QUARTERLY ESSAY 50 Unfinished Business



Rachel Nolan

I’m no fool, I’m a feminist, and given that I’ve founded a women’s organisation, been elected as a young woman MP, worked as Clare Martin’s press secretary and served in the cabinet of Anna Bligh, I reckon I’ve done the hard yards for the feminist cause. Still, I can’t immediately see how Anna Goldsworthy’s essay Unfinished Business has much to do with me or with other women I know. Call me presumptuous, but I think that signifies a problem for me, the author and the women’s movement per se.

Goldsworthy’s argument is that Julia Gillard was the victim not just of sexism, but of outright, old-fashioned, woman-hating misogyny. To prove this, she cites Alan Jones’s use of the concept of shame (with all its witch-burning, original sin, body-hating connotations), Tony Abbott’s constant refrain that Gillard should “make an honest woman of herself” and Larry Pickering (remember him?!), who drew Gillard with a strap-on as Bob Brown’s bitch.

Goldsworthy says the drift into misogyny is a broader social trend clearly demonstrated in pornography – the ultimate subtext of our society – which in thirty years has moved from focusing on the woman’s orgasm to depicting scenes of women’s subjugation and oftentimes downright abuse.


Goldsworthy has a point, but does it really take an exploration of multiple-penetration porn scenes to make the case for feminism – the most mainstream of all social movements? That this is fairly common feminist thinking demonstrates to me how off-course the women’s movement has run. At best, the argument’s very academic. At worst, it’s a bit weird.

Since Goldsworthy wrote her essay, we’ve seen Gillard’s prime ministership end, and we’ve heard her call for a calm debate about the role of gender in all of this. She said that she didn’t think sexism explained all of her experience, but that it did explain some of it. 

The reason that Gillard’s defeat matters – apart from the obvious point that we rolled our first woman PM in a cloud of nasty words and deeds – is that it coincides with a trend among young women to reject feminism. Between misogyny and apathy, there’s reason to think that women’s progress may not be assured – that we may have hit a wall or may even be going backwards.

So let’s have Gillard’s measured debate. After more than a decade living and working at the forefront of women’s advance into political power, I agree with Goldsworthy that we’re now seeing misogynists who’ve been let off the leash. While it’s undoubtedly the case that deeply sexist and misogynistic views existed before, they were rarely expressed and to hear them now is shocking. 

Coming from Ipswich, in Pauline Hanson’s old seat, I find the parallel quite stark between what’s happening now with sexism and the way Pauline Hanson briefly legitimised racism in the late 1990s – so too the way Tony Abbott has taken advantage of the turn, just as John Howard did when he mollycoddled One Nation. 

The parallels may provide plenty of ground for feminist or general leftist outrage, but just as racism was put back in its box by the weight of better public opinion, we are seeing the same happen to misogyny. Whether it’s abusive porn or Alan Jones saying that “women are wrecking the joint,” this nasty stuff shrivels in the light of day. The process whereby the dark underbelly emerges, only to be shunned by popular opinion, with protagonists being described variously as “devos” or “relics,” should be taken not as a sign of defeat by feminists, but as a clear-cut win. Misogyny is not on.

The more pertinent issue in my view is the one raised by Eva Cox. Tucked away in Goldsworthy’s essay is Cox’s comment that second-wave feminism “changed the structures but didn’t actually change the culture.” She is spot-on. Thirty years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed (in 1984), women aren’t equal in Australia’s public, economic or cultural life. For that, three possible reasons exist: 

  • women aren’t up to being equal; 
  • they don’t want equality; or 
  • they try for equality but face subtle barriers – cultural sexism – holding them back.

The first view is illegal and wrong, but the next two are very much in play. Plenty of women step back in their professional lives rather than juggle the well-nigh impossible demands involved in “having it all.” Others knock themselves out at work but encounter subtle barriers, such as the tendency of male bosses to replicate themselves. When the women who choose to step back do so because they still do most of the work at home, the latter two reasons – “choice” and cultural sexism – are merged. 

