First published on my blog about women’s writing, the she-book reader, 8 December 2014.
In October 2012, I went on a political exchange to Australia as part of a delegation from the New Zealand Parliament. Towards the end of our trip, we visited the Australian Parliament, where we met with MPs from across the House and Senate, observed Question Time, and, as is customary for a delegation of this type, were formally hosted by the Speaker in his office.
The Speaker at that time was Peter Slipper. We did not catch him on a good day. In fact, we found ourselves in the truly bizarre position of having to make small talk about the All Blacks and the differences between MMP and STV while a few metres away, a fierce debate raged in the House on a motion of no confidence in him as Speaker (he was accused of sexually harassing a former staff member by sending obscene and unwelcome text messages). The motion was defeated by one vote, but a few hours later, Slipper resigned as Speaker anyway.
Very audaciously, I wrote “historic day!” in his visitors’ book on my way out. It was one of the stranger experiences of my time as an MP.
As it turns out, 9 October 2012 was an “historic day!” but not really because of Peter Slipper. Then-Opposition leader Tony Abbott decided to make political hay out of Slipper’s disgrace by moving the surprise no-confidence motion, feigning moral outrage at the sexism inherent in Slipper’s bizarre text messages.
For Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, this was a bridge too far.
“For fuck’s sake, after all the shit I have put up with, now I have to listen to Abbott lecturing me on sexism,”
she thought. And she got up and gave this speech:
I wish I’d been in the public gallery for that instead of making unbelievably awkward small talk with Peter Slipper while his career lay in tatters on the plush green carpet. That Slipper’s misdeeds were the catalyst for Julia Gillard’s now infamous “misogyny speech” is now nothing more than an interesting footnote. Julia Gillard finally calling time on the sexism she had endured for two years as Prime Minister was the real story.
The speech went viral. Women around the world shared it with a sense of relief and delight that FINALLY, someone was saying what needed to be said, and naming as sexism and misogyny the entrenched prejudices women face in politics. It has been viewed millions of times online. School students study it. The Macquarie Dictionary even changed its definition of “misogyny” as a result of it.
Whether she likes it or not, the misogyny speech will be Julia Gillard’s most notable legacy, and it is not an insignificant one. I still get fired up when I hear it. It almost (but not really) makes me wish I was still in Parliament. It will have had an untold impact on hundreds of thousands of women and girls around the world. Years from now, successful women will cite it and her as their inspiration.
But as much as she has come to embrace her status of global feminist hero, I think Gillard would like to be remembered for more. My Story is her attempt to craft the legacy she would really like to be remembered for: education reform, better support for people with disabilities, putting a price on carbon. It is, as the title suggests, the story she wanted to tell during her three fraught years as Prime Minister; her counterpoint to the hyper-critical narrative created by the news media, the Opposition, and frequently, her own party. She wants to be remembered in the same breath as Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam as much as she does Helen Clark and Angela Merkel.
That Gillard even now feels some tension between being remembered for the mark she made as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and not for the policies she was able to implement, is telling about the experience of women in public life generally. What was so notable about the misogyny speech was that up until then, Gillard had very pointedly not responded to the gendered critiques that came thick and fast after she ousted Kevin Rudd to become Prime Minister in 2010. She assumed, wrongly, that if she ignored them, they would go away, but they didn’t. Yet when she finally called them out, she was accused of “playing the gender card”. She couldn’t win.
Will My Story satisfy her desire to be remembered as much for her policies as for her gender? No doubt it was important for her to get some of this stuff off her chest (she certainly doesn’t hold back her thoughts about Kevin Rudd, who eventually ousted her back), and I’m glad as a reader that she did. It’s an engaging and thought-provoking book. Her voice, unconstrained by political risk-mitigation and focus-group testing, is frank, warm, and humorous. I heard her speak a few weeks ago and can attest that in person she is as charming and gregarious as she is on the page. No doubt some readers will change their impression of her if they read it, but I suspect that the people whose hearts and minds she really wants to touch – working class Australians – won’t.
Mostly she’ll be preaching to the converted, like me, and even then there was much I disagreed with her about – her dismissive attitude towards the Australian Greens, her inhumane asylum seeker policies, and her strong belief in standardised education testing and league-tables, for example. I know people who won’t pick up this book in protest about the refugee issue, but for me that wasn’t the point.
I was most interested in the question Gillard poses for herself at the start of the book: “how did I do it?” During her three years as Australian Prime Minister, that was what most people came up to her and said – “I don’t know how you do it.” In my brief political career, I was sometimes asked the same thing. I was a low-profile backbench MP with a ridiculously small workload by comparison, but in the end, my answer was “I can’t.”
I still want to know how. That’s why I read My Story, and why I plan to read Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices soon too, regardless of what I think of their politics.
For the record, Gillard’s answer is personal resilience and a clear sense of purpose. Handy tips for the modern woman, whatever sphere she operates in.