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Oct 18, 2012

Keane: defining terms in the great misogyny conspiracy

Debating the meaning of misogyny is a distraction from the importance of how political debate has been altered.


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.


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33 thoughts on “Keane: defining terms in the great misogyny conspiracy

  1. tinman_au

    I’m starting to get the feeling that there may be the beginning of a “Get the personal out of politics” type vibe in Australia (and even the US). I’ve seen a lot of posts/articles popping up all over the Internet recently with that as a theme ( heck, even Kevin Rudd seems to be on-board ).

    Can’t wait personally, we may even end up with some good policy coming from both parties for a change!

  2. zut alors

    A valid argument, Bernard – I now feel slightly less annoyed about the word being re-defined.

    Sport journalists are primarily responsible for undermining and abusing the English language with their exaggerated terminology – frequently using nouns and verbs of war or violence to describe what is, after all, merely a game.

  3. elknwit

    Fair dinkum Bernard to seriously argue that Abbott is or was a misogynist because of his views on abortion is not just offensive to him but grossly offensive to many women and self evidently absurd. By that measure all those women – and there are plenty whether we like it or not – who oppose abortion as the “easy way out” are misogynists – -ie., they hate their own gender and themselves! Beyond that absurdity that is a discgraceful insult to a very considerable body of WOMEN and their opinions (not mine, I hasten to add, but that’s not the point). Abbott probably was and still is an old style sexist but to infer a hatred of women from the examples you cite is a grossly offensive and unwarranted slur on him and many women which you should withdraw for the sake of your credibility, if nothing else.

  4. paddy

    To Decimate: Condemned to lose one’s shoe on every tenth photo opportunity.

  5. klewso

    We could boycott the Maquarie River too?

  6. klewso

    Abbott continues to mature as a politician – till his next faux pas.

  7. drmick

    She nailed him for what he was, and for what he is, whatever word you or anyone else like to use; The “press”, for want of a better term, is still trying to justify missing the point that the rest of Australia and the world picked up; the fact that he and the “press” have a lot of trouble coping with a woman in power; (for want of a better term), and are incapable of separating her gender from everything they attempt to distort, sorry, report. (Distort was the appropriate term). The Australian press remains the biggest joke the world has had since the AAA crdit rating all the credit ratings agencies were giving junk bonds.


    A very f̶u̶l̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶, ah, full throated defence of the PM and women Mr Keane.

    Well done.

  9. Liz45

    Funny how the argument was changed from the disgraceful treatment Julia Gillard has had to cop; her absolute patience in remaining silent for at least two years, and how she had the gall to even put a name or names to the treatment? This is only reinforcing misogynist attitudes! Even now she’s being denied the right to an opinon. Even now she’s being criticised for not ‘sucking it up’ ‘getting over it’ ‘taking the argument off the economy – or cost of living or the weather….?’

    Why don’t the critics really let it all hang out. Why don’t they tell her she’s ‘a naughty girl’ and to go and get a hankie! Honestly, I’m getting sick to death of this!

    IF Abbott sits across the table from her and tells her to ‘shut up’? If he catcalls across the table, he’s not only being damned rude, he’s just confirming what the PM accused him of! Then, it was only a few years ago where he spoke in an abusive manner to Nicola Roxon at the Nat.Press Club. He didn’t apologise to her for his 30+ minutes lateness, he abused her for having the damned cheek to feel slighted?

    He’s made the comments as accused – I’ve heard them. I’ve listened to his speeches about RU486; the right of women to decide what they’ll do with their own bodies; his voting against foreign aid for impoverished women and contraception education and abortion advise etc. He sums up the voting women of Australia via their ironing abilities. He patronises women. He calls them ‘dear’? Yuk! He’s gross! He made mileage out of the ‘son’ he thought he’d found – used him and his own weak and selfish stance as a tool to further his anti choice campaign? Then he fell right in it when he was found out to not having fathered that young man! How gross! He showed no concern for that young man, and even less for his mother! How gross indeed! the man has the sensitivity of an ant. He lashes out against anyone who stands in his way (now it’s JG) and shows a lack of respect, dislike even for women. Just because he’s married and has daughters means not a thing! The very fact that a 50 yr old man needs his ‘wifey’ to take up his appeal is so revealing, and it’s not good! Where were the younger members of his family? His daughters? Ahem! Interesting, don’t you think!

