Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Duly Noted: Online Abuse will Not Silence Women

This appeared as an opinion piece at The Age on 30 July 2013. 

It could be because we've got more banknote real estate to spare, but since the 1990s Australia has found it easy to recognise the historic contributions of women on its currency. Of our five notes, women feature on every single one. While Queen Elizabeth II might be there by default on the five dollar note, Dame Mary Gilmore, Dame Nellie Melba, Mary Reibey and Edith Cowan proudly symbolise women's achievements in journalism, music, business and politics.

In the United Kingdom, with the reigning monarch printed on the obverse of all four circulating notes and a plethora of big names in the arts and sciences to select from, the choice of which four people to memorialise is more difficult. Just who will schoolchildren learn are among the four most important and lasting contributors to British culture?

Since the Bank of England first depicted historical figures on the reverse of its banknotes in 1970, only two women, apart from the Queen, have ever enjoyed a stint in the line-up. Florence Nightingale appeared on the £10 note from 1975 to 1994. The current series of notes includes Elizabeth Fry, noted for reforming English prisons. The other three notes represent Charles Darwin, Adam Smith and pioneers of the steam engine, Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

With Fry scheduled to be replaced by Winston Churchill from 2016, the four places that could be allocated to any eminent Briton would have been entirely occupied by men. Feminist campaigners, however, successfully lobbied the Bank of England through a Change.org petition to demand that a woman, aside from the Queen, appear on at least one note. It was a clear victory for women when the Bank of England announced on July 24 that Jane Austen would oust Darwin to become the third historical woman to appear on a banknote.

This was until the woman who spearheaded the campaign, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, was subjected to a barrage of abuse and rape threats on Twitter in the days that followed. A polite campaign to ensure that historical women were not erased from the British currency has taken an unexpected turn and raised serious questions about Twitter's failure to provide mechanisms for reporting abusive tweets. It has also once again exposed deep antagonism and hatred towards vocal women in the public eye.

Most of the rape threats and abusive messages targeted at Criado-Perez are believed to have been sent from men. We can also presume that these men probably felt very little personal grievance about Austen being honoured. Criado-Perez herself expressed disbelief at the aggressive response to the ''tiny, tiny thing'' of lobbying for women's representation on a banknote.

What the messages directed at Criado-Perez collectively show is a desire to silence women who take a stand and who speak out. Though women ostensibly enjoy formal equality, the undercurrent of sexism bubbles up at unexpected moments like these to expose discomfort about women's progress and anger at their gall to seek further gains.

Instead of Criado-Perez facing vigorous argument and debate about her feminist campaign, she was threatened with sexual violence in an onslaught of tweets. For example, ''This Perez one just needs a good smashing up the arse and she'll be fine'' and ''Wouldn't mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you're ready to be put in your place.'' One man has since been arrested in Manchester in connection with the abusive tweets.

In societies in which a woman can rightfully work in any field, earn her own living, or stand for office, there are few ways to press women back into the subordinate position that they once occupied. Threats of rape, however, are a crude last-ditch attempt to reassert male power and female powerlessness.

Powerful women, as in the case of former prime minister Julia Gillard, endure obscene put-downs and rape threats as part of efforts to undermine them. While a handful of crackpots can be dismissed, the endless and prolific nature of the sexually charged verbal abuse of women like Gillard suggests a real effort to silence them.

In the same way, the abuse that Criado-Perez experienced represented a concerted, if not actively co-ordinated, attempt to bring her down from her feminist high horse. The aim of the threats was to drive Criado-Perez from Twitter and to inhibit her confidence to lobby on women's issues.

It is fitting to remember that two women who have graced Australian banknotes, Edith Cowan and Catherine Helen Spence, who appeared on the $5 note in 2001, were involved in the movement for women's suffrage. Two of the women Australia has chosen to acknowledge in this most visible of ways agitated for women's rights.

Though suffragettes, including Cowan and Spence, were subject to intense opposition from men who thought the extension of voting rights to women was preposterous, it seems unlikely that they were confronted with repeated threats of sexual assault. While women's rights may have been gained, allowing Cowan to become the first woman elected to the Australian parliament and paving the way for our first female prime minister, the ways in which women's work towards equality are opposed have regressed into despicable abuse.

