Was misogyny to blame for Gillard’s demise?

The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers, New South Publishing, $19.99

Feminist Anne Summers has argued that unprecedented misogyny was key to Julia Gillard’s demise as Prime Minister.

Many are convinced that Australia’s sexist culture will not accept a woman in the Prime Ministership.
In her latest book, The Misogyny Factor, Summers outlines the case against those who poured vitriol on Gillard. The book argues that it is, “possible to make the case that Australia’s first female Prime Minister was being subjected to sex discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying.”

No one can forget the horrific images of Tony Abbott in front of the anti-carbon tax rally in March 2011 with its banners and placards, “Bob Brown’s Bitch”, “Ditch the Witch” and “Juliar”. Few knew that Abbott constantly heckled Gillard when she spoke in parliament. He was relentless in calling the PM a “liar”, breaking usual parliamentary convention.

As early as 2007 Gillard was attacked by Bill Heffernan as “deliberately… barren”; in 2011 former Labor leader Mark Latham made similar negative comments about her choosing not to have children; and Tony Abbott used sexist language to demand that Gillard “make an honest woman of herself” by calling an early election over the carbon tax.

It is clear that Gillard faced attacks beyond the usual sexist focus on the hairstyles, clothing and family status of women politicians. Summers documents emails and social media pieces which included portrayal of Gillard as a naked woman with strap-on dildo. Receipt of these emails was a near daily experience for all MPs and Senators.

But sexism was not the main reason for Gillard’s demise. She had been elected unanimously by her caucus when she toppled Kevin Rudd in 2010 and was initially well-received.
There are critical problems with Summers’ analysis because she focuses on what she calls the “misogyny factor” almost to the exclusion of broader political issues.

Gillard’s role

Gillard became unpopular in the polls mostly because of the mistakes and failures of the government.
She became leader because Kevin Rudd was seen as a liability. But Rudd had lost public support because of his retreat on climate action and the mining tax. He was under pressure over the asylum seeker issue, and, crucially, he was seen as unreliable by the main trade union right faction.

Gillard said she would not introduce a carbon tax, compromised on the mining tax and conceded ground to the Coalition on asylum seekers. Forced into a minority government with the support of the Greens and independents, she shifted to support a carbon tax. All these issues, combined with the stench of corruption exuding from the Peter Slipper and Craig Thompson affairs, tainted Labor.

Abbott’s campaign against the carbon tax hit a nerve because of the rising cost of living, especially energy bills, and thousands of jobs being lost in manufacturing. The government unleashed a savage 4 per cent budget cut on the public service threatening 5000 jobs, and cut university funding and single parents payments.

Yet many of Gillard’s supporters refuse to accept that her lack of popularity was in any way the result of the government’s actions. Van Badham wrote in the UK Telegraph that, “To the outside world, the unpopularity of Julia Gillard must be unfathomable.” Her explanation, then, is that, “The problem for Julia Gillard was not… her performance. It was that, from to beginning to end, she remained female.”

Anne Summers’ view is similar. She blames the internal leaks against Gillard from within the ALP during the 2010 election campaign as the source of her unpopularity.

The leaks undermined Gillard because they revealed she had opposed a rise in pensions and a paid parental leave scheme internally. This depicted her as uncaring and was designed to play on her female childless status, she argues.

The anger at Gillard’s policies from the right manifested in personal attacks and sexist vitriol. Abbott’s extremely negative campaign waged with the aid of the shock jocks helped whip this up.
Gillard didn’t respond until late 2012. In fact, Gillard initially denied that her gender would be a significant aspect of her prime ministership, and only “played the gender card” as she faced electoral annihilation.

Many feminists were disappointed by her attempts to revive her fortunes with the launch of “Women for Gillard”. Gillard’s own policies had helped encourage sexism through her cuts to single parents payments and pandering to bigotry by opposing same-sex marriage. Summers tends to discount these factors, weakening her understanding of the way sexism is initiated and propelled by those with power in our society, not the poor and working class.

