You’d think we learned our lesson during the Gillard years. You know, that it’s just not acceptable to hurl gendered abuse at a woman. By all means criticise her ability, her competency or her performance – none of that is off limits. But do it in a way that doesn’t insinuate that her gender makes her a lesser being.
Because that’s what sexist language is about; at its core it’s about making a woman feel small, insignificant or powerless because she has happens to have a vagina. And no matter how much we nod at each other’s pretty platitudes about respecting and protecting women’s rights, every time we bitch about someone using sexist words we’re diminishing that woman’s rights. That is, we’re shitting on the principle of equality.
Surely that type of criticism is a thing of the past; the chaff bag and Ditch the Witch placards packed away in a vacuum bag along with the Kevin07 t-shirts.
But no, the past month has shown we’ve learned nothing at all; sexism continues to be the favoured weapon for criticising female politicians. Particularly on Twitter, that corner of the online community where the political nerds play.
Quite unsurprisingly, conservatives on Twitter have shown their continued skills in the chauvinism stakes. For her role in the change of Liberal Party leadership, Australia’s first female Foreign Minister has been called pretty much every filthy name imaginable by the supporters of Tony Abbott who haven’t taken well to their man being shown the door.
It nevertheless took Labor to legitimise descriptions of Julie Bishop as the Lady Macbeth of Australian politics with their “loyalty” posters at the Canning by-election; a not particularly creative copy of the gender-laden allusion that was first levelled at Julia Gillard by the Coalition.
And then there’s the media relegation of Minister Bishop’s partner to “boyfriend” status, clearly because it’s fun to insinuate that the highest ranking women in the Australian Government is really just another woman of a certain age grappling with the singles scene.
The new women in the Turnbull Cabinet have fared little better. While it obviously wasn’t acceptable to comment about Ms Gillard’s body shape, it apparently is okay to reflect on the new Defence Minister, Marise Payne’s fitness for office based on hers. Or to dredge up old media stories in which she’s called a cougar.
However it’s new Employment Minister, Michaelia Cash, who’s shot to the top of the sexist abuse stakes on Twitter. In response to her comments about penalty rates, Minister Cash has been called a screeching harpy, the Lady of the Claws and even a hysterical misogynist (if that isn’t actually an oxymoron).
And having apparently forgotten that it was sexist to cast aspersions on a woman based on her appearance during the Gillard years, it is now apparently acceptable for the unions to depict Cash on social media as the union-busting Maggie Thatcher because the Minister is a fan of the Iron Lady. Oh and she has the same hair-style. Geddit?
This example is of course the PG versions of the baser filth (not from the CFMEU) that also rises like scum in the eddies of social media; the comments that are less nuanced about wanting to degrade and disempower these women, and sometimes even wish sexual and other violence upon them.
But as we are increasingly learning, these are merely different points on the same continuum. Both gender-based criticism and sexist abuse are about putting a woman in her place; one is just more subtle than the other.
Neither forms of attack are acceptable. Ever.
They’re not even justifiable when the woman herself is guilty of sexist behaviour. It doesn’t matter if she’s been photographed in front of a “Bob Brown’s Bitch” placard, given tirades in the parliament against “the sisterhood”, made cat-like gestures and hissed at a political opponent, or argued that feminism is an outdated and redundant concept.
Equality for all women means exactly that – all women must be treated equally.
No woman, regardless of her views, words or behaviour should be subject to criticism or abuse based on her gender. Not even rampaging Tory women.
With over a million words in the English language, it’s intellectually lazy and uncreative – as well as sexist – to stoop to gendered abuse. If there is a lesson we should have learned from the Gillard years, it is that we should have found ways by now to criticise a woman’s competency without referring to her gender. This would have benefited Gillard at the time. And it would improve our political discourse now.