her treatment, or at least see if she was all right. 

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard  at the Opera House last night.

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard at the Opera House last night.

The cheers of relief began when Julia Gillard strode out looking more than all right.  She looked radiant, happy and buoyant and she sounded it.  

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Perhaps for the crowd, that’s what last night’s lecture was largely about.  Tonight in Melbourne I, and many journalists, will be hoping for more probing and critical questions about politics, the carbon tax and the lessons learnt.  But last night was not the time.

The fact is that most of us in that crowded concert hall, or at home, could not cope with what Julia Gillard has gone through.  I’m not talking about the pain of losing the top job and her career but the trauma of being the target of so much vitriol, and such persistent, perverted, demeaning sexism while she served her country. 

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard at the Opera House last night.

Anne Summers with former PM Julia Gillard at the Opera House last night.

Anne Summers asked her if she was aware of the foulest fetishized Facebook postings and my heart fell when Julia Gillard confessed she did.  Anne and I knew of women who cried at seeing such denigration of a Prime Minister, but when Gillard admitted she felt ‘more like murderous rage’ we cheered at her spunk.  

There was no need to go over the litany of loser comments thrown at her by powerful morons but one assumes she felt similar rage at being called a ‘moll’ ‘bitch’ and ‘witch’, and at the calls for her to be drowned (Alan Jones) or kicked to death (former John Howard staffer Grahame Morris).  As she talked about giving Labor the gift of silence during the election I wished that some of her detractors had the same gift of quiet fury.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw the Prime Minster last night and marvelled how she could live with such rage and not be consumed or paralysed by it.  Or terminally depressed by the hurt she must have felt by the nastiness. I would either self-combust or lock myself in my room and never get off the floor. 

But Julia Gillard was dignified and calm in office and beyond.  She was also powerful. When eleven-year-old Grace asked her how she kept motivated in the face of the horrible sexism she checked her language but showed her strength. ‘In moments of some stress and pressure, for example, when I was getting myself together to go out and give my final speech as Prime Minister, I certainly did say to myself that I wouldn’t give those people the satisfaction of seeing me shed a tear – I wouldn’t do that.”

I was not the only woman in the room who gasped at her power to stand up to bullies.  It seems she gets that from a strong ‘protective barrier of self’ that never lets others define or demean her.  Combined with a great sense of purpose and passion it kept her going when others would fall.  Perhaps her most misogynistic detractors couldn’t see this strength, or hated her all the more for it.  But it’s a pity these qualities were not communicated to more of the electorate.

Everyone will judge our first Prime Minister differently.  Some will never be able to see past their disproportionate rage to debate policy. I acknowledge her for the price on carbon, the Disability Insurance Scheme, better school funding, the Royal Commission into sexual abuse and her misogyny speech. 

I see her failings in communication, politics, the single mothers pension, refugee policy and gay marriage (her answer on that last night was still disingenuous).  Yet these debates are for another time when we can separate out the role of gender and media.

Last night was about acknowledging Julia Gillard has left us with one main legacy. She will always be our first female PM. As Anne Summers told us ‘it’s hard to be first’.  Gillard wasn’t perfect but she showed us all how to not let the horrible, misogynist, sexist, brutal buggers get us down. Her strength and power is so undeniable that a friend if mine went home to put up quotes in her room for those days she wakes up feeling crushed. Her legacy will be that one day another woman will be Prime Minister and be judged less harshly – perhaps even on her deeds alone.

As our first female Prime Minister accepted bunches of flowers and waved to a final standing ovation we once again gave her the respect she rarely got in office.  And she gave us a lesson for life.  Maintain your dignity, your power, your sense of self, your grace and your wit.  And deliver them all to the world with a good dose of defiance so you don’t let the bastards get you down.