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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

After the controversial Chakrabarti report and her peerage from Jeremy Corbyn, it's hard to remember when liking the former director of Liberty was quite trendy.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood