Before Gillard eviscerated Tony Abbott in her now legendary speech, it was too easy to excuse misogyny as casual sexism, writes Tory Shepherd. Not anymore.
Before Gillard eviscerated Tony Abbott in her now legendary speech, it was too easy to excuse misogyny as casual sexism, writes Tory Shepherd. Not anymore.

'I was wrong about Julia’s speech. It was misogyny'

OPINION

On October 9, 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard got to her feet in Parliament and eviscerated Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. All these years later we're still talking about the Misogyny Speech.

Especially now, 10 years after Ms Gillard became Australia's first woman PM, and as she's touring the country spruiking a new book on women in leadership. Back then, the day in The Advertiser's Adelaide newsroom had been pottering along as usual, with the goings-on of Federal Question Time in the background. Gradually we realised what was unfolding on our enormous telly screens, and fell silent as someone turned up the sound.

"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not," she thundered at Mr Abbott.

"The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office.

"Well I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in Question Time on the day Prime Minister Julia Gillard famously let fly. Picture: Kym Smyth
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in Question Time on the day Prime Minister Julia Gillard famously let fly. Picture: Kym Smyth

"Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

Those words have echoed around the world ever since. The speech kicked off debates about systemic sexism in Australia that dominated the media headlines, and does again now. It has been hailed as one of the most memorable speeches in history.

Barack Obama's staffers reportedly watched it whenever a certain Australian prime minister (Mr Abbott) gave them the shirrits. Almost as soon as she sat back down, people were trying to dismantle its power, to take away its legitimacy.

The biggest gripe was that the speech was given in response to a motion Mr Abbott had moved to kick the speaker, Peter Slipper, out. Mr Slipper had been covering himself in glory for a long time - not least by referring to women's genitalia as bivalve molluscs (read the stories from the time, it'll make sense).

So many in political circles saw her laser-focused anger as nothing more than a ploy to smack down that motion. (Labor wanted Mr Slipper in the speaker's chair because it took a Coalition vote off the floor.)

Another gripe was that Ms Gillard was "playing the gender card". This is a laughable, but common, refrain from the people who generally hold all the cards and get jittery at the idea there might be other cards out there.

Personally, I had a pedant's objection to her use of the word misogynist. I saw Mr Abbott as a garden-variety sexist, while the dictionary described misogyny as a pathological hatred of women. I didn't think his comments about ironing housewives, about men being better leaders and so on quite added up to "misogyny".

The Oxford Dictionary shortly after changed its definition to include an entrenched prejudice against women. And now, remembering Mr Abbott standing next to protest signs describing Ms Gillard as a "bitch" and a "witch", I realise I was wrong about it ever being "garden-variety sexism".

It was deeply entrenched, with the brainfarts about ironing just being symptoms of a deeper miasma.

PM Julia Gillard speaking on the motion to remove Peter Slipper as Speaker in Question Time in the House of Representatives on October 9, 2012.
PM Julia Gillard speaking on the motion to remove Peter Slipper as Speaker in Question Time in the House of Representatives on October 9, 2012.

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Others tried to dismiss the Misogyny Speech by pointing to how the Gillard government shifted single parents (predominantly women) off their existing payments and onto the (lower) Newstart. While it's valid to criticise that move, it's also a neat bit of whatabouttery, a distraction.

What happened in the aftermath of the speech was what so often happens when women call out sexism and misogyny. People fall over themselves trying to impugn her motives, her character, her history.

In politics, it's unavoidable and sometimes important to flesh out those nuances, but these years later it's no longer of any import at all. What matters about the Misogyny Speech, now, is how it resonated around the world.

How it showed what it looks like to stand up, to call out, and to fight back.

How bracing it was for young women - and older - to see a woman who had been consistently attacked for her looks, gender, childlessness and lack of a husband rise to her feet in the halls of power.

To point at her foe and say "I will not".

Originally published as I was wrong about Julia's speech. It was misogyny


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