Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett. Photo: Angela Wylie AJW
Eva Cox has broken ranks with 'the sisterhood'. Last Thursday the Women’s Electoral Lobby veteran was reported in The Australian as having said that feminists were branded as ‘traitors to the movement’ when they criticised Julia Gillard. We are unable to speak out about the catastrophic effect that Gillard’s single parents policy is having on single mothers because 'the sisterhood' has gagged us. Cox claims that because Gillard is the first female PM and because she has suffered ‘lots of comments about the physical stuff, which are completely irrelevant’ feminists are rushing to her defence rather than critiquing her policies.
It’s not the first time Eva has spoken out against the despotic reign of feminists. In fact, last year she bewailed our inability to criticise Gillard for fear of being labelled sexist and lamented that no-one had noticed how detrimental some of Gillard’s policies are for women.
Eva must think that feminists have a coherent set of beliefs that they all agree upon and which, in their omnipotent power, they enforce upon a subject population. This is a world where any dissenting voices are sent to the gulags.
The problem with Eva’s opinions on ‘traitors’ and ‘movements’ is that she offers no evidence for it. Cox inflates the power that feminists are able to wield both politically and socially, paints feminism as a hulking monolith rather than a political kaleidoscope, and actually silences the feminists who have been abundantly critical of Gillard’s policies. From Adele Horin to Jessie Cole on Daily Life, feminists have been more than capable of slamming Gillard’s single parents’ policy. And why stop there? Feminists have also criticised Gillard’s inhumane policy towards refugees, her backward view on gay marriage and her servility to global mining interests.
Put simply, we’re not stupid. If we only supported Gillard because she was a woman then surely we would also be applauding Julie Bishop. It’s actually quite possible to rush to the defence of Gillard when she is subjected to misogynistic hectoring like the Ditch the Witch placards or nauseating jokes about her physical appearance at the same time as rationally evaluating her policies.
To think that ‘the comments about the physical stuff are completely irrelevant’ to her position as PM is naïve. Gillard is attacked on the basis of her appearance in a manner that no male politician would ever have to endure. Why? Because we live in a culture that normalises the relationship between masculinity and power and which casts any powerful woman as an abject figure of disgust. She is someone who has transgressed her appropriate sphere and needs to be put back in her place. This is the task of the misogynistic cartoons and shockjocks that attack Gillard and it is the duty and delight of every feminist to defend her from it.
At a time when Gillard is being pummelled in the polls and Abbott is loping towards Kirribilli like a maniacal Neanderthal who has only just learned to use cutlery, I say it’s time we remembered how great Gillard has been on a number of key issues.
Firstly, Gillard did an excellent job supporting the equal pay case for community workers, who tend to be mostly women, and she is responsible for the historic National Disability Insurance Scheme. She has helped to ease the financial burden children pose to many families through offering 50% childcare rebates and she enacted legislation increasing paid parental leave. She had the courage to bring in the Carbon Tax, which has been acclaimed around the world, and she is overseeing a review of our education system that aspires to make it more equitable. These are all concrete policies that will make a real difference to people’s lives.
Secondly, Gillard made one of the finest parliamentary speeches of this century. Her misogyny speech must be one of the first times, globally, that the most powerful person of any country stood up and said that sexism is not to be tolerated. Speeches like this are not just symbolic. Like Keating’s ‘Redfern Speech’ or Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, these words have real world effects. They empower groups that are subject to discrimination to resist. Women are constantly told that they’re killjoys, feminazis or humourless if they call out sexism. We’re culturally educated to grin and bear it. Gillard gave millions of women and feminist men around the world the courage to stand up and say no. She put gender on the agenda. I still weep when I watch that speech.
Which is not to say that I’ll vote Labor. I never budge from The Greens. It’s simply to say that feminists are clever enough to be able to criticise or give credit to our politicians when either is due. At a time when anti-Gillard sentiment has reached fever pitch, it’s time to calmly remember her extraordinary legacy. And Eva, if there is a group of feminists out there so powerful that they can silence criticism of Gillard then take me to them. I want to join up.