Misogynist is a strange word. Not one that you hear every day, except for the last week in politics when the Prime Minister pinned that label on the forehead of Tony Abbott.
Its literal dictionary definition is “one who hates all women”. While it is normally applied to men, it can sometimes apply to women. To hate women means to have a strong dislike or a strong aversion to them. Rarely does the misogynist spit in your face. It comes in many disguises, many of them devious.
On Wednesday night, Tony Jones on ABC ‘s Lateline and Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Opposition both questioned whether this was too harsh a term to apply to Tony Abbott.
What does it really mean to “hate” or have a strong aversion to all women, simply because they are women? And how can we sniff it out?
Perhaps if we compare it with calling someone a racist the meaning might become clearer. When we judge a person simply on the basis of their race or suggest that their race makes them somehow lesser, the term “racist” seems perfectly appropriate.
If someone believes that men and women are not equal in every respect, it is the same as believing that whites and blacks are not equal in every respect.
So when Tony Abbott says that women are not as suited to powerful positions as men because of their physiology and their temperament, he is judging them to be lesser than men purely on the basis of their gender. Now while this may not be overt hatred of women, it is a form of irrational hatred.
To believe that one gender is superior to another and that one gender is better suited to inhabit positions of power, is not rational. A rational, unemotional person judges each person on their own merits regardless of their gender or their race. To totally disregard a person’s ability to achieve the most powerful position in the nation on the basis of gender or race is a form of extreme prejudice or extreme aversion. This means that not only should Julia Gillard not be Prime Minister because it is a job best suited to a man, but that no woman should aspire to lead the country because of her gender. To insult Julia Gillard with sexist and misogynist remarks and taunts is to insult every Australian woman.
The same used to be said about black people. But now that a black man is President of the United States of America, racist remarks are expressed in less open ways. Comments are made about his middle name Hussein, for example. A huge movement sought to convince Americans that he was not born in America and even when he produced his birth certificate proving them wrong, his detractors refused to believe it. Hatred ignores facts.
When Alan Jones presided over a “people’s protest” against Julia Gillard and allowed his protestors to wave slogans at the television cameras that called her a “witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”, these were words born of hatred based on her gender not on her abilities. When Tony Abbott stood in front of these posters he was condoning their misogyny. These people were proclaiming their hatred of her as a woman. These terms would not ever be applied to a man in her position.
When Tony Abbott told her “to make an honest woman of herself”, he was attacking the fact that she was unmarried and living with a man. He would never have said that to a man who was unmarried and living with a woman.
These are examples of overt misogyny.
But there are other more subtle and sneaky ways of blowing the misogyny whistle. By never referring to Gillard as the Prime Minister but constantly calling her “she” is a form of extreme contempt. In other words “she” is not worthy of being called Prime Minister. By calling her government “illegitimate”, he is saying “she” has no right to this position. Alan Jones has constantly referred to Gillard as “this woman” spitting out the words as a form of contempt.
When Dawn French was being interviewed by Andrew Denton back in 2008, she referred to what she called “stealth racism” which was often directed at her husband Lenny Henry. In their business of comedy Henry is very often the only black person in a gathering or a party and she noticed the way white people often referred to him or talked about him to her, often disguised as a joke.
When Denton asked her for an example, she said “we were at a party once and a comedian came up to them and said, “I know it said black tie Lenny but that’s taking it too far sonny”.
Being married to a black man made her aware of how often white people indulged in stealth racism. Very often they were not even aware that they were doing it.
Similarly many men are often unaware of their own “stealth misogyny.”
Women, however, are very sensitive to it, whether it is openly expressed or reveals itself in the form of a “joke” or a snide comment or an aside. Just trust your instincts.
It doesn’t matter what form it takes, it must be called out for what it is. No one should ever be treated as lesser because of their gender.
If you realise you are the target of any form of misogyny, you must speak out and name it. If you don’t, you allow yourself to become a victim. If it is directed at any woman either in the workplace or a social gathering you must make it clear that it is not appropriate.
Do not be put off from speaking out because the perpetrator will tell you that it was only a joke, or a flippant remark and attempt to make you feel that you are overreacting. Just speak calmly and firmly in explaining why it is still inappropriate and not to be tolerated. Men often don’t understand why women react as they do because they are never spoken to in that way. That is why the male commentators who dismissed the Prime Minister’s attack on Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny as just a “feisty speech”, could not believe the world-wide waves of admiration and applause she received from women.
Whenever someone tells you to “stop playing the gender card”, as Tony Abbott told Gillard, point out to them that is exactly what you are asking them not to do.
If you don’t speak out, nothing will ever change. But if you do, you’ll be surprised by how powerful it makes you feel.
Julia Gillard is often the only woman in a room full of powerful men but now that she has had the courage to speak out and make it clear she will not tolerate it any more, they will be forced to treat her as an equal.
And none of us should ever settle for anything less, no matter what our job or our status.
Trust your instincts.