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Politics

Sexism and the Left

Julia Gillard’s recent speech poses important questions for the Left: about politics but also about media.

First, there’s the question of the address itself: a powerful riposte to a notorious sexist that went viral around the world, delivered by the leader of a government that was, at that very moment, cutting parenting payments to 90,000 single mothers by as much as $100 a week. How does one assess these simultaneous developments?

For some on the liberal Left, mentioning parenting payments seems a form of carping, a bitter attempt to rain on Gillard’s parade. For others (especially on the far Left), the speech itself represents pure chicanery, pure flim flammery that can and should be ignored.

Neither approach seems satisfactory.

Let’s go back to first principles.

The Left opposes sexism in any contexts, under any circumstances. Sexism remains equally pernicious no matter the politics of the person it targets. Or, to put it another way, sexism is inherently right-wing – and would remain so, even (or perhaps especially) if it came from those who identified with the Left.

That means you don’t need to agree with someone’s politics to defend them from sexist attacks. The Left must, after all, oppose sexism directed against Liberal MPs, just as much as slurs at those in the Labor Party. Whatever you think about Senator Milne, she’s entirely right to denounce sexist slurs from David Feeney. Likewise with Julia Gillard. Throughout her tenure, she has clearly been the target of vicious sexism from the media and the other politicians. Obviously, the Left should oppose this; obviously, the Left should endorse efforts to expose sexism, to render it unacceptable in any context.

That might seem self-evident, and perhaps it is. But if it’s possible (indeed necessary) for the Left to oppose sexist slurs directed at, say, Julie Bishop, then quite clearly opposition to sexism doesn’t necessarily entail political support. If, during the 1980s, the Left could denounce the prevalence of anti-Thatcher sexism without thereby becoming Thatcherites, it should be entirely possible to defend Gillard without that defence altering your analysis of a very right-wing Labor government.

Furthermore, it seems entirely evident that the overwhelming response to the speech stems from something quite different from an enthusiasm for parliamentary politics.

This was a speech that circulated to millions of people, and thus reached an audience way beyond the small coterie that follows Canberra shenanigans closely. The clip became a sensation in both the US and Britain, and the people there applauding Gillard’s words almost certainly knew nothing of Peter Slipper – or, indeed, the policies of the ALP.

Why such a reaction? As Sharon Smith said in a recent Overland article, the US is currently in the midst of a ‘misogyny emergency’: she cited both the ongoing wage discrepancy between men and women but also the prevalence of pernicious sexual and sexist slurs, from Republicans and Democrats alike (alongside Rush Limbaugh’s antics, she quoted Bill Maher’s attack on right-winger Sarah Palim as a ‘cunt’ and a ‘dumb twat’, an echo of the point made above). Something similar seems to be happening in Britain, where today’s Guardian carries an account of the normalised sexual harassment in television as well as a survey of the stereotypes that dominate the newspapers.

Gillard’s remarks resonated in those countries, one suspects, because so many women had similar experiences with sexist bullies and were overjoyed to hear someone taking a stand against the abuse they experience in their own workplaces or homes. The tremendous response in Australia should probably be understood on a similar basis.

The virality of the speech, then, suggests the existence, both here and abroad, of a huge constituency fed up with sexism and hungry for a fight back against it. To put it another way, the speech might have been made in parliament but its reception suggests the need for, and the possibility of, extra-parliamentary activism. That is, almost any grassroots fight against sexism in Australia would very quickly come into conflict with the policies of this government, both because of Gillard’s electoral orientation to social conservatism (manifested in her opposition to same-sex marriage, her assertion of the importance of ‘traditional values’, her general willingness to truck with the bigots of the ACL) and, more importantly, because of Labor’s internalisation of conservative economics. Today, for instance, Labor will apparently introduce reforms reducing the ‘burden’ of unfair dismissal laws upon employers, in accordance with the neoliberal mantra of workplace flexibility. Obviously, when sacking workers becomes easier, women will suffer disproportionately – merely one instance of how gender justice necessitates an opposition to the ‘economic reforms’ that remain a priority for Labor and Liberal alike.

Yet there’s another aspect of the story that complicates the analysis, and that’s the role of social media. It’s not just that the speech spread so quickly because of Twitter and Facebook, it’s probably also the case that, without digital technology allowing people to see the clip themselves, Gillard’s remarks would probably have disappeared into Hansard. It’s difficult, then, to talk about the prospects for giving the online opposition to sexism an ongoing real world focus without being reminded that the Left still lacks an adequate analysis of social media and its implications.

