Following the recent condemnation of sexism and misogyny in politics by the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Isobel Fergus examines the role of feminism in political discourse
The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently divided the public in a speech on sexism and misogyny in parliament. People split into those who believed she was simply playing the gender card, and those who saw it as a powerful day for women’s rights. There is no doubt however that this has successfully placed feminism back to the forefront and made people all over the world assess the role powerful women play in society.
Women are under-represented in politics across the world. The Global Gender Gap Index introduced by the World Economic Forum captures the magnitude and scope of gender based-disparities and tracks their progress. According to the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report a mere 20 women serve as elected heads of state or government. At ministerial and parliamentary levels, the global average is less than 20%. Ireland ranked 5th in the Global Gender Gap index. However, only 15% of those elected into the 2011 Dáil were women; and those 25 women out of a total of 166 TDs merely marked an increase by three from 2007.
Women make up roughly half the population of every country in the world. However, only two countries, Rwanda and Andorra, have reached 50% or higher in female representation in the national legislature, with Cuba and Sweden close behind. In 1918, the Parliament Act made women eligible to be elected to, and sit and vote in, the House of Commons and in 1922, Article 3 of the Constitution of the Irish Free State gave full citizenship to all women and men over the age of 21. Although most countries have long had the legal rights for women to participate in all aspects of politics, women are still under-represented all around the world not only in politics but also in most powerful roles of society.
Feminism is not a popular concept and often seen as extreme and linked to negative connotations. Most women do not self-identify as feminists, and sexism is not a card that most women want to play even when they are victims. Powerful women see calling out misogyny and sexism as weakening themselves away from positions of power. There are unofficial rules that in order to be a successful woman you have to move away from the stereotypical images of women as ‘nurturers’ and not show emotions or weakness.
There is no doubt that a lot of work environments are dominated by men and in many workplaces women receive less pay than a man for the same role. Women are acutely aware of the disadvantages that their gender plays in climbing the corporate ladder. In a recent supplement in the Irish Times, Mary Robinson suggested that there is evidence that countries experience higher standards of living when women are empowered as political leaders. Therefore, it is important from both a rights and economic perspective that women are better represented in political decision-making.
Most women are highly represented in third level education. UCD and most universities across the world are places of equal opportunities for all genders, races and religions. However, upon leaving the comfort of university where women are actively encouraged to participate at all levels, women can get a shock when they enter the ‘real world’ and realise just how male dominated workplaces really are.
Prime Minister Gillard did not hold anything back during her 15-minute speech, claiming that “If he [Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives. He needs a mirror.” Giving numerous examples of less than savoury comments about women that Abbot made as a minister, including “that men, by physiology or temperament, are more adopted to exercise authority or to issue commands” and “if it’s true that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”
Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition party in Australia who is often noted for being aggressive in Parliament, is not particularly popular with female voters. However, perhaps more interestingly, neither is Gillard. So whether these personal offences mentioned by the Prime Minister were genuine or just part of another political game is unclear. It seems odd that while Gillard was crying sexism against Abbott, she was defending Peter Slipper, the speaker of the House of Representatives over a series of inappropriate texts with vulgar comments about women’s genitalia. Slipper conveniently resigned later that day.
In the middle-east, strong women have been key leaders in the uprising of the Arab Spring. In countries that can be extremely hostile to women’s rights these winds of change across the Arab Spring bring hope for equal opportunities for women in the coming century. However, the recent vicious shooting of 14-year old Malala Yousafzar in Pakistan by a Taliban militant because she campaigned for women’s education shows just how long there is to go for women’s rights in some parts of the world.
It remains to be seen whether there will ever be female representation in politics that reflects the female population of the world. Some say feminism has died in recent years but if Prime Minister Gillard’s speech is anything to go by, it is still alive but with different priorities. In most countries women are no longer fighting for basic equal rights but are entering into public power struggles to seek their rightful place at the top of the political ladder. In the words of Margaret Thatcher: “People think that at the top there isn’t much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is there is tons of room at the top.”