In answer to the men who work to keep women silent, it would be fitting if the women of today who relentlessly fight for advancement in the face of increasingly personal, sexualised attacks are honoured on the banknotes of the future.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Five Things Girls Will Learn from Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership

“The problem with the pursuit of equality is that, while admitting women to the world of men, it reinforces the idea that men’s way of organising the world is natural.” Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, 4. 
In the week since Australia’s Prime Minister of three years, Julia Gillard, was deposed as Labor party leader, there has been much analysis of the role that sexism might have played in her poor poll results and subsequent overthrow by Kevin Rudd. The denials of the effects of sexism have ranged from eloquent musings on the different kinds of attacks that might be directed toward different woman in power to outright delusional claims that Gillard being a woman had no effect on the responses of the public, the media and her political colleagues.

Gillard herself felt that sexism definitely played some role in perceptions of her as the nation’s leader: “[T]he reaction to being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.” In her concession speech, Gillard also optimistically looked forward to a future in which “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that” to serve as Prime Minister.

With the level of bile directed at Gillard, it is hard to imagine that we will see another female Prime Minister in the next several decades, in the same way as it’s been almost a quarter of a century since Margaret Thatcher left office in Britain. The second Australian female Prime Minister is most likely still a young girl. We ought to ask ourselves what would intelligent, promising Australian girls have learned about how women leaders are treated during Gillard’s term as Prime Minister.

1. As a woman, how you look will override the substance of what you do.
In 2006, when Gillard was appointed as Deputy Opposition Leader, journalist Anita Quigly suggested that she 'bungled it with a less than flattering haircut and a frumpy ‘80s tapestry print jacket’. ‘Get yourself a stylist and get one fast’, Quigly urged Gillard. While the leader of the day, John Howard, had wild, unkempt eyebrows and a penchant for striding purposefully in a daggy green and gold tracksuit on his morning walks, clearly no one thought that he “bungled” his political career because of his grooming habits and lack of fashion sense.

The obsession with Gillard’s appearance ramped up once she became Prime Minister. Even Germaine Greer, the most influential Australian feminist of the past half century, expressed a dislike for Gillard’s choice in jackets, which she claimed only emphasised the leader’s 'big arse'. Gillard's new pair of fairly ordinary glasses earlier this year occupied headlines for days.

2. Activities traditionally performed by women are a waste of time and conflict with important business.
In the week before the leadership spill that ousted her, the sexist criticism of Gillard reached the heights of ridiculousness after her appearance in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Whether the decision for Gillard to pose in the act of knitting was that of her own team or that of the magazine is irrelevant to the response that the photograph elicited. We’ve seen many male leaders making feeble attempts at throwing and catching cricket balls, and we can’t forget, however we try, the sight of Tony Abbott in his extremely brief Speedos exiting the surf. These sporting activities don’t lead anyone to question men’s abilities to lead. After all, schemes like the Rhodes scholarship, of which Abbot was a recipient, seek candidates who excel at sports as well as academic pursuits.

Knitting, however, is not on that list of accomplishments. Internationally, Time magazine thought the photographs of a female leader knitting were “weird”. Locally, the attempt to show Gillard engaging in one of her long-term hobbies, and one which clearly resonated with the historical audience of a magazine like the Australian Women’s Weekly, was seen as an attempt to “soften her image” that conflicted with her calling out sexism in Parliament. The BRW  described the photos as “a jarring and perplexing interlude to the bigger gender politics of recent weeks and months”. In other words, if Gillard was trying to make a point about being a strong and competent leader, despite being a woman, she shouldn’t have showcased her interest in a typically women’s activity like knitting. The BRW also declared  that “[v]oters don’t like Gillard’s ploy to make gender a vote winner”. So by pointing out the way that sexism was making her job harder, people became disgruntled, according to the BRW, and further responded by lambasting her for her interest in a traditionally feminine skill. Many online comments referred to how much time Gillard must have “wasted” knitting or being photographed when there was the important business of running the country to attend to.

But, conflictingly,
3. If a woman is not fixated on tasks that usually fall to women, such as providing a welcoming home and raising a family, regardless of the demands of her career, then she cannot understand normal people.

