As conspiracy theories go, it was one of the more amusing, if not exactly one of the grandest, not really up there with the Illuminati secretly controlling the world, or the shopping list of people who killed JFK: Julia Gillard had somehow engineered Macquarie Dictionary into changing the meaning of “misogyny”.

“Mate, just a heads up, I did that dictionary thing in England too,” Gillard’s communications chief John McTernan wickedly tweeted at Chris Kenny, former Liberal staffer, failed Liberal candidate and now one of The Australian’s, ahem, stable of old white reactionary men (News Ltd’s “become your readers” strategy in action).

If only talkback listeners hadn’t spent their fury on Tuesday railing about awarding Sachin Tendulkar an OAM, it could have blown up into a real storm: Convoys of No Confidence out to Macquarie’s offices at Sydney Uni, trucks stopped on Parramatta Road by the police, Tony Abbott speaking in front of “Ditch the Dict” placards, Sophie Mirabella leading an angry mob of OED-clutching seniors to Albo’s office again, the lot.

Word inflation is actually a thing, and not just in the sense that the few of us who know what decimate actually means have lost the struggle to prevent it meaning something more akin to annihilation. The worst example is genocide, a word that has been systematically devalued as a consequence of persistent rhetorical overreach by those eager to exploit the opprobrium that it brings, such that what should be the most extreme crime imaginable now means little more than casual racism or ethnocentrism.

So yes, words have meaning, and attempts to exploit that meaning for political ends should be guarded against. And yes, perhaps because s-xism doesn’t have quite the authoritative, almost sociological ring of misogyny, some have preferred to use the latter.

But what’s confusing is why Macquarie feels compelled to adjust the meaning when the chief figure in this debate, the Prime Minister, used the term accurately. First a start, there can be no doubt that calling her “Bob Brown’s Bitch” as carbon price protesters did, or drawing her as a grotesque dildo-wearing rapist as Larry Pickering did, is misogynist: it betrays a hatred not merely of Gillard herself, but of her gender. This isn’t casual s-xism that women in politics on all sides have long encountered, and still encounter.

But Gillard also directed her comments at Tony Abbott, and to reinforce them recited a number of quotes from Abbott over the years centring on reproductive choice and the role of women in politics.

These, again, reflect misogyny, not casual s-xism. To demonise women who choose to have abortions as “taking the easy way out” is misogynist, reflecting a mindset that automatically dismisses their right to make choices about their own bodies, choices that men of course never have to make, with consequences men never have to live with. And to suggest that women have less right to, and less capacity for, exercising political power (and more capacity for, say, doing the ironing) is, surely, the ultimate misogyny, suggesting the legitimacy of a systematic exclusion of women from government, a perpetuation of the millennia-old patriarchal political and economic structure under which women have been dictated to by men.

The real issue is whether Tony Abbott still holds such views, or would give effect to them if he became prime minister. I don’t think he does, at least in regard to the role of women in politics, and I don’t think an Abbott government would touch the issue of reproductive rights; in short, Abbott may have been a misogynist a decade ago, but he no longer is. Like all of us, or at least those of us with a functioning brain, he’s matured as an individual and a politician, even if he might still hold s-xist views on domestic labour.

But that’s more about the crafting and fairness of Gillard’s rhetoric than about the accuracy of her terminology.

And it’s all a distraction from the fact that, in giving voice to these issues so publicly and directly, Julia Gillard has taken political debate to a place in Australia to where it’s never gone before. That’s why the application of the term “gender wars” to this debate is so offensive. For a start, you only need to look at the experience of Malala Yousufzai to see what a real gender war looks like, and it ain’t that (word inflation, again). And it’s hardly a “war” to accurately point out the nature of the abuse to which the PM has been subjected, or the logic behind the comments of a politician.

Indeed, if there’s any “war”, to use the term in the silly sense that some are using it, it’s one that men have been waging, against women, successfully, for most of history.

Peter Fray

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