Owen Jones, UK Independent commentator, pinpoints sexism as the key to ‘rampant’ abuse leveled at women who speak up, speak out, and will not be put down whatever the invective. A predictable response dominates against articulate, determined, achievement-orientated women unafraid of power. Jones cites Louise Mensch, MP, viewed in some circles as an abrasive Conservative Party member, most recently featuring on the parliamentary committee reporting on Murdoch, the media and ‘hacking’.
Observing she is ‘a craven apologist for Rupert Murdoch, and deserves to be exposed as such’, Jones notes that this ‘does not distinguish [Mensch] from the Tory leadership, except that she is more honest about it [with] less power to act on her sycophancy’. She at least ‘had the courage’ to ‘ride to the much-maligned mogul’s defence’ on television’s Newsnight, only to receive a backlash constituted by ‘a torrent of violently sexist tweets’:
‘She was a “whore”, a “cold faced cold hearted bitch”, and far worse. “Louise Mensch … You would wouldn’t you?” tweeted Northern Irish “comedian” Martin Mor. “Given half a chance you’d strangle her!” Vice magazine proceeded to ask Occupy protesters if they’d have sex with her: just for the “lulz”, as the kids say.’
And, as Jones concludes: ‘No male cheerleader for the Murdochs – there are many – is subject to these chilling attacks.’ The same goes for journalism, he says, for although Jones is ‘no stranger to Twitter abuse’, his critics most often are ‘wound up’ by ‘what they regard as [his] excessively youthful appearance’ characterised by ‘Does your mum know you’re up this late?’ and ‘Shouldn’t you be doing your paper-round?’. Jones notes: ‘It is nothing compared with the poisonous misogynist vitriol that women in politics and journalism – such as colleague Laurie Penny – receive.’
Like commentators on online journals, Twitter ‘is an interesting insight into attitudes rampant in society, because it allows people to easily project venom most would never dream of screeching at a passerby in the street’. Twitter ‘… provides alarming evidence that sexism – of varying intensities – remains widespread among men’:
‘Whether purporting to be on the left or the right, there are all too many men who simply cannot bear to be lectured by a woman they passionately disagree with. “Who does this bitch think she is?” sums up their attitude; and if Twitter is anything to go by, what they say can be a lot more explicit than that.’
And although men may predominate in this form of discourse, women may also be implicated.
Returning, then, to Eleanor Roosevelt’s nomination of ‘age-old prejudice’. It is this – a phenomenon now termed ‘sexism’ – that dogged Hilary Clinton’s 2008 White House Bid. Misogynist invective came from the right, the left, and even her pre-selection opponent’s camp. Samantha Power, an Obama campaign worker, took the hit for the sexist comment emanating from the candidate’s office – but ended up on his Presidential staff in any event.
This phenomenon dogs the steps ofAustralia’s Prime Minister.
Childless – unwomanly or unnatural. Childfree – unwomanly and selfish. ‘Hard’, ‘uncaring’, ‘unfeeling’ – yet men alone (Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser) are allowed to cry or show emotion (Hawke, Kevin Rudd) and get away with it, even be praised for it. If a woman leader cries, she ‘can’t mix it’. If she resists tears, she’s ‘unwomanly’ or worse – even worse than Lady Macbeth, and who but a woman could be worse than this?
If she is assertive or simply able to stand up with conviction to deliver a message to the masses, she’s ‘tough as nails’. If she falters not a step, but an inch, a millimeter – she’s hopeless or ‘woeful’. And these are only a few – a mild few at that – of the misogynistic commentsAustralia’s Prime Minister has weathered.
Former Senator Bob Brown said it: ‘Quite a bit of the criticism [of the Prime Minister] is sexist and unfair and unrelenting …’ And when questioned by one commentator, the Prime Minister contrasted expectations of her predecessors:
‘… looking across Australia’s political history when Bob Hawke was there or Paul Keating … or John Howard …, I don’t recall there being constant demands for them to show more personality. I don’t remember people looking at John Howard and saying gee, I wish he’d be warmer and cuddlier and more humorous and more engaging in his press conferences. They looked at him and said, well he’s the bloke running the country, and I think the same standard should apply to me. I’m a woman running the country, I don’t ask people to come to the view that they want to have me round for dinner on Saturday night, that’s not what I’m here to do.’
Nonetheless, reason lies for hope that the prejudice is shifting. Not only did the Parliamentary Labor Party support the elevation of the first woman to the Prime Ministership. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that in the lead-up to the 2012 challenge, members of the caucus came out strongly in the Prime Minister’s support – Simon Crean, former leader and longtime parliamentarian, one of them. The ALP has long been seen as male-dominated, yet it has produced and supported the women coming forward as leaders, apart from the Liberal Party’s Kate Carnell, and Kerry Chikarovski as NSW Liberal Opposition leader (1998-2002) before her ousting by a male politician.
As Owen Jones concludes, responsibility lies upon men to end ‘the continuing scourge of sexism’, speaking out against it, not perpetuating it. This is not an invitation for men to ‘muscle in on’ the Women’s Movement. Rather, it is to recognise that ‘sexist abuse is a symptom, or a warning sign, of a society in which women overall are still not equal’. This inequality is colluded in and supported by those who attack the Prime Minister with invective rather than addressing policy issues as policy issues.
All who engage in the abuse or support it by failing to acknowledge it for what it is, standing up to speak out against it so as, ultimately, to end it, remain wedged in the territory of the ‘age-old prejudice’ Eleanor Roosevelt identified. This age-old prejudice not only militates against the rights of women holding posts of ‘high importance’ and power. It erodes the dignity and human rights of every woman. It demotes all women to the category of ‘non-persons’, denied the respect and rights to which every human being is entitled.
JAS © May 2012