Playing the sexism card:a guide for politicians*

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Julia Gillard during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 October 2012.

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Julia Gillard during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 October 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Yesterday was an interesting day for the old guard of the media. Less than 24 hours after Valkyrie Gillard swooped into the swamps of Parliament House and delivered her blistering battle cry to an increasingly glum looking Tony Abbott, newspapers were filled with op-eds desperately trying to paint it as the whimpering cries of a government in its death throes.

Curiously, there was little acknowledgement of the extraordinary support the Prime Minister received across social media platforms, participants of whom moved quickly to reblog video footage, memes and gifs - the preferred shorthand of internet activism these days. Instead, focus (particularly from the usual conservative suspects) was trained on the least interesting part of the day - the content of Peter Slipper’s texts to James Ashby and the supposedly egregious offence they committed against women.

Various commentators have claimed Julia Gillard exercised incredible hypocrisy regarding Slipper. Given that the issue of sexism and misogyny in the Coalition (particularly Abbott) has formed such a huge part of the Government’s attacks lately, how could they possibly ignore the terrible - nay, VILE! - bits of filth that Slipper released into the text stream? HYPOCRISY, THY NAME IS GILLARD!

Let’s review the sudden concern for women being displayed by people with a proven track record of not giving two hoots about them either way.

Janet Albrechtson pompously warned that Gillard would ‘struggle to be taken seriously about the very serious issue of misogyny. Double standards don’t get much worse than this.’

Well, that sounds very ominous. I’d say a pretty good example of a worse double standard is Tony Abbott suddenly seeking Peter Slipper’s vote for the Coalition now that he’s resigned as Speaker. But it makes sense for Abbott to want him back - I guess where the ‘very serious issue of misogyny’ is concerned, he’s probably safer surrounded by people who know exactly what that looks and sounds like.  

Miranda Devine, champion of misogynists everywhere, somewhat bizarrely wrote: “After weeks of taking high umbrage at imagined instances of misogyny emanating from the muscular Opposition leader, yesterday the Prime Minister and her sanctimonious sychophants, such as Tony Windsor, voted to protect an actual proven misogynist.”

While it’s very nice that Devine seems so fond of Abbott’s chiselled physique and the things that emanate from therein, I can’t help but bristle at her mention a sudden disdain for ‘actual proven misogynists’. Muscular as the Opposition leader may be, it doesn’t change the fact that his track record includes using his power as Health Minister to vote against the wide availability of RU486 for women, speculating (and recently too, as Gillard reminded him) about how physiological differences in men and women make men more suited to leadership, assuming that the best way to talk to women about the carbon tax was through the example of ironing, and rejecting the inclusion of the anti-cervical cancer drug Gardasil on the PBS.

But given that Devine recently used the opportunity of a 30,000 strong peace march following the murder of Jill Meagher to launch into an attack on feminists I’m not surprised she’d be confused by the distinction.

3AW’s Neil Mitchell was particularly floral in his criticism, blogging: “But while the super sleaze did the right thing, that defender of women, that attacker of sexism and that crusader for decency, Julia Gillard, did not. Slipper knew for the sake of decency that once his vulgar and vile text messages had emerged, once he has been caught talking about women as disposable objects, he knew he had to go. Julia Gillard did not – she continued to support him. This is extraordinary hypocrisy. Slipper is a sleaze. He has demeaned women in a way I have no [sic] seen before, and the Prime Minister defended him.” [my emphasis.]

Really? Neil Mitchell works in commercial talkback radio, at a station where the only three women paid to sit behind the desk do so on the weekend and discuss gardening, health and weekendy things. His industry colleagues have used their paid time on the airwaves to variously call women ‘sluts’  and declare they’re ‘destroying the joint’. Across the whole of Australia, only one woman hosts a show in a prime time commercial radio talkback slot, across all stations.

And Neil Mitchell has never seen women demeaned in a way like this before?

While it’s wonderful to see the issue of sexism and misogyny delivered so decidedly to the public conversation, I can’t help but feel that the real hypocrisy here is with people who so often exercise its use suddenly pretending they have a zero tolerance policy. Albrechtson and Devine routinely denigrate women. Mitchell works in an industry that prides itself on excluding them almost entirely. Yet their desire to stick the boot into Gillard, detract from what can’t be described as anything other than a passionately stirring speech, sees THEM employ the worst kind of hypocrisy. They’re not making a point about misogyny - they’re exploiting the fight against misogyny to make a point against Gillard. And with the Coalition awkwardly trying to flex their 'credentials' when it comes to defending women, the whole thing resembles that scene at the end of The Birdcage when Gene Hackman tries to sneak out of the club in a dress.