Misogyny is defined by Summers as involving systemic beliefs and behavior “predicated on the view that women do not have the fundamental right to be part of society beyond the home.”
But Summers does not identify that the beneficiaries of sexism, in capitalist society, are those whose power and wealth rely on inequality, in today’s lexicon, the “1 per cent”. As Prime Minister, Gillard was part of this 1 per cent.

It is important to understand how poorer and working women suffer more than those women with the wealth to ameliorate their situation.

Summers’ analysis presents all women as equal victims of gender inequality, which is clearly untenable when we compare the fate of the single working mothers recently thrown off the pension with the managers of large companies and prime ministers.

The book is designed as a manual for a new women’s movement, including a brief balance sheet of the Australian feminist movement.

While she explains the serious attempts and successes in the 1970s and 1980s to legislate for equality and implement reforms from above at the government level, Summers does not evaluate that reformist strategy. Rather, she states that the problem was they didn’t measure for success, only for progress, in winning women’s equality. This time, she says, we must maintain a women’s movement outside government.

Yet overcoming sexism will always require more than achieving formal equality, which has largely been won through the reforms of the 1960s-80s. Legislation for women’s equality has included the 1972 Equal Pay law requiring equal pay for work of equal value, theoretically implemented by 1975.

However, in reality women still suffer sexism, just as racism and homophobia have not been eliminated by legal reforms. This is because women’s oppression and sexism are endemic to capitalism. Rape and domestic violence are now taken more seriously but women are stereotyped as sex objects more than ever. Maternity leave and childcare are recognised as a necessity but under-funded and often inaccessible for the poorest women. Abortion rights remain limited.

Crucially, equal pay remains something of a dream, with women’s incomes still lower on average than men’s. Summers estimates women earn 17.5 per cent less. The reason is not due to lack of formal equality, rather, women’s expected role in society: Women remain concentrated in low wage industries and in lower grades. Roy Morgan research from July showed that 74 per cent of Australians who earn over $80,000 a year are men.

Women continue to find it difficult to get promotions. It is usually women who take time off for childcare, and so haven’t clocked up seniority and superannuation. Women predominate in part-time and casual work, with fewer financial benefits and less job security. Women are now more likely to have a tertiary qualification than men, but female graduates will earn $2000 less than male graduates and $7500 less by the fifth year after graduation.

Under the Howard government’s “WorkChoices” laws, the pay gap widened for the first time in 25 years, as thousands of women lost penalty rates and minimum wages were cut in real terms. The Gillard government reduced funding for public services, cutting jobs and working conditions in an area with high concentrations of female labour, and has imposed more suffering on poor women, especially single parents, Aboriginal women and refugees.

Women are now viewed as a permanent part of the workforce, and it is expected that married women work because one person’s wage doesn’t cover family costs. However, in Australia, most women have always worked—even in 1927 about 50 per cent of all factory workers were women (in Victoria the figure reached 65 per cent). But they were concentrated in the traditional areas of clothing, footwear and food, and seen as temporary workers.

Summers argues we need three improvements blocked by misogyny: Inclusion, Equality and Respect. But her strategy of focusing on law reform will not achieve actual equality for the majority of women, who are working class.

A different strategy would return us to the original project of women’s liberation. Summers’ explanation of how the earlier gains of women’s rights were achieved is incomplete. The reason that governments legislated for equal pay, abortion rights, supporting mothers’ benefit and support for childcare was intense and sustained struggle by workers and radical women in the context of a booming capitalism.
The women’s movement grew out of the movement against the American war in Vietnam and a radical labour movement which was already campaigning for equal pay before 1968. Hundreds of thousands mobilised. It was the social power of workers acting within these social movements that created the momentum for change.

Summers doesn’t detail the beginnings of the women’s movement in this radical action, but she does report that the majority in the movement later opted for a political focus on equality and reform rather than liberation. We shouldn’t be surprised that the neo-liberal governments of today put profits and Budget bottom-lines above the interests of working women.

A serious fight against oppression requires challenging the underlying basis of sexism in capitalism itself.

By Judy McVey


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