But maybe that’s an argument for another day.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. While I remain pessimistic about the role of social media in disabling neoliberal structures or supporting the left in achieving their goals, I was impressed by the huge response to the Wheeler Centre forum “Destroying the joint”. It was so nice to see a room circulating with ideas and passion on the cusp of such a stagnant and dreary Friday evening.

    I think Stephanie said two really pertinent things- really wonderful and with such energy (she practically breathed it from her soul- that’s the only way I can describe it) and that was about the way we should “use” Gillard’s proclaimed resistance to sexism and should turn her standards against her- without COMPROMISE. I think the big word here was ‘compromise’- and the importance of maintaining a standard of goals which do not submit to the pressures which it speaks against.

    The other was the way in which there are many different types of feminism (that all movements are fragmented) and that need not “atomize” it. I think someone mentioned whether MEN have a role in the womens movement and I was astounded that the question was even asked. There was silence. I was hoping that’s because people were either as equally dumbfounded as myself, or because they were digging up those distant memories of Judith Butler from the days when people used to study gender relations (feminism is one movement which forgets what it has achieved very quickly, or ignores it completely) (which is so dangerous which we don’t have education systems which encourage peope to learn about these things anymore) (and the consequences of that are quite apparent!) ‘Feminism’ is a term that I think many would argue seeks to highlight and challenge the social and political consequences of sex and gender being inherently connected with hierarchical power stuctures (and underscored by those reinforced by capitalism). If ‘feminism’ is a response to sexism, then men should fight side by side with women because:

    a> Without men, feminism would be “sexist” in itself
    b> Men are oppressed by sexism and the narrow constructs of masculinity (whether this be a result of economic pressure of feeling the pressure of being a traditional “breadwinner”, ideas about the way being a part of an equal or male caregiver model undermines masculinity etc. etc). There are so many ways that MEN are subject to sexism, and even gendered violence might be understood as internalized conflicts that are not given a space to be dealt with or healed within society- I do not EXCUSE gendered violence, but I think we have a national habit of sweeping shit under the carpet, and this is no exception.
    c> It takes both men and women to create and maintain a more equitable society. (eg. Jeff’s grand work!)

    • I don’t know, seems a bit disingenuous to pretend that men’s role in various feminist movements is no longer a question raised — it routinely is in feminist forums, as evidenced in the lead-up to the recent Jill Meagher march.

      • Oh, I’m not asking if it’s not raised as an issue, I’m simply suggesting that it’s about as helpful to think of men as marginalized from feminism as, say, telling white people they had no place in the civil rights movements! It’s all the overlapping (I think- was it- Karen- who explored this idea?). Karl Marx was born into a wealthy family, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t address the class concerns around him. I think it’s just plain sexist to assume that men should be marginalized from a movement–it’s like assuming feminism is one big party where we can share our grievances as women and pass around the tissue box because that’s all you’re going to achieve if you say 50% of the world have no place in gender equality. Does this mean that non indigenous Australians should be left our of discussions on the consequences of colonialism? I’m not entirely sure what you’re referring to with what was said on feminist forums (I don’t frequent any) prior to the march?

  2. “sexism is inherently right-wing – and would remain so, even (or perhaps especially) if it came from those who identified with the Left.”

    This seems an inherently vacuous point: the left wing is anti-sexist, therefore sexism is inherently right-wing. One thing is merely the opposite of the other. What exactly do this left and right stand for, and where does their internal coherence lie?

    To be a credible position, being left-wing must be about more than piling up things that one likes (and that one’s friends like) and saying, “these things are left and all their opposites are right.”

    I also note the circular logic of “anti-sexist men must be feminist because without them, feminism would be sexist.” Is it not possible to imagine a world (even this very world of ours) where “anti-sexist men must not be feminist, because feminism is sexist.” The answer to sexism is, I think, humanism, and not merely alternative forms of sexism.

    • The politics of feminism vary but women’s rights movements throughout history explicitly identify and fight against gendered oppression. To call feminism “an alternative form of sexism” is just plain ignorance.

    • Also this is unrelated but I tried clicking through to your website (as linked in your name, above) and it seems you’ve got malware. Just a heads up.

  3. “sexism is inherently right-wing – and would remain so, even (or perhaps especially) if it came from those who identified with the Left.”

