Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech has empowered me – to speak up about her government’s shortcomings | Margaret Ambrose

Legislation passed on the day the then PM delivered her slap-down has forced single-mother families into dire poverty

On Tuesday night I was one of the almost 3,000 mostly women at the Victorian Arts Centre who rose from their seats in thunderous applause when the former prime minister Julia Gillard came to the stage for Not Now, Not Ever, a star-studded event commemorating 10 years since her misogyny speech, which boldly and articulately called out the treatment of women in parliament and the media.

The evening was one of celebration; of remembering what life was like for our country’s first female prime minister; of celebrating how far we’ve come, while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.

The night was punctuated by a series of video accolades from international stars and female leaders including Hillary Clinton, Kathy Lette and Annie Lennox. Famous Australians joined Gillard on stage, including the trans activist and former Neighbours star Georgie Stone, the journalist Indira Naidoo and the human rights lawyer Nyadol Nyuon, who all spoke beautifully about what the misogyny speech meant to them and how it changed their lives.

There were a whole lot of recollections about where people were when they heard the speech, and how they felt.

I too remember exactly where I was when Gillard delivered her slap-down of the patriarchy. I was a sole-care single mother of two preschoolers, who had just discovered that in addition to having the full-time job of caring for small children, I was soon going to have to find a second one.

In 2012, on the day of the celebrated speech, the Gillard government passed legislation that compounded the work of the previous Howard government, lowering the cut-off age for all recipients of the parenting payment single from when the youngest child turns 16 to when they turn eight.

It was a decision that would contribute to the shocking situation now, where 37% of single-mother families are living in dire poverty.

At the time Gillard cited evidence that children benefit from growing up in a family where at least one parent is in paid employment, although advocacy groups warned that the lack of part-time work or employers who supported flexible work made paid employment for many single mothers simply impossible.

Single mothers who were unable to manage full-time employment on top of solo parenting were forced off parenting payment single and on to Newstart, an unemployment benefit, despite the vital unpaid care work we were delivering. The move led to more than 80,000 single-mother families having their already tiny income drop by up to $172 a fortnight.

In 2018 the Australian Council of Social Service and the University of New South Wales released The Poverty in Australia report, which draws a link between the Gillard government policy and increased poverty in single-mother families.

The report reveals a sharp rise in poverty among households with sole parents who were unable to find or secure paid work, from 35% in 2013 to 59% in 2015.

Jenny Davidson, the chief executive of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, says the decision to prioritise paid work over parenting work set the tone for further damage inflicted on single mothers in the years since.

“In addition to being forced to manage on unliveable Centrelink payments, single mothers are now burdened with punitive ‘mutual obligation’ requirements which come with paternalising overtones that undermine confidence, can actually serve as a barrier to finding employment, and which serve little purpose other than to shame and police women,” she says.

One of the themes to emerge from the stories of the speakers at the Not Now, Not Ever event was that regardless of their area of advocacy – trans rights, gender diversity, racism – what the misogyny speech achieved was that it legitimised anger.

Women, particularly in the workplace, have historically been reluctant to speak about the misogyny and abuse they faced, fearful of being branded “angry women”, worried about being perceived as unhinged or troublemakers.

When Gillard stood up in parliament, passionately describing the misogyny she was experiencing and demanding a higher standard in her workplace, she told Australia and the world that, as a woman, it was OK to call out bad behaviour.

The impact of this cannot be overstated. In her video tribute, Clinton said the misogyny speech had paved the way for movements such as #MeToo. Several of the speakers rightly noted that such has been the change that the media commentary and behaviour of parliamentarians that Gillard experienced as prime minister would never be tolerated today.

So, on this 10-year anniversary of the misogyny speech, while Gillard will never be my feminist hero, I will celebrate one of the speech’s outcomes: it’s empowered me to speak out in anger.

For single mothers, there’s still much to be angry about.

  • Margaret Ambrose is a Melbourne-based journalist and advocate for women’s rights, and single mother to two daughters, Greta and Aurora.


Margaret Ambrose

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