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.

Show Hide image

Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.