Since the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, the reality for women and men has undoubtedly changed in this 21st century, but according to an article I recently perused in the August issue, 2019, of British Vogue magazine, some attitudes remain extremely entrenched, with liberated values and understanding about individual women and men too, failing to impact on social mores, traditional stereotypes and proscriptive behaviours, at least apparently in the UK. Perhaps I ponder is it just that the UK is more resistant, even impervious, to embracing a greater sense of equality towards women, or that in Australia and possibly New Zealand, among other countries, a shroud of silence by some women denies the extant reality that there is still a long way to go to achieve real and meaningful change?
That being said, it seems Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is now speaking out loudly and clearly about what she experienced during her political career, abandoning her previous silent acquiescence to the status quo to bemoan the fate of women in politics. She recently told TV interviewer, Andrew Denton, albeit repeating herself since her defeat for the Liberal Party leadership, that “if a woman was the only female voice in the room, men showed a ‘gender deafness’. It’s as if they just don’t seem to hear you.”
This statement was quoted in an article in The Weekend Australian August 17-18, 2019, by Janet Albrechtsen, who contested Bishop’s generalised assertion by claiming that as “someone…who has sat in many board meetings over many years as the only female voice…(I) never experienced gender deafness, only respect and courtesy. But, because I don’t talk about my thoroughly normal experiences in all-male meetings, and Bishop complains endlessly about hers, we are encouraged to treat “gender deafness” as a widespread, deeply entrenched phenomenon that treats women as second-class citizens.”
Albrechtsen justly claims that it is time for Bishop “to draw stumps on her stage show because her smiling face can’t disguise the sour grapes. When men treat women poorly, it should be called out. And vice-versa, if equality means anything. But credibility comes from acting on these matters when you have the power to change things, not afterwards as a stunt to get attention. After all, the bystander is sometimes as bad as the bully.”
Certainly, Bishop remained apparently indifferent during her time in parliament, but is it as simple as Albrechtsen argues? Indeed, I discussed Bishop’s silence during her cabinet days with several friends after she first disclosed being ignored in meetings, but would have voicing her complaint actually worked? Giving her the benefit of the doubt, would she have incurred the disrespect, even disdain, of her cabinet colleagues even more? Would an outspoken denunciation of her male colleagues’ attitudes been pragmatic or expedient? It’s actually hard to know the answer to these questions or her motive in remaining silent. There is some validity to Albrechtsen’s claim that “credibility comes….when you have the power to change things,” but I believe it’s not that black and white and I don’t agree totally with Albrechtsen that it is now just “sour grapes”.
Being in a so-called powerful role as Foreign Minister in cabinet, maybe she considered she had more to lose by speaking out than staying silent. This is a difficult and complex issue as we’ve perceived (other whistle blowers) that speaking out publicly, however much one might want to applaud it, can be fraught with danger and more significantly, hard if not impossible to prove? It could have been her word against her colleagues? I know that when I voiced strong, feminist attitudes in the 70s at work, I was labelled a “lesbian”, hearing simultaneously other disparaging comments. Moreover, when I once complained about a male shrink to the psychiatric college ethics committee, and not for being a sexist either, I got nowhere and was dismissed glibly. I have also had experiences with men who seemed “gender deaf”. Sadly however, I have also known women who have been similarly “deaf” to me too, inviting reconsideration of the issue as whether it’s specific to gender. In my perspective, it’s not of itself intrinsically about gender, but rather perhaps people who feel threatened by an opinion or idea they don’t agree with or are frightened of, unwilling or incapable of reappraising their beliefs for many other diverse reasons, including an arrogant self-righteousness that is simply contemptuous of another’s opinion; and it’s not just men culpable of this crime.
Which brings me to the article in Vogue which was an interview with British female MP, Jess Phillips, 37, a Labor MP for Birmingham Yardley, married with two sons, one 14, the other 11. Unlike Bishop, she speaks out in Parliament, “a key voice in politics” the journalist, Nigel Shafran, opined. Apparently, she is also “a burgeoning media star who is as likely to tear a strip off her party leader on Newsnight as she is to enthuse to The Guardian about prosecco and ‘90s R&B.” An MP for just four years, she has haters too, “Vicious ones, She receives thousands of rape and death threats on social media (600 in a single night last summer), in part a toxic by-product of her perceived disloyalty to the “brocialist” men running Labor these days. Her family home in Birmingham, where she lives with her husband and sons, has reinforced windows and a panic button by the bed.” Acknowledging she does “what I like,” getting her message out “most urgently about gender and class (– she is of working-class origin-) is what she likes most, continually reiterating ‘Don’t forget women’”.
Yet, with many women in the British parliament, she believes the environment is “exasperating.” “I’ve become acclimatised to this ridiculous life.” According to Shafran she contends “Sexism remains ever present…Her in-box fares…worse”. Phillips states: “I get constant comments on the clothes I wear, how fat or think I am, about my tits, hair, everything. People will send you policy emails, being like ‘I actually think it’s quite reasonable what you said about Brexit, but we couldn’t concentrate because you could see a bit of your cleavage’.” Her eyes flash with fury. “It’s just like fuck off!”
What’s relevant in this context is whether the in-box comments about her appearance are from males and/or females too, considering that many women, including the great feminist, Germaine Greer, herself, criticised the jackets Julia Gillard wore, among other things. The fact that Phillips refers to “people” commenting about Brexit and that “we” couldn’t concentrate seems to suggest it might be some women being as sexist as some men. While she admitted it was “heartbreaking” that she “no longer feels a true sense of unity with her party,” she believes “she is better able to make a difference where she is,” despite regularly thinking about leaving. In this way, she is a very different political animal to Bishop, reinforcing Albrechtsen’s belief that being in a powerful position enhances being able to introduce change. Yet, Phillips cops lots of abuse, recently targeted “in the form of a YouTube video by a failed Ukip candidate in which he ‘jokingly’ debated whether or not he would rape her. She was in the bank when she first saw it and, once on the street, burst into tears.”
It seems horrifying that this kind of comment is still around today, wondering if this form of abuse, the sexual threatening kind, will ever abate, let alone cease. She is not the only female to receive these sorts of comments. It is a sad state of affairs that women in the public spotlight are still attacked, ridiculed and subjected to trenchant disrespect and disdain, about their appearance, their behaviours and their politics. I do think it is still a sexist world , but women can be as reprehensible as men towards women.
Bishop chose to remain silent in parliament about her experiences, but at least Phillips speaks out and calls it as it is. Sometimes, staying silent can be safer for all manner of reasons than speaking out. Bishop has never said she received rape or death threats. It is an individual choice and while Albrechtsen is free to criticise Bishop, I do believe that at least Bishop is now telling it as it is. Still. There’s a long way to go to be heard in so many countries and it behoves us to continue to speak out, as sensibly, sanely and sagely as we can. This is my voice right here.