Australia’s Prime Minister recently highlighted how important it is to call out misogyny where it exists. With the US election season bringing constant assaults against women, it is time that we learned from her example.
In early October, Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, made international headlines when she called out opposition leader Tony Abbott on his sexism and misogyny. She did so during a meeting of Parliament, speaking directly to him and with a female deputy speaker trying to silence the noise in the room. In the video of the speech (which quickly went viral), you can clearly see female politicians directly behind Prime Minister Gillard nodding along. Gosh, what would it be like to have so many powerful women in government?
While the speech itself is awesome, there are two aspects of it that make it truly amazing. The first aspect is that, after her speech, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] expanded its definition of misogyny to include “entrenched prejudice of women” alongside the traditional definition of “hatred of women.” As Macquarie Editor Sue Butler explained, “We decided that we had the basic definition, ‘hatred of women,’ but that’s not how ‘misogyny’ has been used for about the last 20, 30 years, particularly in feminist language. ‘Sexist’ does seem to be moving towards this description of surface features, and ‘misogynist’ applies to the underlying attitude.”
The second amazing aspect is that the speech occurred at all. It is very rare for female politicians to discuss the sexism they endure as public figures, probably because they don’t want to be seen as weak or as playing ‘the gender card’ such as it is. And you can forget about them mentioning misogyny. In 2008, the United States had a woman running for president and another campaigning for vice president, and the misogynistic (using either definition) vitriol in the media was jaw-dropping. If you want just a taste of it, the Women’s Media Center made a fabulous six minute video called Sexism Sells — But We’re Not Buying It. It will turn your stomach. Yet the female candidates themselves rarely spoke of it. In fact, Prime Minister Gillard herself has been the victim of an incredible crusade of sexism against her for over two years, yet her recent speech was one of the few times she has spoken openly about it. And that is part of what is wrong with the United States: we do not call out misogyny when we see it.
For the last several years (basically our latest election cycle), women in the United States have endured an almost relentless assault on our rights, everything from healthcare and the economy to a discussion about the legitimacy of the violence leveled against us. I am downright terrified about where it will end. One of the reasons why open season on women in the United States is so acceptable is that, unlike Prime Minister Gillard, we haven’t yet labeled the insults, the dismissal of our experiences, the refusal to accept basic fairness, the venom we hear about women every single day for what they are: misogyny. Instead, we make excuses for it. Oh, he misspoke; he didn’t really mean what he said; he surrounds himself with strong women; he thought it was a joke; he just didn’t understand; he’s apologized; that issue isn’t all that important to most voters, ad nauseum (with emphasis on the nauseum part). Although the press gives such poison some publicity, it also allows the misogyny to go basically unchallenged. Or, if they do provide some outrage about it, they stop there and do not offer a systemic analysis of why we are still hearing about ridiculous things like “legitimate rape,” women being called sluts for wanting birth control, “binders full of women,” allowing female employees time off work to go home and make dinner, and not supporting pay equity (to name just a few things).
Well, let me help them out. The problem is that we’ve been worried about sexism when we should have been focused on misogyny. We’ve been concentrating on the symptoms while ignoring the underlying attitudes. We’ve mistakenly believed that because we didn’t have it as bad as women in other countries, we don’t have a problem. That’s what my students used to tell me: at least we don’t have to wear burkas or suffer female genital mutilation or have acid thrown in our faces when we spurn unwanted advances. Hey, in comparison to that, we have it good! After all, we can vote, work outside the home and have control over our sexuality (sort of, for now). What more can we ask?
We’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for all of our gains that we fail to notice that all of these wonderful rights that we have — you know, the ones that took us practically forever to get, and are supposed to be evidence that sexism is a thing of the past — can be taken away in a moment. And that is because we are ignoring the misogyny all around us. Symptoms can be alleviated but they’ll always return if the underlying illness is not cured. And the only way we will cure misogyny is if we make fundamental structural changes.
For starters, we should have equal representation in all three branches of government, and I don’t care how we get it. Next, we need vastly higher percentages of women in the upper echelons of corporate America and again, I’m not terribly picky about how it gets done. After that, we must establish firm support for mothers in particular (hey, people, there is no society without mothers) and families in general. Throughout all these changes, women’s bodies will no longer be up for debate of any kind, and violence against women will not be tolerated. Then and only then will we be on the road to true human rights, to lasting equality. As feminist visionary Susan B. Anthony stated so long ago, “We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
But what happens if none of those things occur? What happens to us if our electoral leaders are the ones who want to dismiss our experiences, take away our freedom, and return us to a time when women’s voices were muted? What happens to us if the people who say with straight faces that the Pope knows more about pregnancy and childbirth than Nancy Pelosi (mother of five) gain more influence than they already have? What then?
If you really want to know, then I direct you to another newsworthy event that happened in early October. In Afghanistan, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl who is well-known for promoting the revolutionary idea that women should be able to educate themselves, was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman. Her shooting is the end result of misogyny and, if we do nothing, that could be our future.
I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer that we instead follow Prime Minister Gillard’s example, and start calling out misogyny when we see it. We need to stop being afraid of offending those who are offensive themselves, and start speaking truth to power. It’s clear that if we do not, no one else will.