The first suspicious evidence on this front was the photograph of Julia Gillard seated in the kitchen of her Altona home in 2005. The benches were clean and tidy, with only a few appliances visible, and the bowl on the kitchen table was empty. It did not matter that she’d just returned from overseas, having not yet even unpacked her suitcase, and that there was a potential challenge to then Labor leader Kim Beazley in the works. Gillard was clearly not preoccupied with her home and with ensuring partner Tim Mathieson ingested enough fibre because THE FRUIT BOWL WAS EMPTY! How could we trust a woman to lead the country if she couldn’t even ensure that some Pink Ladies and bananas were on hand at home?

The emptiness of Gillard’s fruit bowl was a sign of a greater emptiness in Gillard’s life. Senator Bill Heffernan infamously described her as “deliberately barren” because of her choice not to have children. His idea being that those who fail to reproduce have “no idea what life’s about” (Bulletin May 2007). And Heffernan cannot be seen as a lone dinosaur with an outdated view, as this criticism was repeated frequently. Senator George Brandis described Gillard as “very much a one-dimensional person” when commenting on her choice not be have children and her perceived inability to understand parents’ concerns (ABC Radio, Jan. 2010).

What did it matter that she was the first Australian female PM and how hard she must have worked, how much she must have sacrificed, to reach this milestone. As Janet Albrechtsen put it: “She’s never had to make room for the frustrating demands and magnificent responsibilities of caring for little babies, picking up sick children from school, raising teenagers”. Of course, if Gillard had been consumed by the demands of “caring for little babies” and “picking up sick children from school”, unlike her male political colleagues who presumably don’t perform the bulk of the childcare in their families, then it’s highly unlikely she’d ever have become Prime Minister in the first place.

This sticker is currently still being sold on eBay
4. As a powerful woman you are sexually undesirable and therefore unlikeable. You are a “bitch” and a “witch”.

Girls and women learn that being sexually attractive is vitally important. One of the worst ways to cut at a woman’s feeling of self-worth is to attack her appearance, regardless of her other skills and abilities. Labelling a woman “fat and ugly” is a way to dismiss all of her achievements and cut her down. Though Gillard is clearly not overweight and is a far more physically attractive woman than, say, Tony Abbot is an attractive man, you don’t have to look far online, or in talkback radio discussions, to find a plethora of “fat and ugly” comments.

Witches, of course, are commonly portrayed as the ultimate in female ugliness. They’re also figures who are disliked because they use magic to reverse the physical power imbalance that exists between men and women. Female witches are figures to fear because they can’t be controlled by men. The infamous “Ditch the Witch” signs in Canberra show the simplistic associations of powerful women with upending the natural gendered order and the need to denigrate the appearance of these women.

5. If you’re a powerful woman, it compromises the masculinity of the men around you.
A powerful woman like Gillard not only attracts personal derision, but those close to her are not safe either. Girls watching the treatment of Gillard would also learn that the hatred directed at her as a woman also directly affected her colleagues and partner. Gillard was asked if she had sex with Tim Mathieson and questioned on “rumours” that he is actually gay. The latter question supposedly arose because of his hairdressing profession, but at the bottom of both accusations is the idea that a masculine man could not possibly form a sexual relationship with  powerful woman. Such a thing is unnatural.

During Gillard’s term, due to the nature of the hung parliament, intricate negotiations were required with the Greens party. One of the other infamous placards displayed in Canberra alongside “Ditch the Witch” was “Bob Brown’s Bitch”. Yet offensive cartoons by Larry Pickering, including one depicting Gillard wearing an extremely large strap-on, with the caption “Time for your daily briefing, Bob”, showed that the real anxiety was not about Gillard doing the Greens’ bidding, but Gillard exerting her power over men and rendering them effeminate just like her hairdresser partner.

As the opening quotation from Marilyn Lake suggests, the pursuit of gender “equality” enabled us to get to a position where our country could boast its first female Prime Minister. Formal gender equality does not, however, change the fundamental structures and beliefs that underlie a patriarchal society. And this is why Gillard faced rampant sexism in her role as Prime Minister. And it's also why the next Australian girl with high political aspirations might be dissuaded from following a path that will lead to hatred and ridicule, but which must be borne stoicly unless she wishes to be accused of  “playing the gender card”.