All sexism is offensive but not all that is offensive is sexism.

You will often hear uttered, from women who don’t subscribe to the whole feminism package but who nevertheless wish to add their voice to the gender equality debate, that well known phrase ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’

You are less likely to hear, however, the phrase ‘I am a feminist, but…

This is because the tenets of feminism these days are so restrictive that one is forced to sign up to the movement lock, stock and barrel.  The feminist creed has become so unforgiving that it has almost gotten to the point where there are no ‘buts’ allowed.  Nuance is not welcome.  You’re either in or you’re out.

Are you a Christian?  You’re out.  Do you agree with the late Christopher Hitchens, who told Jennifer Byrne that a woman should not have to work unless she wants to?  You’re out, too.  What about Slut Walks?  Do you believe in those?  No?  Sorry, you’re out.  Deviate from the script and you will be brandished a traitor to the cause.

But if I am going to take issue with the way our government, spearheaded by Julia Gillard, has fuelled the gender debate in recent times (which I am) then I need to use that rarely uttered phrase, so here goes…

I am a feminist but, unlike many, I do not believe that women have to fight every day to keep the enemy at bay.  And I refuse to encourage a way of life that pits women against men in this way.  Yet this is exactly the sort of practice that our Prime Minister is endorsing.  Gillard is using her admittedly unfortunate status as the victim of some truly vile behaviour to her advantage by deliberately intensifying the ‘us versus them’ mentality in our society.  In doing so, she is creating increased discord between the sexes.

Women who are concerned about sexism in our country have a legitimate and important point to make.  However, the political landscape at the moment is such that some now feel disinclined to lend their voices to the discussion.  For like it or not, when we talk about sexism and misogyny in our society, Julia Gillard is now the key player and her actions (or words, more to the point) are enormously influential.  And say what you like, her motivation for responding to her attackers is not just about trying to achieve equality for Australian women, it is also about power and her trying to hold on to it (surprise, surprise).

The menu incident at Mal Brough’s fundraiser was appalling (but, then again, so was the offensive joke about Abbott and his female chief-of-staff at a union function last year) and shock jock Howard Sattler was a fool to ask Julia about Tim being gay; but all the same, Gillard’s deliberate propagation of the gender wars for her own political purpose is disgraceful.  Claiming that abortion rights would be revoked under Tony Abbott is not only ridiculous but downright deceitful.  Abbott has never sought a change to abortion laws, which are governed by the states anyway.

As Jacqueline Maley claimed in The Age recently, Gillard has deliberately set up a false debate around gender:

‘The only conclusion women can draw, even the ones who cheer the fact that we have a female Prime Minister, even the ones who grinned at their televisions last October when they saw Gillard speak so passionately against sexism, is that she needs the issue.  She needs to set up a false debate about female self-determination. She needs to scaremonger about Abbott’s true attitudes to women and women’s rights. She needs to paint Abbott as dangerously retrograde. She needs to because she is politically desperate.  And this puts Australian feminists in an invidious position.’

I concur.

In response to Sattler’s questioning of Mathieson’s sexuality, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick expressed concern that women might now feel discouraged from entering public life.  Bloody hell, toughen up a bit, ladies.

As journalist Elizabeth Farrelly wondered last year, has our society been conditioned to accept that to criticise women or poke fun is considered misogynist?  And by being so thin-skinned, are our female politicians, inadvertently or otherwise, contributing towards a culture whereby no-one is allowed to criticise women?  Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill commented earlier this year that Male MPs have become ‘increasingly fearful of appearing like ugly playground toughs…and women as fragile creatures who might wilt or faint upon hearing a coarse or mocking critique’.

Certainly a sizeable amount of vitriol is directed Gillard’s way, aided by the power of the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but I would question how much of this malice is inherently sexist or misogynistic.

Independent Australia’s website claimed Gillard has been ‘bombarded with the kind of horrendous, sexist abuse that would make anyone’s stomach churn’.  The example they give, however, is a tweet from one Matthew Van Den Bos: ‘How’s your Dad?’ (following the death of Gillard’s father).  This comment is clearly mean-spirited and childish, but sexist?

Tony Abbott glancing at his watch during Gillard’s misogyny speech was inconsiderate, and probably designed to offend, but not obviously related to gender.  Gillard, however, took even this small opportunity to declare his actions sexist; claiming Abbott was annoyed that ‘a woman’s spoken too long’.  I would suggest that whomever Abbott’s opponent, he would have acted the same way.

Anne Summers contends that men in politics are not subjected to the same kind of personal and sexist insults as women.  Try telling that to Joe Hockey, taunted by Gillard for being overweight, or Christopher Pyne, the ‘mincing poodle’.

Yet Summers maintains that ‘there is an entire vocabulary of words that describe, and demean, women…[yet]…there are no equivalents for men’.  I can think of some.  Political Journalist Mungo MacCallum variously called John Howard an unflushable turd, a little c–t and a shithouse rat and no-one uttered a complaint.  Similarly, Paul Keating, renowned for his foul mouth, told Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey to ‘Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig!’  That is on par with what Julia Gillard has endured, possibly worse.  Indeed (and rightly so) no male politician would get away with directing this kind of abuse at a women.

Is there a double-standard at play in Australian politics, where women in politics enjoy the protected position of being untouchable by men; men being unable to criticise them for fear of being outed as misogynists?

Ultimately, I am a feminist, but I feel uncomfortable taking part in this ‘let’s make it all about women versus men’ palaver that Gillard pedals.

A bit of integrity please, Prime Minister.


About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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