Julia Gillard – one of our most experienced practitioners of victim feminism – has graciously lent some advice to Hillary Clinton on how to cope with the sexism she is sure to face as the Democratic nominee for President.
Writing for the New York Times, Gillard intoned that Hillary ‘knows what it’s like to be the subject of the stereotype that a powerful woman cannot be likable that if she is commanding then she must be incapable of empathy.’
Gillard’s piece echoes a familiar refrain from her time as Prime Minister: behind every attack, nasty aside or mockery made of a female politician lies the twin evils of misogyny and sexism.
Clinton too is fond of invoking this well-worn cliché that an entrenched distaste for powerful women is the root motivation of her detractors.
As politically convenient as this theory may be, it papers over two important truths that continue to elude both leaders.
The first is that attacks against Gillard and Clinton followed decisions that were dubious, dishonest and unbecoming of any politician.
The second is that male politicians have frequently been the subject of similar, if not worse outpourings of public venom and acrimony.
The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership was defined by terrible politics and worse policy. After knifing a first term leader on the dubious grounds that she believed he was unable to win the next election, her shambolic election campaign brought Labor to the brink of electoral oblivion. She then forged an unnecessary alliance with the Greens under the promise of introducing an economically destructive Carbon Tax (despite explicit assurances to the contrary), gutted any revenue raising capacity from Labor’s much-vaunted mining tax and stood by the thieving ex-union boss Craig Thompson.
This is the beginning of a long laundry list of failures that sowed the seeds of Australia’s now intractable budget deficit. That Gillard was widely criticized and derided throughout all this is wholly unsurprising.
Clinton’s misdeeds are voluminous enough to fill several books, so we’ll touch on just a few. Let’s even put aside the private server email scandal, which almost certainly handed over a treasure trove of national secrets to Russian and Chinese hackers as a result of Clinton’s judgment.
There are recordings from Clinton’s time as a lawyer where she is heard laughing about the fact that an alleged rapist she defended passed a lie detector test, stating that ‘she never trusted a polygraph ever again.’ Clinton lied repeatedly about her role in fabricating a financial management scandal in the White House travel office justify firing its staff and replacing them with Clinton allies. Years after staff were cleared of wrongdoing and reinstated, memos surfaced revealing that Clinton had ordered White House staffers to carry out the deed.
Clinton fashionably claims that it’s unacceptable that the top 25 fund managers earn more than all the kindergarten teachers in America combined. Yet she herself has happily pocketed the equivalent of what a kindergarten teacher makes in 10 years for delivering a 20 minutes speech to Goldman Sachs; one of the evil Wall Street behemoths she so strongly rails against.
The usual retort here is that despite such controversies, the attacks levelled at Gillard or Hillary have been uniquely worse than those faced by male politicians.
This is objectively not true.
While clearly hyperbolic, Alan Jones’ comments about dropping Gillard at sea were ill-advised by any standard. Yet few in the media batted an eyelid when a life-sized Tony Abbott was decapitated live on stage to rapturous cheers by rock band Gwar at a major music festival. Within days of becoming Prime Minister Facebook was replete with vile pages about Abbott, including one calling for his assassination. A few months later, thousands donned “F— Tony Abbott” shirts and stormed the streets of our capital cities spouting their expletive-laden disdain for the Prime Minister. These shirts were promoted and proudly worn by Fairfax columnist Clementine Ford, incurring almost no backlash from the public or her employers.
During the recent federal election campaign footage emerged of a man walking up to Abbott while he was campaigning and told him to f— off and die. Again, the incident was largely ignored. Just imagine the apoplexy if Gillard was confronted with such abuse and the assailant proudly uploaded the footage to their personal Facebook.
Much like Gillard was lampooned for her sometimes eccentric clothing choices, media elites have for years gleefully mocked Abbott for wearing speedos; seemingly unaware that red and yellow briefs have long been the uniform of volunteer surf lifesavers.
In the same way that Abbott was repeatedly labelled a racist, homophobic, misogynist, towards the end of his term George W Bush became the most openly ridiculed president in recent history. Democrat-aligned advocacy groups ran adverts comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler, an indignity Obama so far avoided. As thousands of lives were threatened by the unfolding calamity of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West took to national television to claim that George W Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. But all that stuff is just politics, right?
The most empty-headed aspect of the Gillard-Clinton brand of victim feminism is the conspicuous silence when women of a different political creed are the ones under fire. Pauline Hanson has been abused beyond the boundaries of frank discussion easily more than any Australian female politician in living memory. Not one of Gillard’s misogyny banner-carriers has come to her defence.
Similarly, former Republican Presidential nominee Carly Fiorina was viciously mocked for her appearance by no less than Donald Trump himself. Eight years ago news channels and talk shows made a meal out of portraying Sarah Palin as a ditzy, redneck, imbecile with neither the temperament nor intelligent to run for office. When Fiorina and Palin were dismissed by some quarters of the media, the members of America’s left-feminist commentariat were nowhere to be seen.
Clearly there are political gains to be made by classing all vile things said about female politicians as sexist. But if we open our eyes to the bitter reality of today’s politics in Australia and America, crass and vitriol are now par for the course.
If we’re serious about lifting the tenor of national debate and giving politicians the respect some might say they deserve, that argument should be made across the board, not along gendered lines. And for the record, that’s the side I’m on. I disdain the idea of Julia Gillard being branded a bitch just as much as I abhor student activists torching an effigy of Tony Abbott.
The idea that we need to police insults against female politicians but not men smacks of the worst kind of sexism. It paternalistically assumes a special sensitivity on the part of women; nothing less than a throwback to the old world attitudes which once saw women roundly excluded from positions of power and authority.
To be sure, Gillard and Clinton are intelligent and accomplished women. But when they dabble in the politics of gender-based victimhood to cover their own failings, they only cheapen themselves.
John Slater is the Executive Director of the H.R. Nicholls Society