And at the end of it all, what really was so offensive about Slipper’s texts? I’ve heard them described as vile, degrading, sexually depraved - the sign of a man with no tolerance or respect for women. For heaven’s sake, he compared women’s vaginas to a mussels without shells. You can hardly fault the man for accuracy. 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. Are we women really so delicate that we can’t handle a few fishy metaphors about our nethers?

Or perhaps it’s that other 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. Perhaps this isn’t merely the response of an Opposition government and conservative media force trying to wedge their way into any opportunity to deflect from Gillard’s blaze of glory, but more a genuine reaction to the fact women’s ‘private parts’ (as I’ve seen them mentioned - ‘Now We Are Six’) have been thrust into the public consciousness. Because surely the greater issue with Slipper's texting is that they form part of a sexual harassment case against him - or do we consider the supposed gentility of women to be in greater need of protection than a man's safety at work? They do remember that vaginas exist, right? And that women know about them? After all, WA Liberal Troy Buswell certainly expressed a fondness for them when he sniffed a female staffer’s chair a few years ago.

The real hypocrisy here is in trying to pretend that Peter Slipper’s awkward attempts at text flirting are in any way comparable to the sustained sexism displayed by Tony Abbott in his entire history of public office. Comparing a vagina to shelled mussels might be crass, but I’m fairly confident the women of Australia can cope. Unlike conservatives trying to spin this scenario to their advantage, I know what misogyny looks like. And I’d rather a man compare my vagina to a delicious, briny creature of the sea than have them tell me they know better than I what I should be doing with it.

131 comments

  • Yes! Clem Ford once again you have managed to make my day with your accuracy and wit! More of this :)

    Commenter
    DSP
    Date and time
    October 11, 2012, 9:43AM
    • I never knew so many women actually hated men so much. That is the real eye opener for me. Abbott is not even remotely a women hater yet most of these female pollies really seem to hate men. Abbott tore Rudd apart and now he is tearing Gillard apart. That's not sexist. It would be sexist if he went easy on her for being female. And before we start on about pollies tearing each other apart, that's just the nature of politics. Gillard tore Rudd apart.

      Commenter
      Brisbane Bear
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 11:22AM
    • Indeed, DSP, hear, hear!

      I have to say that over the years I have heard many, many women refer to their nether regions in similarly crass ways..just as men refer to penises with colloquial, albeit vulgar or crass terminology or comparison. Its hardly novel. He did not use the terminology in a public place nor was it intended for consumption by anyone bar the SMS recipient. He's had it exposed as the result of a court case, described by the judge as very, very unusual, in terms of actions by the litigant. The release of ostensably private messages did make his position as Speaker untenable however the fullness of proceedings be seen before judgment by media, or political opportunists, be had and then let us see how many of his critics are prepared to have their private messages exposed. Not many I'd say, but predict they would also be in hot water if they did.

      I'm pretty confident humankind have preferred to find other words or expressions than the medically correct ones for thousands of years. I don't believe doing so automatically equates to misogyny. I haven't wasted the few minutes if my life required to track down Slippers full range of quotes..I honestly have better things to do..but from what I've heard so far he has simply engaged in what is undoubtedly a not all that uncommon, albeit juvenile practice, by both men and women.

      Commenter
      Warwick
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 12:34PM
    • BrisbaneBear ... Exactly !

      Here's the left up in arms about the way Gillard is treated - go back to Keating and how he dealt with his opponents - Keating is put up on a pedestal by the left because of his vile spewed personal vibes ... but apparently, because Gillard is a woman, you can't question, you can't attack, because ... she's a WOMAN. I mean, get me a bucket.

      The way Gillard is hiding behind her skirt is an absolute disgrace ... and any thinking woman should be appalled at the way she's using her gender as a shrill screech of victim hood ... not to mention the absolute hypocrisy of supporting Slipper. Utter disgrace.

      Commenter
      Henry
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 12:46PM
    • @ Henry,

      I’m not necessarily ‘up in arms’ about how Gillard is treated: politics is a nasty business. I know that, you know that, we all know that.

      But if you read the transcript of her speech, these are some of the comments made by Abbott she cited and roundly condemned, as any ‘thinking person’ would have:

      “If it's true…that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”

      “…but what if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”

      “Abortion is the easy way out”

      “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…”

      Those comments have nothing to do with how Julia is treated as the PM: those issues go to the very heart of what Abbott thinks of Australian women. And I, for one, am thoroughly pissed about it. And that rage is compounded by sycophantic people who then label a person who calls Abbott out on this abhorrent mindset as hiding behind skirts, “shrill” (a word only ever used to describe an angry woman, never an angry man) and perpetuating some kind of false victimhood.