When I look back on the time I spent in politics, I remember instances of sexism. There was the feeling of invisibility in meetings where I’d express a point and be ignored, only for a man to be complimented later for expressing exactly the same view. There were the questions of legitimacy: when people disagreed with me (which, of course, happens publicly in politics), the tone would sometimes drift from “She’s wrong” to “What the hell is this girl doing here?” And there was the downright sexism, from the local paper drawing me as a girl with pigtails and a skipping rope, to a News Limited columnist describing me as “gloriously dizzy.” There were constant lesbian rumours because I wasn’t married, LNP “dirt files” criticising my clothes, and an organisation – run by women – that decided I shouldn’t have a say on the location of a school in my electorate because I didn’t have kids. (Make no mistake, you get no extra stock of votes for being part of the sisterhood.) The sexism reached a crescendo as Anna Bligh’s government neared its end. We didn’t lose because of sexism, but, as was the case for Gillard, there was a nasty edge to things that made a bad situation worse. 

Politics is like normal life on steroids. My experiences were public, but most working women, particularly at senior levels, will relate to them. Usual, too, was my reaction. Never once did I call sexism out, because I didn’t feel sufficiently confident in myself and my position; because I knew many people would be totally blind to it; because the risk of being seen to make excuses is huge; and because the culture says it’s just part of things – get on with it, don’t be soft. 

In her terrific book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg cites research suggesting that women tend to be liked less as they gain more power, which doesn’t happen for men. The British researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam have demonstrated a “glass cliff”: a tendency for women to be put in charge of running things at times of crisis so they get promoted but only at massive career risk. And while I’ve been on the receiving end of these phenomena, I realise that I, too, have a tendency to think of women in power as stupid or lightweight when I don’t agree with them. At heart, our society tends to judge women leaders as less legitimate, and as a result to question them more critically every step of the way. This is cultural sexism, an unconscious bias threatening the progress of women that is harder to fight than misogyny, because it’s harder to see.

The question, then, is what to do? No good will come of anger or victimhood. Even Gillard doesn’t believe that her prime ministership ended purely, or even primarily, because of sexism, so if feminists argue that case, we deal ourselves out of the debate straightaway.

We should take heart that the misogynists in our midst are by and large yesterday’s men – a bunch of miserable old coots muttering about harlots because it’s better than talking about erectile dysfunction. Their anger often emerges around retirement time and is associated, it would seem, with fear of irrelevance. Of the protagonists discussed in Goldsworthy’s essay, Larry Pickering is a serial bankrupt whose celebrity star has well and truly faded. And while Alan Jones has survived certain public ignominy before, the descent of the barnstorming run on Canberra he championed into a pathetic “convoy of no consequence” must, even by his standards, have been downright embarrassing.

We could fight all day with the lunatic fringe, but really it’s mainstream attitudes that need changing. That’s hard work, but not beyond the fabulous progressive women of Australia and the feminist men who support them.

The first step, in my view, is quiet reflection. Australians need to ask themselves why women have not yet gained equality, and whether our own cultural sexism may have something to do with it. The second step is to stand up: to name sexism when we see it – to put away forever the idea that it just has to be tolerated if you want to make it. And the third is to back those women who have a crack – even in Australia in 2013, for a woman to put herself forward is an act of courage.

Gillard ought to be right when she says that her experience as prime minister will make it easier for the women who follow, but this will only be the case if, as a nation, we reflect and we try. To borrow my favourite Gillard expression, let’s give it “a red hot go!”


Rachel Nolan was the state member for Ipswich in the Queensland parliament from 2001 to 2012. She held the portfolios of Transport, Natural Resources, Finance and the Arts as part of Anna Bligh’s Labor government.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 50, Unfinished Business. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 51, The Prince.


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