Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech in which she denounced the opposition leader’s sexism and misogyny made headlines around the world. But it followed an extraordinary period when the spotlight never shifted far from the treatment of women in our society.
On 23 August 2012 Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard held an extraordinary press conference in which she spent an hour answering every question the journalists present could think to ask her.
She did this because of an ongoing smear campaign regarding her conduct at a law firm in the 1990s, waged largely on the internet but picked up with the long tongs periodically by journalists, mostly working for The Australian.
The ones who used their fingers, incidentally, got burned. Here’s a summary from Michelle Grattan in The Age, if you need a refresher.
In the course of that press conference, Gillard referred to a sexist campaign being waged against her.
For the most part, while I could find no commentator who disagreed with the prime minister’s remarks about sexism, it was not the main thrust of the resulting coverage.
The Sun-Herald’s Stephanie Peatling did address the issue directly and provided some details of the sexist treatment of the prime minister in this article: PM’s timely swipe at sexist treatment
Most reporting was divided between those who felt Gillard had dealt effectively with the smear and those persisting in their demand that questions remained to be answered.
None was able to specify what those remaining questions were.
Gillard’s widely praised performance came just a day after Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a rare appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 program in which he confirmed the wisdom of his avoidance of serious interviews.
Here’s the transcript and video.
The contrast between the prime minister who regularly takes all questions and an opposition leader who avoids them – by either refusing to appear or simply walking away from journalists once he’s spouted his talking points – was stark.
Abbott has consistently polled poorly among women but that wasn’t an issue for Simon Benson, writing in the Daily Telegraph on the 31 August.
Back in those heady days, when questions over Abbott’s continuing grip on the leadership were first raised, they centred on his overreach in demonising the carbon tax.
The sexism card was again put into play by Liberal ‘strategist’ Grahame Morris who called the ABC’s 7.30 interviewer Leigh Sales a cow.
Why? Because she pushed Abbott on his unsatisfactory answers to her questions and didn’t let him slip easily off the hook, which is her job.
Morris presumably blamed Sales for Abbott appearing to be an unprepared fool.
When called to apologise, Morris – who previously had suggested Ms Gillard should be “kicked to death” – offered a mealy response to the ‘oh so sensitive souls’ who may have been offended.
The excellent News with Nipples, in her open letter to the ABC’s Mark Scott, provides transcript and all necessary links.
On the morning of 31 August 2GB radio host Alan Jones – a man who thinks he knows the difference between wheat and chaff and likes to dismiss his targets as the latter – called for his biggest chaff bag yet, this time for all the women who were “destroying the joint.”
On many previous occasions Jones had called for the prime minister to be put in a chaff bag and dumped in the sea.
This time his motivation was Gillard’s announcement of an aid package to our Pacific neighbours to encourage female participation in public life.
Neither Morris’ nor Jones’ comments were surprising.
Morris’ remarks have been largely forgotten in the tumultuous weeks since but, thanks to an inspired Twitter hashtag #destroyingthejoint created by Jane Caro, Jones’ will be remembered for a long time to come.
You can read Caro’s own account of that heady night of women gone wild at New Matilda (who would appreciate a subscription while you’re there).
Frankly, we needed the laugh because there isn’t much that’s funny about the sexist abuse faced not only by the prime minister but women generally in our society.
To prove the point, Dr Anne Summers gave a powerful lecture to the University of Newcastle which detailed in sometimes shocking and R-rated detail, the sexist abuse meted out to Australia’s first female prime minister.
She provided devastating confirmation of what the prime minister had referred to and what, to date, hadn’t been argued about.
The ‘vanilla’ version is here, where you will also find a link to the more explicit text if you want the sordid details.
Throughout September, we were treated to example upon example of the appalling sexism heaped on Australian women as we go about our daily lives.
For the most part, this was not about the prime minister, it was about us.