      So, you *can* question a woman and you can attack a woman just as you would a man. But you can expect a firm retort from a woman, just as you would from a man. So here, have your bucket, mate.

      Abbott’s comments manifest the level of gender inequality in this country. The fact that a woman brought it to the fore should be utterly irrelevant.

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 2:23PM
    • Brisbane Bear - I am hoping your comment was tongue in cheek - however just in case you are serious ......Women don't hate men, we hate being treated as something less because we are not men. It is hard to illustrate to someone who has not experienced it but when your opinion is devalued simply because you are not male it is insulting! I have made comment on forums here which were well thought out and intelligently presented and had them "approved" by other commentators with a "he is obviously a thinking person". Why the assumption that I am male? To you these are small things but at 50 I have lived a lifetime of these "small" things and frankly am over it! I have had conversations with people who starting looking around but when the man next to me talks about the same things he is given full attention. I was bought up by a woman who taught me that all humans have value in our world, the poor, the rich etc and that there is no occupation beneath anyone as we all contribute on some level. I believe this, passionately but when men treat me as less than worth listening to beause I am not male I hate it, not them! They are victims of their own sterotype. As for the text message issue - Slipper got caught, that is the only difference between him and thousands of other Australians who would send these types of messages every day, male and female. Julia Gillard obviously struck a chord with a lot of women around the world who expereince some of what I have described on a daily basis.

      Commenter
      Not a man hater
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 2:30PM
    • "but I’m fairly confident the women of Australia can cope" well no they shouldn't put up with this anymore than they should put up with any sexist remarks from any of our other parliamentarians..

      Commenter
      Bennopia
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 3:39PM
    • Yes, Peter Slipper's texts were crass, but they weren't Misogyny - by definition a "hatred of women by men". Additionally, Tony Abbott's sexist bent is easier to prove than his all-out hatred of women, especially since he's married to one and has 3 daughters, and they all seem to adore the man! I just get the impression everyone's keen to use their new word "misogyny" in a sentence, and it's being bandied around a little too much and inappropriately.

      Just as "bitch" can be unfortunately and disparagingly used to describe women, "bastard" is reserved for men. It shouldn't be used in parliament, but Slipper's text re Sophie Mirabella wasn't used in parliament, it was a private text message, and I know for a fact that many women out there have described men as bastards behind their backs. What's the difference?

      Just the other day I heard a family friend bleating about her son-in-law not being a good enough "provider" for her daughter. I never once heard the men in that room complaining about the sexist and outdated expectation of men to be "good providers". You can't even buy a woman a household item lest you be labeled a sexist "bastard". On the other hand, men all over Australia for father's day would have gotten male-gender-specific gifts such as power tools, lawnmowers or even traditionally crappy gifts like underwear and socks. Of course we don't hear the men of the world crying foul because women get better gifts, or that their father's day presents "perpetuate non-factual or gender-discriminatory stereotypes".

      I think, despite Tony Abbott making some wholly ill-informed remarks about women over his parliamentary career, I do feel that at times women tend to lurch at shadows in corners which don't exist.

      Commenter
      paular
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 4:35PM
  • Why oh why is this article regulated to the bottom of the "Daily Life" column on the right hand bottom of my screen so readers have to scroll to reach it, when Peter Sheehan's name-calling drivel of yesterday was given a top of page headline plus photo in the very visible top left hand corner??

    Most commentators seem to have brushed under the carpet the fact that Gillards mention of sexism and misogyny were actually in response to the use of these terms by Abbott to condemn Slippers behaviour in what was certainly a politically advantageous (if not blatantly politically motivated) motion. Why is Abbott being painted as some sort of knight in shining armour chivalrously defending women's vaginas everywhere while Gillard using the same words is described as "snarling" (so unladylike) and "playing the gender card". If anyone was using these terms for political advantage, surely it was Abbott?

    Thank you Clem for being a breath of fresh air. Wish SMH would actually put your articles in a position where more people might read them though, because I don't think this should be just regulated to "women's issues".

    Commenter
    unbelievable
    Date and time
    October 11, 2012, 9:55AM
    • Because there is no evidence Abbott hates women, yet loads of evidence that the ALP are using the gender card as a political tactic...

      Commenter
      Sam
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 11:13AM

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