    The women in the Opposition have shown their own despicable attitude to their own sex. Sophie Mirabella and Bronwyn Bishop stood beside, in front of those disgusting placards, with gleeful grins on their faces. Where were all the decent men and women when they received those disgusting emails of Larry Pickering’s? Not one word? And, they didn’t take advantage of JG’s speech to mention them either? They’re just as bad!

    The fact is – that over the years there have been some pretty ugly slanging matches in the Parlt, but not in relation to a person’s gender.

    AND, why haven’t journalists made the observation, that IF Abbott behaved in the manner JG described, he should’ve made a public apology – there and then! THEN I might agree with you Bernard, that he’s mended his ways! He hasn’t! He just went home to ‘mummy’ (his female colleagues) and got them to come out swinging! Hiding behind their ‘skirts’? Some man! NOT!

    Not ONE person in the Parlt has come out and said that the PM was lying about the ‘cat calling’ and being told to ‘shut up’? Is that not ingrained sexism? Doesn’t that alone not only show his misogynist attitude (entrenched bias against women) to the PM, but his lack of respect for the Parliament? When he sees fit, he uses the reputation, dignity of the parliamentary process, and then trashes it if it suits his purpose – lust for power, regardless of how he achieves it!

    @elknwit – The real issue with Abbott and abortion, is like most male religious zealots? Particularly catholic ones- They DO hate women, and believe that they should be controlled by men. IF you can’t see this, you need to read some more, or at least ask some women who were raised a catholic – such as myself? Abbott and the church do NOT believe that women, any women have the right to decide for themselves when or if they wish to be or stay pregnant. The whole dogma is misogynist. Why some think that women should die and the foetus live, probably die too in many cases, but that’s not their point? The fact that all these laws are designed by men without concern or compassion shows their ingrained prejudice to women. I say hatred for – women! Abbott hasn’t disassociated himself from these views – not one bit! Nor will he I suggest!

    Bernard has no need to withdraw his statement re Abbott’s behaviour. As a journalist, he’s shown more dignity and respect, not only for women, but for his profession. The others who criticised the PM are just as bad as Abbott – the majority of whom are men. I’d like to know what they’re like to live with?

    How many (mostly male)journalists criticised the PM for having the audacity to use the Parlt to take a stand on behalf of the majority of Australians? Women still are in a majority aren’t we? Not that you’d know it! If there were 8 of them, then going by the stats, at least two of them abuse their wives/partners? When that stat is at least lowered, let alone removed, then men can take umbrage at women’s standing up against them, and calling abuse sexist and or misogynist behaviour. Misogynist language is a precursor to violence against women – as can be seen on the news every day!

    Finally, children learn what they live. What is the point of teaching kids about respectful relationships, when a man who aspires to be the Leader of this country can use such disgraceful behaviour against a female opponent, just because he can’t cope with a woman beating him for the top job! And I don’t give a hoot if he brings the virgin mary into the argument – he’s still a sexist s**t who isn’t one bit ashamed of himself! If anyone can disagree with this, please let me know! I wait with bated breath!

    @drmick – Thank you! I recall a mate of mine telling me some years ago, that the Australian msm was about 65 or more on a list of 100 countries with ‘free and fair’ reporting (1 being the best). I reckon, that with the growth of the Murdoch empire, that is probably not accurate today. When you put in the crap from TT and ACA for instance, we’d be up in the 80’s at least by now!

  10. michael r james

    “I don’t think an Abbott government would touch the issue of reproductive rights”

    I seriously doubt Abbott has changed that much. He may have managed to exercise more PR discipline –it is both wearisome and scary to observe that serious moderate journos keep trying to tell us how Abbott is such a nice bloke in person. That is just the talent of a snake charmer.

    But when he is in a position of power over women his true self emerges. It is all through David Marr’s essay over every stage of his life and career. It is profoundly a part of his makeup–a regressive Jesuitical Papist philosophy that belongs, not so much to the 19th century as KRudd wittily suggested on Lateline last night, but several centuries earlier still. Not just on women, he is totally conflicted on gay rights. And many other minority opinions.

    Abbott’s personal decision as Minister to veto U486 is a near-perfect example. It took a cross-party collection of female MPs to stage a rebellion to get John Howard to over-rule Abbott on that. A clear abuse of power—one shudders to think what other things he may do if given the opportunity (this may be opportunitstic rather than planned policy but that won’t make it any better for the country). I cannot see any wriggle room out of this one; it is not distant history. Not some personal peccadillo, but public policy that would have affected millions of Australian women. I’m not suggesting he will revisit abortion rights but it is clear enough that in all kinds of ways he will influence policy in a negative sense for women and other minorities for whom he sincerely believes “his” god knows best. And don’t even think of bringing up his supposed 180 flip on childcare policy because that is bound to be a non-core promise if ever there was one (business interests and Joe Hockey will kill it, not to mention its grotesque social inequality).

    And still he hasn’t the courage to appear on Lateline, Q&A or rarely on 7.30. Why? Because, as we all know, he too often reveals a tiny sliver of his true self.

    And Bernard appears to want to give him the benefit of the doubt! No thanks.

  11. CML

    @ elknwit – I worked in a female dominated profession for the best part of 50 years. Are you trying to tell me that some women don’t “hate” other women? What planet have you been inhabiting? I don’t care how absurd you think that concept might be – it definitely exists!!
    And BTW, the “meaning” of the word misogyny has been changed from “woman hater” to (showing) “extreme prejudice toward women” – (that is what I heard). If that is correct, Tony Abbott more than fits the bill as far as I’m concerned.

  12. John Bennetts

    I seem to have failed to do the required pre-reading before the tutorial.

    Did I miss a link to the new MacDictionary definition of the divine Miss Ogenie and the old version?

  13. Liz45

    @John Bennetts – As my earlier post is still before the moderator? Why? Because it’s lengthy? don’t know!

    Anyway, the change to the Macquarie Dictionary is due to the ‘common useage’ of the word ‘misogynist’? It’s being changed or added to – that is, to having an ingrained prejudice against women and their rights, standing etc.

    However, I believe that Abbott’s behaviour is nasty enough to fulfill the ‘old’ meaning of the word. He’s a vicious nasty little man. Even one of his daughters has spoken out against him. And if he’s a SNAG why didn’t at least one of them say so? Very interesting that only his mother and his wife spoke out????

  14. elknwit

    CML – 1. I was criticising Bernard Keane’s argument that Abbott was a misogynist under the “old” definition of the word — a “woman hater”. He specifically made that point which is unambiguously offensive and slurs Abbotts character. Abbott should sue him. He’d win and Keane could swap financial distress yarns with former Crikey owner, Stephen Mayne. Bob hawke would’ve. But Abbott wont. Politician’s of Hawke’s capacity are as long gone from Oz politics as balanced journalists.

    2. You dont understand the definition. A misogynist does not hate some women – he hates them all as a class. That’s what it means. Keane said Abbotts abortion views made him a misogynist. These same views are undoubtedly held by many women – -nuns for instance. So using Bernards “reasoning” they are misogynists too – -which is obviously absurd, not to mention offensive.

  15. Roberto Tedesco

    Abbott’s character? He doesn’t have one worth mentioning.

  16. 81dvl

    Misogyny doesnt have an opposite. Is this sexist? Should we call Julia?

  17. Matt Hardin

    @81dvl try “Misandrogeny”

  18. CML

    @ elknwit – I was talking about Abbott’s character under ANY definition of misogyny!
    Sorry, but I agree with Bernard. Horrible man!
    Perhaps we should agree to disagree!!

