Julia Gillard "on the menu": Three cheers for a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism

The party fundraiser menu that offered to "serve up" parts of Australian PM Julia Gillard was offensive, no doubt about it. But it's refreshing to see some honest, in-your-face sexism for a change, rather than the kind that flies under the radar.

Hooray for Mal Brough and his Liberal party fundraiser menu of boorish bigotry! At long last, we get to see a bit of honest sexism in action! Admittedly, it’s not all that impressive – just some lazy mockery of Australian PM Julia Gillard because she’s got wimmin’s bits (snigger) – but at least it makes a change. Enough of all that vague is-it-isn’t-it sexism that haunts so many women throughout their dealings with “enlightened” men. Here’s some of the real stuff, stuff that can’t be shrugged off with “well, it’s evolution” or “it’s because you have babies” or “it’s only banter”. With sexism like this you know where you are.

One doesn’t have to hold Julia Gillard aloft as a “feminist hero” to support her claim that she’s a victim of straightforward misogyny. Do male politicians get served up as metaphorical pieces of meat, their sexual organs ridiculed and dissected? Do they live in fear of what Harriet Harman might do with a chipolata? I think not. Regardless of whether Gillard has any of these attributes, there’s nothing wrong in having “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box” – but there’s definitely something wrong in reducing a woman to this alone, regardless of her politics. 

And yet a bit of me thinks it could be worse. Most sexism flies under the radar or rather, we see it but we manage to explain it away. At least when someone is openly sexist we’re offered a means of restarting a debate which those in power – mostly male – have long since declared closed. Having been announced “winners“ in the battle for equality we’re usually expected to slink off home while the men carry on talking. Yet just every now and then, the fragility of our victory is exposed in a way that very few people can deny (still, best to not over-react, ladies. You don’t want to be accused of playing the “gender card” since that’ll mean you’re back in the wrong even more swiftly than usual).

All forms of sexism are rubbish, but I can’t help feeling barefaced chauvinism is less rubbish than the other forms. More often than not, we experience prejudice but there’s nothing we can say, let alone do. I suspect men like Brough have no idea of the degree to which women end up telling themselves this or that “didn’t count” as proper sexism. It makes life more bearable when you’re powerless anyhow. If you’re just a woman to begin with, at least don’t be a whiney woman who wastes her time blaming the patriarchy for everything or indeed anything. Just work on those alternative explanations. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing. 

We know that some forms of sexism – and other forms of prejudice - are completely hidden from the victim; the way someone’s assessment of a CV might change depending on the name at the top, for instance. The rest of the time, you half-know that prejudice is there but it’s embedded in so many other things - flawed human interactions, financial dependencies, personal insecurities – that it would take a huge amount of courage and conviction to do anything about it. After all, how can you truly know what’s going on? Unless you are a perfect human being, how can you strip out the sexism and hold it up for independent analysis? Sure, you’re not being treated fairly – but perhaps you’d still be held in low esteem even if that wasn’t the case. The actual impact of an individual instance of sexist behaviour is hard to measure. It tends to be a tainted specimen. “Reasonable” sexists know this – and so too do their victims.

There is almost always a reason why sexism isn’t sexism. It’s “just his background, just the way he talks, he didn’t mean it like that, silly you for taking offence”. Or maybe “it was like that in the seventies, a different culture, you can’t judge these things by your standards”. Or perhaps “the women don’t put themselves forward, it’s not our banter that’s to blame, just their failure to assert themselves”. Or “we take ever complaint seriously… apart from the complaints about the complaints that we didn’t take seriously at all”. The list is goes on and on.

Part of the work of feminism remains teasing this out, identifying sexism for what it is, showing that even if it appears to be compromised by real life it’s still worth challenging, if not in a court of law, then at least in terms of how people think and feel. It’s not enough to persuade people they aren’t being discriminated against if they’re still being left at a disadvantage. It’s not enough to assume you’re acting as if all things were equal when you can’t be bothered to try and make them so. And thus, while it’s a strange relief to see a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism once in a while, let’s keep on questioning any act that has some basis in the belief that women are inferior. This conversation needs to continue even when sexism isn’t handed to us on a plate. 

Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.