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QUARTERLY ESSAY 50 Unfinished Business

 

Correspondence

Rebecca Huntley

Anna Goldsworthy has written an engaging, humorous and elegant commentary on gender, power and the body. And yet I feel her argument leaves important issues unexplored and pays too much attention to topics that have already been well examined by others.

Goldsworthy rightly turns her attention to Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech. Her analysis is terrific, but it’s disappointing that she doesn’t explore further how people outside the small circle of journalism and politics responded to it. If mothers did indeed show it to their daughters, it would have been useful to interview those mothers and daughters and find out what they took from it. In the social media circles I inhabit, the speech provoked a cathartic roar, connecting with every woman out there (me included) who has had to put up with a lifetime of stupid little jokes, assumptions and condescending observations from men about our capacities and aspirations. In the public opinion research I conduct, the misogyny speech triggered something more like a whisper, but nevertheless its message was heard. Women were impressed by Gillard’s finely honed anger, by the way she stood up and let her opponent have it. Perhaps a part of Gillard wanted to turn around and point her finger at some of the men behind her as well? Goldsworthy observes that the discussion around the speech from sections of the media and politics was off the mark. Gillard didn’t blame the problems of her leadership on sexism, but how could she ignore the different treatment? The hypocrisy of her opponent? She was, as Goldsworthy rightly says, a flawed leader, who had also to contend with sexism and misogyny.

Further into the essay, I actually clapped on reading Goldsworthy’s analysis of the way Gina Rinehart was discussed on Q&A. Gillard, the most powerful person in Australia, and Rinehart, the richest person in Australia, both women, both ridiculed for being apparently ugly and unfuckable. Shame.

Once her Quarterly Essay veers away from Australian soil, Goldsworthy loses focus. I wanted more on Gillard and what the reaction to her persona and leadership reveals about the position of women here. By contrast, the observations on gonzo porn, Hilary Mantel, SlutWalks, Fifty Shades, Girls etc., albeit interesting, feel like well-traversed territory, and the connections between these topics sometimes tenuous.

Goldsworthy’s greatest contribution lies in her notion that women – regardless of background or context – are required to just get on with it. She asks whether this particular brand of female stoicism masks complicity. I believe it does. “Getting on with it” is everywhere in the conversations I witness among women. This is particularly so when it comes to unpaid work in the home, where women, regardless of their employment status, continue to occupy a second-class role and seem to feel there is nothing to be done about that. Women constantly complain of their partner’s lack of responsibility and responsiveness when it comes to maintaining the home and the family, and about the endless to-do list generated by wife-work. The solution? Don’t confront your partner about the unequal distribution of labour; it will only lead to an argument. Just get on with it. Or hire someone else to get on with it, almost certainly another woman. Goldsworthy could have done much more with this fertile theme of female stoicism, its allures and its traps.

As a social researcher I have often been asked: are Australians sexist? Does the treatment of Gillard reflect a deep vein of sexism and misogyny? In the research groups I conducted during her time as prime minister, participants were rarely as appallingly sexist as the politicians and media types who claim to speak for them. While the odd sexist comment was made, there was not the avalanche of hate you see on social media. Maybe that’s because I was there, but then again my presence rarely stops racist tirades and other obscenities. Maybe it’s because we can be our true selves in the digital sphere. Was that hate there, hidden as I sat in people’s living rooms? I don’t think so. Twitter is not the public. I tend to think the general public was better on this issue, less judgmental of Gillard as a woman leader, than the Alan Joneses and Bill Heffernans of this world.

That’s not to say Gillard was treated fairly. The combination of the way she became prime minister the first time (as part of a coup that was badly timed and based on a shallow understanding of the electorate’s view of Kevin Rudd) and the second time (in the aftermath of a pitiful election campaign as a result of a deal with independents) practically ensured her unpopularity. That had little to do with her gender. The mistakes she made had little to do with it either. But there is no doubt in my mind that at times she was punished more fiercely than a man, or than if she had attained power differently. In the end some just couldn’t stomach Gillard’s naked ambition. Naked ambition is more unsettling in a woman than a man. The expectations of our gender – that we are supposed to get what we want demurely, and to wield power from behind the throne – are still there, still strong. We are not free of such constraints on women’s power.

In addition, there is a certain naivety to the assertions that Gillard was not treated badly as a woman leader, and that sexism isn’t alive and well in this country. We sorely want to believe that while there might be sexist people in Australia, we are not a sexist nation. No attempt is made to articulate the distinction. We remain wedded to the concept that we are an egalitarian society where everyone is given a fair go – indeed, so wedded that to suggest otherwise elicits a hysterical reaction in some quarters. To suggest otherwise is almost to be unpatriotic.

In the end, I see what happened to Gillard’s leadership less as a problem for women in power and more as a problem with a certain type of Labor man. A Labor man like Rudd, who once seemed (apparently no longer) incapable of being a team player (something women are socially conditioned to do). Labor men like the ones who orchestrated the first coup based on a poor understanding of the public mood and with so little political judgment about its impact. The Labor men who ran the 2010 campaign and the ones who undermined it. There’s your gender problem. And yet, as Goldsworthy points out, the actions of a few men are rarely taken to represent the qualities and capacities of their gender. If we are looking for those who can destroy the joint, look no further than the cloistered hacks that run parts of the labour movement.

Goldsworthy is right. We are not done with feminism yet. But, as Gillard reminded us in her speech as ousted PM, it will get better.

 

Rebecca Huntley is a director of Ipsos Mackay research and the author of The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation and Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia.

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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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