On that speech: Julia Gillard, sexism and women in power

It was a speech that stunned the nation and went viral on social media. But what does Gillard’s anti-sexism represent, asks Judy McVey

Julia Gillard’s speech on October 8 left everyone with their mouths wide open.

She is not a popular Prime Minister, but her attack on Tony Abbott’s sexism drew applause from millions of people in Australia and around the world, especially on social media. But Gillard’s concern is not with the overwhelming majority of working class women: her concern is with her own career and defending the interests of rich and powerful women. Her speech reflected that.

Going viral

The reaction to to the speech showed the desire for a fight against sexism, which is, of course, a good thing.

Comments like those of Alan Jones that women are “destroying the joint” and the rise in sexism as part of a backlash against the gains of the 1970s women’s movement are fuelling a growing concern about sexism—and the need for a fight against it. There has also been a revival of women’s activism, seen in last year’s “Slutwalk” marches and Sydney’s F conference in 2010. After the recent murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne thousands attended a memorial march and the Reclaim the Night rally.

Gillard's speech about Abbott's misogyny went viral on social media. So what does it represent?

Yet in Australia at least, most mainstream commentators were cynical or downright hostile to Gillard’s speech. In the November issue of The Monthly, Amanda Lohrey asks: “Has there ever been a month when the mainstream media looked to be so out of touch with the zeitgeist?”

The commentators argued that Gillard’s speech was hypocrisy, as it was made in the course of defending the vile sexist Peter Slipper, installed by the Labor government as Speaker.

Some journalists showed complete disdain for the idea of standing up to sexism at all: Lohrey quotes journalists from The Weekend Australian, who accuse Gillard of “demonisation” (Paul Kelly) and of being “grubby” (Dennis Shanahan).

But however out of touch the journalists might be about sexism, the charge that Gillard was being hypocritical in attacking sexism but defending Slipper was fair.

Gillard and Labor’s crisis

So why did Gillard’s speech connect with so many people? La Trobe University professor of politics Judith Brett, also writing in The Monthly, argues that as Australia’s first female Prime Minister Gillard has suffered sexist attack after attack.

Brett argues that Gillard, and other successful women, have been portrayed as “Lady Macbeths”—since ambition and concern for their career is still seen as sinister and unnatural in women. This explains why Gillard has not been forgiven for her knifing of Kevin Rudd, she claims.

But is it the level of sexism against Julia Gillard that really explains the poor polling of her government?

There obviously is sexism against successful women in politics and the workforce, as the Alan Joneses of the world show. An Essential Vision survey in October found that overall politics is perceived as the area where there is most sexism (by 61 per cent), compared to other areas where respondents believed there was a lot or some sexism including advertising (59 per cent), sport (58 per cent), the media (56 per cent) and workplaces (55 per cent).

Women, however, were most likely to think the areas with a lot of sexism were advertising (37 per cent), sport (31 per cent) and then politics (29 per cent).

However, the decline in support for the Labor government, from its initial record levels of popularity, started before Gillard became leader. It was Kevin Rudd’s abandonment of his climate change policy and the realisation that the government was all promises and no action that sent Labor’s support plummeting.

Labor promised to improve the lives of working people, or “working families” in Rudd’s lexicon, but the government has done little to improve living standards. Union rights were not restored to the pre-Howard era, instead we got WorkChoices Lite and a continuation of the ABCC, the dole remains at an unliveable level and Single Parent Payments have been cut.

Working class women

Gillard’s speech connected because sexism is a reality in the lives of women. Recent years have seen a backlash against the real gains for women made in the 1970s. The experience of discrimination at work and of being judged by different standards to men is something that affects most women in the workforce, however much the type of job they do may differ. Thirty three per cent of women have also suffered sexual harassment at work, according to this year’s Australian Human Rights Commission phone survey. Her speech was popular because there are many people who want to see someone stand up for women’s rights.

Many of those who praised Gillard’s speech saw her stand against sexism as demonstrating a willingness to fight for all women. But the idea of Gillard as a champion for women’s rights rings hollow for anyone who looks at her actual policies. That same day she made her speech the government was cutting access to the Single Parenting Payment and forcing more single mothers onto the dole, substantially cutting their income.

The Liberal Opposition and Tony Abbott, too, supported the social security amendments, which will reduce the income of more than 100,000 sole parents — almost all female. It is estimated their income will drop by nearly $60 per week on January 1, 2013.

As feminist commentator Eva Cox explains: “This is a Howard Welfare to Work policy, which has been enthusiastically taken up by Gillard. It is sexist because it fails to recognise the value of parenting.

“These sole parents have been grandfathered on this payment for at least six years, and are already under an obligation to look for fifteen hours a week paid work (or are currently in such a job). Some have serious difficulties finding appropriate paid work that allows them to prioritise their children’s needs. They are balancing low income, time demands and employer prejudices to combine care needs and part-time work.”

This is one example of the way sexism is experienced differently by working class women as opposed to women at the top of society like Julia Gillard. The capitalist system benefits enormously from the responsibility of women inside the family for bringing up the next generation of workers. Without this unpaid labour the system would have to bear the cost of providing full-time childcare and educating children from an early age.

The view of women as primarily child rearers has also meant historically that where women did get jobs in the wider workforce they could be given unequal pay and conditions to men, because this was not considered their real role in society.

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s identified these key economic factors entrenching the inequality and discrimination against women. The movement fought for and won childcare rights, improvements over equal pay and what was called the Supporting Parent’s Benefit, along with better healthcare, abortion rights and union rights.

These are issues which the Gillard government could do something about—but sadly, the government is doing the opposite of what is needed. They have not improved the wages and conditions of childcare workers nor improved access and affordability for childcare, wage inequality is growing, and now they have attacked single parents.

Bourgeois feminism

This is a result of the fact that women in powerful positions, like Gillard, have only a limited interest in actually challenging the economic underpinnings of sexism. The mainstream feminist push to get more women onto corporate boards or increase the number of women in parliament does not benefit all women.

Most of the small minority of women from privileged backgrounds who make it into these positions simply want to build successful careers, through well-paid and well-respected positions for themselves. Access to childcare and pay inequality are not real problems for women earning huge salaries.

These narrow concerns are the ones that come through in Gillard’s speech. One of her key complaints against Abbott is about his sexism shown in, “a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia”. She demands that, “the Leader of the Opposition should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society”. Of all the issues she raises only abortion could be considered a real concern for working class women.

The unequal remuneration and greater share of workload (home and workplace) benefits the rich and powerful, including women like Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person, and Julia Gillard, Australia’s most powerful political person, as PM. Gillard is committed to running Australian capitalism to benefit not only capitalists and the rich but also the powerful generally. If she gets away with helping to reduce the costs of government and industry, they stand to benefit. The mining companies, for instance, do not want to pay more tax to fund public services.

The wealth of the rich depends on limiting state spending on the kind of childcare and public services that could liberate working class women, and from holding down the wages of women workers. Male workers do not benefit because inequality is a drag on their wages and conditions as well. A workforce divided between men and women workers will be less able to defend wages and conditions through united union struggle.

If the fight against sexism we cannot forget class and that sexism affects women differently depending on the class background and wealth.

To fight sexism consistently requires a fight against those who benefit from inequality, poverty and the lack of working class women’s rights. That means we must take the fight up to the Gillard government, uniting across the working class to fight for union rights, an increase in the dole, equal pay, childcare rights, and an increase in access to the single parents payment.


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