    The Astor screened Ninotchka last night- what a delightful piece of propaganda! It was implied that sexuality was inherently impossible under a communist regime (and that love, beauty and sexuality are synonymous with the sentiments of “capitalistic societies”. Garbo’s character was presented as completely “asexual” and desire-less, incapable of experiencing any non mechanical emotion unless she submits to “capitalistic” (adjective not mine!) sentiments…For the “love” of the two protagonists to be able to exist, their relationship had to exist outside of Russian politics (physically and politically). I think this idea holds up today- people still regard feminism as “unsexy” (the age old hegemonic idea that feminists are hairy, unkempt is perhaps dated but still used like a vampire metaphor in literature!). Are socialist politics inherently unsexy or is this a myth tied up with free-market ideas about aesthetics which are linked to commercially decided standards of beauty (and which therefore determine consumption): is beauty a product of the free market? Is being beautiful necessarily submitting to a dominant, culturally constructed aesthetic? Does it represent compliance with socio-cultural norms? Is the nature of desire necessarily inconsistent with the principles of socialism?

  4. I don’t particularly care about classifying anti-sexism and feminism as left wing. It’s far too important to need to be yoked to that sort of simplistic nomenclature. Real test of one’s feminist credentials: How did you react to Gina Rinehart’s body shape being ridiculed? Criticise her politics. Sneer at her ‘poetry’. But leave her appearance alone.

  5. So pleased you mentioned the blatant hypocricy of attacking sole parents whilst simultaneously smacking down Abbot’s sexism. Then disappointed you didn’t expand on that cynical contradiction. Gillard is all mouth and no heart.

  6. The left and feminism have always been uncomfortable bedfellows. The left believes that class is the fundamental division of society. Feminism arose in distinction from the left by claiming that gender was primary. That has not changed in my observation. The extreme left is virulently opposed to feminism and identity politics. Greer continues to maintain that feminism is “the last great revolution.”

    This fundamental division seems to underlie ongoing questions for the left about the correct position to adopt towards leaders such as Gillard and Obama who ‘fail’ to stamp out inequality entirely (after 30 years of neo liberalism) whilst themselves being victims of it.

    The left in Australia has been harshly critical of Gillard. I can’t help feeling there is a subtle double standard at work in the exaggerated expectations that manifest when a member of an ‘oppressed’ group achieves a position of power, suddenly becoming the intense focus of years of frustration.

    (Being a Sydneysider, I sadly missed the Wheeler Centre debate, so I don’t know if this was already discussed.)

    • The Left in Australia was also harshly critical of Rudd — and, for that matter, Keating and Hawke. The longstanding rightward drift of Labor has continue under Gillard, who is as committed to neoliberalism as anyone. Why shouldn’t the Left point that out? In any case, it’s nothing to do with ‘failing to stamp out inequality entirely’. To take an obvious example, Gillard’s policies on refugees have massively fostered inequality, furthering the demonisation and oppression of some of the most marginal people in the world. It’s only because of a court challenge that asylum seekers (many of whom are women) have any prospect of being spared indefinite detention on the basis of ASIO reports that they can neither see nor challenge. I don’t want to be any part of a Left that doesn’t condemn such things.

  7. I know this ‘new feminism’ we’re lauding has come about through widespread outrage over the actions of white men towards educated white women (Gillard, Meagher), we musn’t forget, if we’re talking about a’new’ feminism, that the feminism of old excluded many of the most vulnerable women in society. That is partly why it failed. If you are a woman reading this comment, and don’t believe feminism has failed women, all the more to my point.

    Good on Overland for organising the Wheeler Centre event at such short notice. And what a fantastic turnout. Some of the discussion there was quite interesting. Some seemed, quite frankly,completely out of order. I am so tired of hearing throwaway statements like the one Pickering made, completely unchallenged, in the Overland/Wheeler Centre about ‘starving women in africa’ – that all of this is the result of the patriarchy, and one and the same fight.

    How about acknowledging that in this fight, there are some women who are particularly vulnerable. How about talking about bringing those voices into this discussion?

    Get a single mother on your panel. Get a sex worker on your panel. Get a woman of colour on your panel. Instead of a white man – media voice or not. Fuck guys!

    Also, it would have been nice to pay our respects to indigenous women, who I know from my past work in legal centres are often on the frontline in the fight against sexism and gender related abuse.

    I am so dedicated to the Overland ’cause’, and will continue to advocate for increased diversity in the ranks, despite feeling like a broken record. But sometimes, I’m really left scratching my afro.

  8. Contrary to the impression my last post may have given, I am not an undergrad feminist troll. I am, sadly, an ‘old’ feminist I interested in the subject of feminism and the left, and I now feel compelled to impolitely plough on.

    I take on board your argument, Jeff, that the left has been as critical of all post-Whitlam Labor leaders. My perception may be distorted by the virulence of current debate.

