Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia Speaks Out on Sexism and Misogygny

I've been watching the speech given by Julia Gillard in the Federal Parliament again in the light of the what has been said about it in the media since. As she spoke it gave me an extraordinary feeling to see at last someone giving vent to feelings about issues that have been bothering me for some considerable time.

I'm old enough to have been required - as an adult woman with a permanent and well paid job - to have a guarantor before I could borrow money from a bank. I have been employed in work places where the senior position was always occupied by a man, often a man with fewer qualifications and less ability than the women working under him, and where women were not permitted to apply. In several of these situations the man in question did little or nothing while the women under him did all the work unacknowledged.  (In one case a supervisor spent almost all his time for a year working on his Master's thesis while his female underlings did all the work.) I have been questioned by potential employers as a young, married woman as to whether I intended to children. I wanted to study law but, while I could have completed my degree, at the time I would not have been able to practise because no law practices would accept a woman as an articled clerk (The only exception to this was if you had the good fortune to be part of a family of lawyers with their own practice. At the time there was only one woman lawyer practising in my home city which shows how rare this was.) I could tell you more but I'm sure you get the gist.

Some of the most egregious abuses may be gone but that doesn't mean there are not battles still to be fought and, I hope, won. It seems to me too that that there has been more sexism and misogyny creeping in over the past few years. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because younger women haven't had the sort of experiences my generation had. Maybe they think that they have achieved equality and that it will stay that way. It would be nice if that was true. Maybe they don't realise that the only way to retain rights is to continually scrutinise what is happening in government and in society and make their opinions known so they don't bother. I hope they realise before it is too late. I would hate to think the world the next generation of young women inherit is one where these hard won rights are slowly eroded until they are lost forever.

That's one of the reasons why it was so gratifying to see Julia Gillard bring these issues of misogyny and sexism into the open. As a woman she must be aware that whenever we call people on this sort of behaviour we're told we're too sensitive or to get a sense of humour so it was risky but I'm delighted that she did it. Ever since she became Prime Minister she has been under attack about things which have nothing to do with her ability or lack of it. She is criticised for being unmarried and living with her partner. She is criticised for her dress sense, even her body shape. She is criticised for having no children. Her voice is criticised. Reporters call her by her first name instead by her title. In my memory I cannot remember any male Prime Minister being criticised for any of these things or treated so disrespectfully. It seems an inescapable fact that this disrespect is purely because she is a woman. By all means talk about the things the government has got wrong but judge them on what those things are and  not the gender of the leader of that government.

The attacks on the Prime Minister are not the only places where sexism and misogyny raise their heads - and for the record, I do know what misogyny means and I'm sure the Prime Minister does too. Those who are waving dictionaries around saying "It's all wrong. Misogyny is a hatred of women and insert name of choice is married or works with women so they can't be misogynists" don't get it. These people may not outright hate all women but they act and talk as if they do. To my mind if you denigrate, insult and belittle the female gender in a way that is directly related to the fact that they are women you are behaving like a misogynist. As Julia Gillard said in her speech the answer is to change the behaviour.

This does not mean there isn't sexism at work too and when I saw what the predominately male political and other commentators had to say about the Prime Minister's speech the next day I was astounded. It was as if I had entered an alternative universe where this exposé had never taken place. All the parts that had resonated with me so loudly were being written off as unimportant as if these things are not obvious to the majority of women every day of their lives. It's interesting too that the speech had by last evening over 1,500,000 hits on the internet and belatedly some of the commentary is becoming more unbiased now it is obvious it has struck a chord not only here but overseas as well.

The strongest part of Julia Gillard's speech for me was that she quoted actual instances which showed the sexism and misogynistic behaviour she was complaining about. Anyone who follows politics could come up with more examples - I certainly could - but these are quite enough to be going on with. It's simple enough to discredit generalisations but facts on the public record are less easy to ignore.

I think there are things this government could have handled better but this ... this was gold and if it results in a change in the behaviour of public figures - and even better their thinking - it will have done its job.

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