If good women conform and Gillard was a witch, then I'm ready for a fight | Katharine Murphy

If Australian politics persists in its gratuitous sexism, it might just encourage the ‘nasty’ corner to find its collective voice

You will probably have noticed that Australian politics at the moment is all about binaries.

We have the Australia First juggernaut facing off against canny foreigners who want to steal our jobs and make off with our natural gas.

Requiring sensible accounting treatment for new investments in productive infrastructure versus borrowing to fund recurrent expenditure is also being fashioned pre-budget into a good versus evil pantomime.

“Good debt” builds bridges and railways – “bad debt” funds health, education, welfare, pensions. (Hmm, now what could possibly go wrong with that crude political construction in the hands of a reflexively tribal treasurer who pretty much fumbles every ball he is passed?)

And then there are women.

I was going to say this week we’ve had a display of good women and bad women, except we haven’t.

We’ve just had the bad women, ladies Donald Trump might characterise as “nasty”.

There’s the Victorian Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer, wanting rich blokes to pay tax, and declining to humour them by listening to them droning on endlessly about their first-world problems.

The cheek of that bloody woman. Whose side is she on?

And Yassmin Abdel-Magied falling indelicately off the Anzac Day script and spending days as a punching bag for the fake Freedom™ warriors who tell each other in their cloisters, over a warming shot of single malt, that they run the country.

Good women understand the rules.

Good women are like Julie Bishop: demonstrably better than two thirds of the blokes around them, more talented, more hard-working, but pragmatic enough not to rub men’s noses in it.

Good women are like Pauline Hanson: sticking up doggedly for the rights of angry blokes who once felt powerful and now feel powerless – onya Pauline.

We really need to be honest about the sum of lived experience in this country over the past decade or so.

Women are generally tolerated in public life in Australia if they keep it all on the down low: conform to rigid stereotypes, don’t offend the self-styled establishment wisdom, and don’t develop ideas above their station.

I’d really like to be wrong about this. I’d really like this to be a hurled off expression of me being jaded and cynical. But the truth is I’m neither of those things. I really don’t think you can look on at the sum of recent experience and form any other reasonable conclusion.

Even though I wrote quite a bit about the extraordinary sexism Julia Gillard faced as prime minister, the truth is I didn’t do enough professionally to call it out.

I still wrestle with this failure to call out sufficiently what was right in front of me; the “why” of that plagues me.

It’s not that I couldn’t see it, or I was intent on somehow over-complicating it, or excusing it, or I was afraid or ambivalent about critiquing the gendered dimension of the response to Gillard.

I think the main problem was I couldn’t quite believe it was happening.

The sheer magnitude of bitch, witch and chaff bag took some time to settle on me.

Before Gillard, I was naively of the view that Australian women were in striking distance of real equality; that while sexism certainly persisted, most men in powerful positions were capable of sharing power and tolerating dissent.

We weren’t there yet but it was possible in my lifetime to contemplate a post-feminist world where the struggle for equality should become a more broad-ranging concern.

I had been conditioned to believe those things because that was the sum of my lived experience.

Enduring a head-on collision with “the opposite is also true” messed with my clarity. It had a mildly concussive effect. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Gillard did say on her way out the door that she felt things would be easier for the woman who came after her, and the woman after that.

After opening with the depressing prognosis that feminist progress is an illusion, I can point to some promising signs. I don’t know if things are easier, but I suspect women in public life, post-Gillard, are less inclined to take gratuitous behaviour on the chin.

Having convinced the Liberal preselectors that sending a woman of childbearing age to Canberra was not an act of moonstruck madness, O’Dwyer has been determined to use her own professional achievements to try to convince other women that embarking on a political career is a worthwhile contribution.

She has not donned a pussy hat and taken to the streets, but she’s used her CV as a demonstration effect. A woman under 40 can get a Treasury portfolio. That same woman can have a baby while serving in cabinet and keep working, and not apologise for doing so.

This is quite assertive behaviour for a woman on the centre-right.

It’s an overstatement to say her commitment to modest trailblazing has made her a target – the little unseemly run against O’Dwyer has its origins in the bitter factionalism of the Victorian Liberal party, laced with a whiffy overlay of Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull.

But her tendency to tweak the odd nose explains in good part why a sortie was launched against her and not against (male) colleagues who might more justly be accused of underperformance.

O’Dwyer hasn’t taken a backward step and has emerged from the latest unseemly mud-wrestle of millionaires who want a new, more conservative, member in Higgins, in a stronger position.

Having opened the column derisively with the tediousness of binaries, there might just be an upside there too.

The thing about zero sum – about styling everything as a fight – is you might encourage the nasty corner to find its collective voice.

Rather than standing by passively and just accepting the received wisdom of playing bad cop to someone’s good cop, the nasty women and the “others” of the national morality play might just might develop the collective courage to fight their corner.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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