It’s comforting to know that the author of the “Juliar Bob Browns Bitch” placard, one “Tim”, didn’t think it was offensive to the prime minister. However, one shudders to think what level of vitriol would be required to pass the gentleman’s threshold of offensiveness.

It’s possible of course to say harsh things about a female politician without being misogynist. It’s even possible, I’d suggest, to use the word bitch in a non-misogynistic way, as a sort of equivalent to the definitely male-only bastard, or perhaps even in reference to behaviour that, whether by a man or a woman, might be considered bitchy. Though not, clearly, if the intent is to compare to a female dog. When I grew up in the 70s and 80s, “dog” along with other such charming terms as “bushpig”, were standard terms of abuse of girls.

One assumes “Tim”, however, was using bitch in a more modern sense of being, to use at least one of the many definitions from the Urban Dictionary, a person who performs tasks for another, usually degrading in status. Which, really, is only a variant of Tony Abbott’s own line that Bob Brown is the “real” Prime Minister — though “real” in a non-actual, non-literal sense.

Female politicians most commonly attract three types of female-specific abuse. There are other forms, but they tend to clump into three themes:

1. Physical attractiveness. This is a double-edged sword: a female politician’s physical appearance will receive inordinate attention, and any faults ruthlessly exposed. But an attractive female politician will also be the victim of a subtle prejudice that assumes she’s a lightweight. Inevitably, they receive far more attention to their appearance than male politicians.

2. Failing to behave in a naturally maternal, nurturing and ladylike manner, somehow at odds with nature. This is best summed up by two famous pieces of political abuse — Bill Heffernan’s description of Julia Gillard as “deliberately barren” and Belinda Neal’s sledge of Sophie Mirabella that “evil thoughts will turn your baby into a demon”. And just to confirm it’s not limited to the conservative side of politics, Mirabella, who was also photographed in front of the placard on Wednesday, is now the subject of an edited version of the photo circulating by email, which is cropped to show only Bronwyn Bishop and Mirabella, with the placard altered and merged with another to read “Ditch these bitches”.

Male politicians very occasionally get a version of this “unnatural” theme, it has to be said, though it’s very uncommon. John Hewson got into trouble for comparing the bookish Bob Carr to the “red-blooded bloke” John Fahey. And Christopher Pyne cops it most particularly because of his manner in parliament, which draws descriptions like “mincing”, “prissy” and “poodle” — all, of course, words one would never use about a proper bloke. Outside parliament, and even on occasion in Crikey, Pyne attracts far nastier descriptions along the same theme.

3. That female politicians are unduly influenced by men, and often their partners. The most amusing example of this comes from Muammar Gaddafi, who once claimed that Margaret Thatcher, like any woman, didn’t act without being told to do so by a male — in that case, Ronald Reagan (one suggests there has never been an American president man enough to have successfully told the Iron Lady what to do).

The offending placard taps into the third of those themes; as a woman, Julia Gillard couldn’t decide herself to pursue a carbon tax, she’s done so because a man has directed her to do so (although, really, the mild-mannered, gently-spoken doctor Bob Brown doesn’t fit the macho cliché too well). Alternatively, Gillard’s a witch, that unnatural creature of western culture that perverts all that is nurturing and healthy in women into a malevolent force for sexualised evil (they even use otherwise innocuous instruments of domesticity, like brooms, to carry out their sinister designs; Gillard was drawn on one placard as riding a broom).

Problem is, as some of the examples suggest, these misogynist themes aren’t confined to the demographic represented at the anti-carbon tax rally. They’re far more widespread than that. Julia Gillard came under a sustained misogynist attack from The Australian during the election campaign, which I detailed on 28 July — her physical appearance (remember Kate Legge’s obsession with the prime minister’s ears?), her childlessness, her alleged failure to be adequately nurturing of her partner, even her popularity with women, were all the subject of a deliberate campaign of abuse.

It’s also a factor in how radio shock jocks treat her. Both Alan Jones and Neil Mitchell interview her in ways that they never did with John Howard or Kevin Rudd, patronising her, berating her and constantly interrupting her.

Other female politicians are of course on the receiving end as well, and not just via the normal double standards about physical appearance and the lack of questioning of how male politicians raise families. Julie Bishop, who is also not a parent, was famously targeted by a group of male Liberal MPs dubbed the “Big Swinging D-cks”. Just this week, a perfectly good Tom Dusevic article in The Australian on connections within NSW Labor on the brink of annihilation was inexplicably headlined “Who’s in bed with Kristina Keneally?”, with a cartoon, presumably intended to be amusing, of a naked Keneally, big bum to the front, on top of pile of males bodies.

The problem is the casual misogyny of the placards on display was not unusual or inconsistent with the normal tone of political debate, but entirely complementary. It may have been more crudely expressed, but it is not the particular product of angry right-wingers or climate change deniers or old conservatives. They don’t have any monopoly on misogyny. It is widespread through both sides of politics and media coverage at the highest levels.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off