On a Wednesday night at the end of June, three weeks after Anna Goldsworthy’s Quarterly Essay was published, a freshly deposed prime minister offered more insight into the problems that plagued her term in office than three years of opinion pieces and editorials combined. “The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my time in the prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership,” Julia Gillard said, before imploring the nation to “think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.”
Anna Goldsworthy pre-empted Gillard’s plea by offering up a nuanced, judicious and, yes, sophisticated discussion of the unfinished business of women. Goldsworthy’s love of language is evident in her beautiful sentences and her careful unpacking of the language of feminism, misogyny and sexism. She supplies the newly expanded definition of misogyny and questions its effect upon Gillard’s prime ministership: “Is it possible that she may indeed be a flawed leader, who has additionally had to contend with misogyny?” In other words, while it does not explain everything …
Goldsworthy wonders whether, in the months that followed Gillard’s earlier famed speech, our eagerness to brand clumsy instances of sexism as misogynist – something darker and more sinister than simple sexism – might have done feminism a disservice. “What word do we reach for when we encounter the genuine misogynist?” she asks. It’s something I’ve often wondered, and never more so than when Tony Abbott or Alan Jones or Kyle Sandilands makes another ill-considered remark about women’s bodies or their rightful place. This generation of feminists’ call to arms – the endless proliferation of hashtags on social media – has always made me cringe. In the race to decry loudly what are often the most mundane of slip-ups, few pause to consider what has actually been said and what it actually means. By distinguishing between true misogyny and “reflexive sexism, experienced as category error rather than gynaecological loathing,” Goldsworthy has started an important conversation, but it’s unlikely to be a popular one. She notes, “It is a truism that feminists are very good at telling other feminists what they should think – almost as good as men. There is an implicit moral vanity in this: my feminism is better than your feminism, or even my feminism is the one true Feminism.” And I wonder, will Goldsworthy find herself being told what she should think?
I’ve no doubt some will be quick to note that Goldsworthy has not spoken enough of the effects of sex and misogyny on non-white women, poor women, uneducated women. In not presenting an all-encompassing argument, Goldsworthy may well be rebuked for failing to do her subject justice, but as she notes in her essay, “insisting that any feminist must speak for all women is a great way to shut feminist conversation down.” Goldsworthy has done an excellent job of opening up the conversation. When I was younger and more stupid, I shied away instinctively from feminism, having encountered it only in its angriest and most inflexible forms. If these were feminists, I wanted nothing to do with them. It was years before I learned that feminism is, as Goldsworthy says, a broad church. She has no intention of telling others what to think and simply presents her evidence about the wider culture of sexism, feminism and misogyny, then backs away quietly, leaving ample space for the reader to develop their own views. Goldsworthy notes that if a mother is looking to equip her daughter with tools for life, a good starting point might be Gillard’s misogyny speech. I’d argue Unfinished Business would be a better one.
Michaela McGuire is the author of Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage and co-curator of the monthly literary salon Women of Letters. She writes regularly for the Monthly and Good Weekend.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 51, The Prince.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY