Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech: watching in full and what it meant for women

Tanya Plibersek

Photographer: Peter Brew-Bevan

When Julia Gillard rose to speak in the chamber of the House of Representatives, it was like watching Boudica fight against the Romans. You knew you were watching a moment in history and it was electrifying. The mood shifted from the government under pressure to the spotlight shifting to opposition leader Tony Abbott and the sexism and misogyny he was guilty of. I felt immense relief, because I was so fed up with the behavior and the way the liberals were talking about Julia.

Before the speech, Labor women had decided that we weren’t going to get caught up in defending Julia against sexism; we would just keep working and hope all the sexist bullshit would drop. This was not the case. Finally saying “enough is enough” was a real turning point.

I think the #metoo movement was similar in that women collectively felt they had just enough. Julia was not just speaking for women in politics, but for every woman, in every workplace, who has experienced gender-based bullying over the years and said to herself, “I’m going to go on and get the job done.”

The speech gave voice to all that frustration. It was a “This is what it’s like to defend yourself” moment. Julia has given a voice to millions of women around the world and millions of women have felt her. This feeling – “I had a full stomach” – I think every woman eventually feels.

Listening to the speech in parliament, I also felt genuine sadness for Julia. As she spoke of the horrific comments that had been made about her father dying of shame and making an honest woman out of herself, I was struck by how much she had to endure. The pornographic menu that had been written by these young liberal types was called “just a little fun”.

In the past, when I spoke out against sexism, people would say ‘stop paying the gender card’. I found out that every time I defended Julia, or whenever other female MPs defended Julia, the Liberals called us “the hit squad”. Which is just another way to silence women.

Tanya and Julia

Photographer: Peter Brew-Bevan

As a politician, this speech marked a change in the way I navigate the world. Previously, I had accepted the idea that if you continue your work, sexist bullying will die out and people will eventually accept you just because you do your job well. The idea that your work will speak for itself, and that sexism will eventually wear off, is something I had to unlearn. I decided from that moment, whenever I see or observe sexism, I must report it right away. Not for me, but for the next generation of women considering a career in politics. I want them to be able to look at Parliament and know that there is a place for them here.

It’s been a decade since the misogyny speech was delivered and I’ve seen a lot of significant change happen, but there’s still a long way to go. Whatever our Australian community, our parliament must reflect that. I am proud of the environment we have created within the Labor Party, which now has 52% women in the Federal Parliament.

However, it is fine for members to say that the culture has changed, but we have to make sure that it has changed for the most junior political staff, the cleaners, the journalists, the drivers, the gardeners and the people working in the cafeteria.

It is not enough to change the culture for people who are, by definition, more powerful. It is women like Chanel Contos and her generation of young activists who give me so much hope that this country will change and be a truly more equal country in the future. And it is not only good for women, but also for men. Gender stereotypes are a prison for everyone, but we have the keys and we don’t have to keep doing the same. We know how to change and it is young women like Chanel who will lead the way.

Chanel Contos

Chanel Contos

Photographer: Vincent Dolman

I was standing in my kitchen when I first heard the misogyny talk on TV. I was 14 and had absolutely no idea what misogyny or feminism was in depth. At that time in my life, there were people around me who had the idea that a woman shouldn’t be prime minister, and those kind of comments and criticism of gendered things like clothes just seemed to me normal. I was in a social situation where it was clear to my peers and me that women were subordinate to men.

It was impossible to go to a party without someone grabbing your ass or saying something inappropriate to you, and we didn’t think about it at all. The speech really changed the conversation and challenged my perception of what it means to be a woman in society. The next day at school, everyone was talking about misogyny and what that word meant, so I started learning from my peers. It’s heartbreaking now to think about the sexism Julia endured and how complicit we all were.

In the decade since the speech, we have seen a massive increase in women’s representation in politics and so many women doing the work to point out the sexist culture inside and outside parliament. Julia made a generation of Australians grow up thinking it’s okay for a woman to be Prime Minister, and that’s incredibly impactful.

That said, Australia has also slipped in its global gender equality rankings to an embarrassing level and our gender pay gap has widened. While misogyny still seeps into every corner of our society in such a pervasive and overarching way, I think Julia’s speech has helped create a culture that is not tolerant of the onlooker.

Julia and Chanel

Photography: Weronika Mamot

The next step is to address the normalized discrimination and microaggressions against women, as well as the increased effect on women of color and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A lot of people think we’ve solved our gender issues because women can vote and because we’ve had a female prime minister, but the reality of being a woman today means you still walk into office, and someone says, ‘smile honey, you look grumpy today’, getting called when you come home at night and having people talking about you in a meeting room. It also means that when you point out any of the above, you are being told that you are a crazy feminist and need to relax.

When I was around 18, I remember asking a very old person for career advice and basically being told, “Don’t be a complainer.” It was their way of saying in the corporate world, you’re going to be sexually harassed, so if you want to do it, don’t make a fuss. This teaching is something I had to unlearn. We need to have more conversations about small assaults that have lasting effects on women and less about how men lose out. Conversations are so essential to making a cultural change. But you must also be willing to embrace new ideas and ways of thinking.

I talk to a lot of young people and very often the girls ask me ‘how are we supposed to stand up when we’ve just been called ‘feminazi’?’ – a term that is so problematic for so many reasons. It’s cliché, but we need to normalize, speak out against bad behavior and stand up for ourselves. I’m still being able to speak confidently in situations because a lot of my socialization as a girl has been to be submissive and passive. It’s much easier to defend others than yourself, which is why what Julia did was so amazing. Thanks to Julia who paved the way, we can now take our turn.

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Marie Claire Australia.

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