    In particular, I was shocked by the response of John Pilger in feb last year to op-eds by Anne Summers and Germaine Greer first raising the Gillard sexism issue. Pilger virtually accused Summers and Greer of supporting human rights abuses in their defence of the human rights of another. The implicit assumption in Pilger’s argument was that the rights of (white middle class) women are less important, less worthy of attention, than those of other ‘Others’. I see much discussion on the left framing the issue in similar moral terms which seems to me to reinforce the hierarchy of privilege and oppression it purports to oppose.

    I certainly do not believe that the left should not criticise the policies of the current govt. However I have been stunned by the silence from all sides on the treatment of Gillard. Treatment which it seems to me is exacerbated by an intensified personalisation of the political debate on both the left and right. (The current govt is almost never referred to as the govt, or even the Gillard govt, but as Gillard.) Placing such overblown importance on the personality of the leader is a tactic inciting prejudice I had hoped was limited to the right.

    It is true that for nearly three years women have witnessed an unprecedented level of personal invective and publicly unchallenged sexism which has been extremely disturbing, even traumatic. However, my concern, as a feminist, is not as purely personal as it is now being portrayed. Many feminists like myself are capable of understanding that the silence & denial of the sexism directed at Gillard has marked a dangerous degradation of the conditions in which a more equitable and humane society can develop.

    The hysteria against asylum seekers and the abhorrent detention policies are a case in point: a stark warning of the results of politics played to bigotry as introduced by Howard. It is dismissive to assume that feminists aren’t all too aware of this.

    The idea that feminists are white middle class women too privileged to recognise their own privilege is another cheap misogynist stereotype propagated for many years by the media, and by the left and right (other marginalised groups are not required to justify their right to speak up for themselves). It seems particularly prevalent in Australia, I suspect as an attempt to deflect some of the ‘shame’ around our treatment of indigenous Australians.

    I thoroughly agree that the left could try to address the power of media, and soft power in general. A field in which many marginalised groups appear to have, perforce, overtaken the left.

  9. Freya, are you seriously suggesting that to raise the issue of feminism and white privilege is in itself mysogynist? I’m confused. Brown Feminists discuss the issue of feminism and class privelege amongst themselves, and within their ranks, all the time without using the language of the oppressor to deny others the right to examine their behaviour and rhetoric.

  10. Maxine,
    I agreed completely with your last post. I apologise I didn’t make that clear. (I should have used ‘ageing feminist’ about myself, not ‘old feminist’, I realise.) I believe that feminists should continuously examine the issue of white, and class, privilege, and most of them I know do. That is why I am posting to this page.

    It is true that feminism began as a white middle class movement. However, that has not been true of any but the most loosely liberal usage of the word for at least 30 years. I do therefore consider the use of that stereotype as a deliberate ploy to undermine feminism and to divide women from each other.

    I call it misogynist because it clearly plays on a stereotype which can be traced back through Victorian English culture, which depicts wealthy and middle class women as vain, trivial, ignorant and selfish.

    Pilger recently used the term ‘glass ceiling feminists’, another lazily bigoted representation of feminists as selfish and ambitious. Usefully combining the two misogynist stereotypes of feminism being a solely white middle class movement (selfish) and the age-old stereotype of women as voracious man-eating, world-destroying bitches.

  11. Maxine, I also realise that my phrase ‘other marginalised groups don’t have to justify their right to speak up for themselves’ was just stupid. My point was more complex but I was conscious of space, as I am now!

  12. The panel was a small step in the right direction and I, too, felt frustration bubbling up because there’s so much to say, so much to consider and such a stifling blanket of ingrained chauvinism to resist (but it’s like resisting airborne disease), but three panellists can’t possibly cover the diversity of half the species, and it can’t be left to Overland to meet all needs, can it?

  13. you ‘second wave’, ultra-orthodox fembots are WHY many people -even men!- consider themselves FORMER feminists…
    (i will note that 99.99% of the shrill shrikes harping on such non-issues are young-n-stupids, ’nuff said…)

    your raging hormones over any/all ‘slights’ (imaginary or not) to feminism/women make me NOT want to identify with any of you, REGARDLESS of whether i agree with you on the issues…

    i came here because i saw jeff sparrow’s lame screed against atheists/progressives who ask chicks out for a cup of coffee at conferences, etc, which is exhibit A of such butt-hurt nonsense…

    you are LOSING the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary folk with your idiotic, undeserved crybabying over imaginary insults…

    i’ll park this right here:
    you have the right to NOT be assaulted; you do NOT have the right to NOT be insulted…

    grow a pair…
    (ovaries or testicles, i’m pro-choice…)

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

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