It was still the first week of September when Crikey’s First Dog on the Moon was moved to pen a cartoon detailing some of the abuse recounted to him by women. (Crikey would also love a subscription and will pursue you regularly until you comply).
Abbott’s attitude to women wasn’t brought under the spotlight until the second week of September when journalist David Marr recounted a tale from 30 years ago in his Quarterly Essay on the man who would be prime minister.
This involved a claim that Abbott had angrily punched a wall after a woman beat him in a student election.
A petulant reaction to be sure, but made all the more disturbing because the woman in question was standing with her back to it at the time and Abbott’s fists were said to have landed on either side of her head.
It was not the only unpleasant anecdote from his university days, merely the most dramatic.
Here’s Marr being interviewed on the ABC’s Lateline.
In the third week of September Abbott hit a record low in the polls, with a particularly poor showing among women voters. Here’s Laura Tingle in the Australian Financial Review on that subject.
Everyone seemed to agree that the university revelations were to blame, with Labor politicians eager to talk about Abbott having a problem with women and the Opposition equally eager to accuse them of a campaign of vilification.
Journalists who previously had been insistent on dredging up Gillard’s ancient history were now falling over themselves to explain why Abbott’s was irrelevant.
The sexism wild card was by now well and truly in play in our political discourse.
That late September poll had coincided with the death of the prime minister’s father and, on her return to Parliament, Abbott gave a moving and dignified speech which paid tribute to John Gillard and should have been the last word on that subject.
As the world now knows, it was not to be.
Jones, the 2GB shock jock, sparked a Twit-storm when the story broke in the Sunday Telegraph that he had told an audience of university students aligned with the Liberal Party and some of Abbott’s frontbenchers that John Gillard had “died of shame” because of his daughter’s “lies” as prime minister.
The resulting campaign on Twitter and other social media under the Destroy the Joint banner has seen all ads pulled from his show.
Jones is unashamedly aligned with Abbott’s Liberal Party and Abbott and other members of his frontbench are regular guests on his show. And of course the remarks were made at a gathering of young Liberals.
There was criticism of Abbott’s failure to rush to condemnation of Jones’ remarks, criticism which overshadowed his wife Margie’s media blitz just days earlier to reassure the women of Australia that her husband was a sensitive feminist.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a series of text messages were revealed between the controversial Speaker of the House Peter Slipper and his former staffer who is suing him for sexual harrassment.
In those texts, Slipper described the vagina as looking like an unshelled mussel.
It’s a variation on a joke that’s been made fairly regularly to my face by males since I was 15 years old in a Brisbane high school – and how I laughed each time – but clearly it was a new one for the Parliament.
It was during a debate, moved by the Opposition, to sack Slipper for his sexist and misogynistic attitude to women, when Abbott incredibly said that every day Gillard supported Slipper was “another day of shame for a government which should already have died of shame.”
Did he really ‘forget’ the loaded nature of this particular phrase at this particularly sensitive time?
Was he in any way responsible for Jones’ remarks?
Should politicians be held accountable for things said in their presence?
Does Abbott really hate women (apart from his wife Margie, their three daughters, and females of the Liberal persuasion of course)?
These are questions which are being argued ferociously in Australia and they are not going to die down any time soon.
And none of them address the main and unargued point that sexism is alive and well across every strata of our society.
There are plenty of examples of it, not just in Australia but elsewhere too.
That’s why Julia Gillard’s response has been viewed more than a million times across the world and why it will be remembered long after all the other details of this sorry six weeks are forgotten.
Don’t believe me? Check out the timeline of @EverydaySexism on Twitter, google War on Women to see what’s going on in the US, head over to Change.org in the UK and see how many people have signed a petition calling for an end to The Sun newspaper’s ‘tasteful’ tradition of putting a topless teenager on page 3.
And when you’ve done all that, say a little prayer for 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting an education.
I could go on, but I’m too sick of it all.
With the greatest respect to our political leaders and our media, I think it’s time we all were.