I often hear that women have come a long way and feminism is now obsolete.
“In your dreams, baby, in your dreams!”
And here’s why.
Two days ago the Prime Minister of Australia launched a fierce attack on the misogyny and sexism of the Federal Opposition Leader. For fifteen minutes Julia Gillard excoriated Mr Abbott for his history of anti-women comments, his sexist attacks on her and his tacit support for the sexist attacks on Australia’s first Prime Minister which have come from shock jokes like the putrid Alan Jones* and from right-wing groups who have launched unprecedented vile, misogynistic abuse against Ms Gillard.
Normally, when there are exchanges in Australia’s Federal Parliament, members of the Opposition sit there smirking, heckling and generally have a good time. Not yesterday. There was not a smile on the face of Abbott and other front benchers. Instead they sat po-faced, looking highly uncomfortable and extremely embarrassed. Abbott looked more and more shrivelled as his past anti-women comments and actions came back to haunt him.
Because finally Julia Gillard stopped copping the sexism and ignoring it as she had done in the past. Instead she exuded righteousness and outrage as she nailed the sexism and misogyny which has dogged her, which has been dog whistled by the Federal Opposition, and did so in a speech which has gone viral. It has been praised around the world, by women’s groups, overseas news organisations, even traditionally conservative media outlets.
Ms Gillard tore Abbott to shreds in a brilliant speech which lasted fifteen minutes and which reflected her outrage at the disgraceful treatment meted out to her for the crime of being a powerful, female political leader.
While plaudits poured in from around the world, what was the response from the Canberra media? They totally ignored the essence of Gillard’s speech – that sexism has dogged her from day one, and instead reinforced the inherent bias against her which has characterised reporting in the Australian media. She was described as “snarling”, daring to criticise Abbott “who, unlike the Prime Minister, has raised three daughters”, and accused of “defending the indefensible” because she refused to endorse a motion by Abbott to sack the Speaker of the House for denigrating women (she did indicate her disgust at Peter Slipper’s sexism, but let’s not confuse reporting of a woman leader’s comments with facts).
They just didn’t get it – that women around the world stood up, punched the air in glee and applauded a woman Prime Minister whose speech was deliberate, accurate, used Abbott’s own words to make her point, and who was totally dignified in her outrage at the treatment she’s received from the Opposition Leader (and other women Labor politicians have copped the same snide sexism). Julia Gillard stood up for all women who endure sexism and misogyny but who are accused of being “sensitive”, “touchy” or “playing the gender card”.
The predictable response from Abbott and the media, that the Prime Minister is “playing the gender card”, is the typical accusation with which traditional forces try to intimidate women into not standing up to sexism and misogyny. It’s blackmail to blame women for refusing to accept double standards for men and women, where women come out second best.
As Gillard was producing the speech of her life and galvanising women against being treated as second-class citizens, we saw the unedifying spectacle in the United States of the wives of the US Presidential candidates vying to be dinky-di “moms” because the wives of presidents and presidential wannabees aren’t allowed to be strong women in their own right. It is humiliating for all women that an intelligent, highly educated woman such as Michele Obama should be trotted out to bake cakes, and to have to prove how “womanly” and “maternal” she is in this day and age. We deserve a damned sight better than being offered a so-called aspiration and ideal of being able to bake cakes, for god’s sake!
Gillard’s speech has come at a time when women’s rights are under threat in many Western nations, where leaders play lip service to women’s rights to win the “women’s vote”. Thus in the UK, sections of the Nasty Party, the Conservative Party, have started gnawing away at abortion rights, as if this was something desperately more important than the poverty and inequality stalking the streets of a decaying nation.
Similarly, fundamentalist Christian groups and politicians are viciously attacking women’s reproductive rights, which in essence disempower women and given men power over women’s lives. The casual disregard for the violence of rape and possible pregnancy has been eye-bogglingly disgusting. But hey, let’s focus on shoving women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, because it’s a damned good diversion from US bankruptcy caused by pursuing numerous wars, including the illegitimate invasion of Iraq and the utterly useless military action in Afghanistan. It’s also a diversion from the power of the plutocracy in the US where the naked exercise of greed and wealth is making America’s claim to be a nation of “freedom, democracy and free speech” look increasingly empty and derisory.
So yes, we’ve got a long way to go yet before we women can say feminism is successful. It doesn’t mean we give up. Gillard’s speech is a rousing call to action, to stand up to sexism and misogyny, to pin the spotlight on them and show how disgraceful they are because we women deserve a hell of a lot better. Women’s rights have never been handed to us on a platter by patriarchy, we’ve had to organise and fight for everything we’ve won, and we have to stay alert so we don’t lose the gains we’ve won so far.
We will know that these twin evils – sexism and misogyny – have been given a thoroughly indecent burial when women leaders are treated with respect; when women have control over their own bodies; when women have equal pay and equal opportunity; and when we have grown up enough not to classify a woman by the number of children she’s born; nor by the need for the wives of Presidential candidates to be saccharine sweet ‘mommies’ but can accept them as Pulitzer prize winners, or Nobel prize winners, or pioneering chemists, or journalists, or whatever they choose to be as successful women, whether in the home or out, whatever their choice.
Come join me, sisters, in digging the grave to bury sexism and misogyny!
(*Alan Jones is a Sydney shock jock who has a history of misgogyny. At a recent reception, he talked of Ms Gillard’s father – who died recently – dying of shame at his daughter’s activities as Prime Minister. Some in the audience laughed at this putrid comment, while Opposition Front Benchers present stayed put and raised not one voice in protest.)