Hobart barrister Greg Barns on the sexualised critique of women in politics. PIC: Nine News
Hobart barrister Greg Barns on the sexualised critique of women in politics. PIC: Nine News

The sexist campaigns waged against women in politics

WHAT do Julia Gillard, Sarah Hanson-Young and Emma Husar have in common? There are all strong women who have entered politics and they have all been the victim of undignified and sexist campaigns.

The way in which these women have been attacked is by reference to their sexuality. Such commentary and slurs are unthinkable when it comes to similar campaigns against particular male politicians.

In the case of Ms Gillard, Prime Minister from 2010 until 2013 who could forget the vile slogans "Ditch the Witch" and "Juliar Bob Brown's bitch" in front of which then Liberal leader Tony Abbott was very happy to speak while some of his frontbench leered behind him.

And of course there was former Liberal senator Bill Heffernan's odious remark about Ms Gillard being "barren" referring to her not having children. Former Labor leader Mark Latham said something similar.

Senator Hanson-Young was accused by Senator David Leyonhjelm six weeks ago on a Sky News program when he referred to the Senator as "liking men". Sky News rightly apologised for highlighting the comments on screen. Senator Hanson-Young has sued Senator Leyonhjelm over alleged comments made by him about her sexuality. He denies the comments.

And now we have Emma Husar, an ALP federal MP who has been forced to resign after enduring a few weeks of scorched-earth treatment from colleagues and the media.

It was firstly suggested Ms Husar allegedly bullied staff but that quickly turned into prurient stories about her sexually harassing men, including one where she is alleged to have mimicked Sharon Stone in a scene from film Basic Instinct where Ms Stone's character sits in a chair sans underwear. Again Ms Husar has denied those claims.

There is most definitely a pattern here. And one can contrast how these women have been framed by political debate and the media as opposed to Mr Joyce.

Mr Joyce's private life become public after it was revealed he had left his wife and was having a child with his media adviser. But has anyone seen or heard or read Mr Joyce accused of being a "bitch" or a sexual predator? There was a complaint about Mr Joyce from a WA member of the Nationals, he denied the particulars of the complaint, but it went nowhere. And perhaps most shamefully, it appears the Canberra media knew about Mr Joyce's personal life issues during the New England by-election he faced this year, but said and wrote nothing about it. Would Ms Gillard, Senator Hanson-Young and Ms Husar have been so lucky? Of course not.

One of Australia's most celebrated writers and thinkers in gender and politics, Anne Summers, eloquently described why it is that women such as Ms Gillard, Senator Hanson-Young and Ms Husar are subjected to what is clearly a sexualised critique.

Writing in Meanjin in 2013 Dr Summers said, "women leaders without exception have to deal with subjects and issues that are never raised with their male counterparts. Their very femininity is constantly called into question: their marital and maternal status is savagely evaluated, and their overall appearance, including their hair, their clothes and even their body shape, is continually scrutinised and more often than not found to be wanting. Every Australian woman political leader has faced this kind of commentary."

After the appalling treatment meted out to Ms Gillard when she was prime minister, courtesy of the pigsty of social media and populist commentators like broadcaster Alan Jones (remember he wanted to package up Ms Gillard into a bag of chaff and drop her out to sea), one might have thought it would cause our society to reflect and decide that from that point on, the abuse and sexualised critique of women in politics would cease.

Sadly that is not the case. There is still in the Australian body politic a gendered view of strong women leaders. In other words, when they are subjected to criticism and abuse the language and its content reflect the fact that they are women, not that they are politicians.

What the cases of Ms Gillard, Senator Hanson-Young and Ms Husar show (and they are not the only examples by a long shot) is that as a society we irrationally believe that it matters whether a politician is a man or a woman or for that matter a transgender person. Worse still there is a hierarchy in place. Men, then women. And can one imagine the abuse that a transgender person would endure if they were in political life.

The choice here is simple. Either all politicians, male female or transgender are to be abused using the same terminology, or we grow up, treat people as human beings and decide that such abuse should be condemned for what it is - mindless, juvenile and in the main deeply offensive.

Hobart barrister Greg Barns has advised state and federal Liberal governments.