“Calm down dear”. Iron My Shirt! You’re likeable enough. This, and countless other examples, are the background noise of sexism that all female politicians have to put up with, caught in a bind where drawing attention to sexist attacks is usually far more trouble than it’s worth. Julia Gillard, the Labour Prime Minster of Australia, and first woman to hold that office, yesterday launched a blindside against the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, for his history of sexist and misogynist remarks, and the video is a masterclass of a political takedown. If you only watch five minutes, watch the first four and the last one. It will have you cheering your computer screen.
The speech is so caustic that Abbott appears to be visibly diminishing in size throughout the fifteen minute video; by the end he looks about two inches tall. The background story is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, had been caught sending some graphic and sexist text messages to an aide; the opposition called for his resignation (he has now resigned) and Abbott said that the Government’s “support” of Slipper “was another day of shame for a Government that should have already died of shame”. The Government wanted to wait until the results of the investigation came through, and Gillard in particular was “not about to be lectured about sexism and misogyny by [Abbott]”, especially considering he is close friends with Slipper himself.
In a brilliant political move, Gillard defended her decision not to call for Slipper’s resignation until the court investigation had terminated while at the same time turning the tables back on Tony Abbott for “the sexism he brings to public life”. She turned a situation that could have been a defence of her failing to call for Slipper’s resignation into an attack on her opponent for his sexism and misogyny. It was the first time I have seen charges of sexism used seriously as a political attack. It was extremely effective, due to Gillard’s delivery and, hopefully, the political climate having progressed enough for accusations of sexism against a high-level politician to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.
She runs through his “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”. The rhetoric is excellent – (“this is something he said not when he was a student, not when he was at high school, but when he was a Minister”) and the delivery is spot on. Gillard is absolutely on the attack – passionate, offended and contemptuous. At 3.22. Gillard brings up a boorish comment from Abbott about women “doing the ironing”, to which she replies with “thankyou for that painting of womens’ roles in modern Australia”. A comment as inane as Abbott’s doesn’t require a brilliant comeback, but the way she delivers her riposte is absolutely withering. The next two minutes are the most devastating – she recounts Abbott’s comments that Gillard “make an honest woman of herself” and the fact he stood next to a sign saying Ditch the Witch.
The brilliance of the attack is in weaving together the sexism he has displayed against women generally throughout his life, with the specifically sexist nature of the attacks against Julia Gillard. All women in public life put up with this draining and offensive sexist shit. Specific remarks about women’s inability to lead are less common than the insidious, belittling, supposedly “funny” comments that Gillard drew attention to – factually empty references to ironing and high heels and hormones that could be better described as sexist dogwhistling. The sexist atmosphere that Abbott feeds off is one where the youtube comments on the first page of videos featuring Gillard regularly say things like “bitch please” and “get back in the kitchen” and “silly bimbo slut” and “lying bitch”. The mixture of accusations of malevolence, manipulativeness and incompetency contained in those phrases would have no equivalent in insults for male politicians. I’m not saying female politicians aren’t sometimes callous, manipulative and incompetent. But the gendered language used against them links those insults with the very concept of women having power. How many times has Hillary Clinton been described as “ambitious”? Anyone wanting to lead a country is ambitious. It’s only when women want to that the word is used with suspicion.
Gillard’s luck was in finding a situation where she could make the workaday political charge of hypocrisy against an opponent but use it to passionately, articulately and contemptuously denounce his record of sexism. Not just the Victorian-era statements about men being “more adapted to exercise authority”, but the tiring, offensive, vile shit that includes calling her a “bitch” and suggesting her father “died of shame” because of her “lies”. I imagine every female politician on the planet could make a similar speech without too much difficulty, but the political impact of “playing the gender card” would usually outweigh the benefits. In mixing righteous anger, contempt and humour, Gillard has achieved what I previously thought was impossible – political capital from calling out sexism. What usually happens is that individual sexist comments, from fellow politicians or the media, are brushed aside by a majority who can never see it as structural oppression, and the woman left trying to highlight the insidious sexism of the public sphere is painted as victimizing herself. She also draws attention to the original attack, which can often backfire, seeing as the goal of this sexism is to draw attention to a woman’s femininity, amping up the patriarchal mood music which reminds us that women having power is unnatural and terrifying. It’s also the case that it’s just plain horrible and upsetting to be called a bitch or a nag, and women in public life don’t want to spend their limited time and energy on dealing with that immature shit. They do, after all, have countries to run.
When Gillard quoted some of Abbott’s worst statement back at him, the House filed with audible groans. But it was her treatment of his contribution to the background noise of undermining sexism that she puts up with which was particularly brilliant. These jibes are treated mostly by an uncritical media and public as incidences of the kind of political sniping that all politicians face, making it very hard for any woman in public life to draw attention to the sexism they often contain. While the comments are usually about as funny as accidentally treading on an upturned plug, the veneer of humour to them leave anyone who calls it out open to being called humourless or in favour of censorship. Gillard’s speech was much funnier than anything Abbott has ever said, and its humour was in its contemptuous delivery.
Not only did Gillard destroy her political opponent over his previous sexism, ensuring that he’ll never say anything along those lines in public life again, she also managed to make very clear that the sexism she faces is a facet of the sexism faced by all Australian women. Weaving together his comments on abortion (“the easy way out”, apparently) with his sexist attacks on her brilliantly made the case for the enduring structural injustice of sexism while pinning a fair share of the blame for it on Tony Abbott himself. Her delivery is as contemptuous as his comments deserve.
We’ve got a long way to go in addressing both everyday sexism and female underrepresentation in politics, but Gillard’s blistering, occasionally funny and always deadly serious attack on an opponent for his sexism and misogyny feels like a huge step forward. Sexism in politics, as in daily life, is not funny, not ironic and not trivial, and I hope this is the first of many attacks on the countless male politicians who still think sexism is a legitimate way to undermine their opponents.
Thank you Julia Gillard, for using your position to call out the sexism that pervades public life. What a woman.