  19. Matt Hardin

    Sorry meant “Misandry”.

  20. AR

    MattH – no need for a neolgoism – what about plain old “misanthrope”? It means dislike of humanity in general, from the daze when ‘real’ humans were male…

  21. AR

    MattH – no need for a neologism – what about plain old “misanthrope”? It means dislike of humanity in general, from the daze when ‘real’ humans were male… but fits MM to a tee.

  22. Leigh Simpkin

    It is so cute that you obsess about decimate.

    While agreeing that Julia Gillard’s terminology was accurate, there are a bunch of literalists who find it difficult to understand the term does not mean a personal loathing of all women and so, great that the Macquarie is onto the distinction between systemic hatred based on a sense of superiority – and even, perhaps entitlement to power – and personal loathing, which he sure feels for her, but not all women.

  23. Mort

    It is cultural misogyny. For example; the Taliban actively prohibiting basic human rights for girls and women.

    While specific men in the Taliban might not have a direct hatred of women. They could love their mothers, daughters, etc. By supporting and helping to enforce the values of that society, they are actively participating in that cultural misogyny.

    Many of the medieval values of western religions stem from the same cultural history. Remnants are still with us in so-called developed nations.

  24. Sprague Brett

    Poor old Bernard doesn’t like the reference to Gender Wars. Well Bernard anytime a political leader accuses a group of hatred that leader is directly desensitising people’s empathy toward the group. It can lead to open hostility through brutal force, wars start with words. Macquarie Dictionairy may have conveniently changed the definition of misogyny, but your post and many of the comments undermine the distinction between the old and new definitions.
    There has been some very real and nasty hatred toward Julia Gillard, but for her or you to parse his previous comments and actions of context so you can label him with a hatred of women is proof you have no leadership qualities and the PM loses hers too readily if she has any at all.
    A true leader would avoid the victim mentality and pity those smaller minds of nastiness and hate, not conflate it with the Opposition Leader in a personal attack so unfitting of a PM.

  25. CML

    @ S Brett – Bullsh+t!!

  26. Tony D'Ambra

    Your critique would have more balance if it addressed Gillard’s hyprocisy. Compassion is a word rarely used so it still retains its power. Both Abbott and Gillard have none.

  27. blackdog

    sprague – the opposite is true – it takes a leader to stand up and speak her mind about an entrenched norm in society regarding treatment and attitudes towards women…it is also a challenge to state a problem one experiences without feeling like or behaving like a victim – I’d suggest that considering she’s PM and Tony ISN’T, that maybe he’s the victim of his own bad behaviour. And I’d like to repeat CML’s above comment…BS!

  28. Matt Hardin

    @AR I like to be able to keep misanthrope for people who hate everyone. It is very useful.

    Misandry has been around as a word for a while but is often only used by masculinists to describe the attitude of feminists.

  29. Hunt Ian

    I agree with the points made that misogyny is really hatred of women as a class and not personal loathing of all women, which is how Tony Jones interpreted it. I also agree with the point that its use has extended to include prejudice against women as a class rather than being confirmed to more visceral forms of rejection, as shown by banners in the anti-global warming demo that Abbott spoke at. But, in reflecting on whether Abbott has matured, Bernard has forgotten the context of Julia Gillard’s speech. Abbott set the ball rolling by trying to “wedge” the prime minister by demanding that she support his motion to sack Slipper or be condemned for hypocrisy in complaining about his mate Alan Jones while supporting that notorious “misogynist” Peter Slipper. Nobody has dwelled on the charge that Slipper is a “misogynist”, although the case against him is just as strong or weak as that against Abbott. Still, Julia Gillard was not launching an attack in a vacuum but responding to this attempted “wedge” when she said that she would not be “lectured to about sexism and misogyny by this man”. The evidence she cited of misogyny from Abbott in both its narrow (but not personal loathing ) sense and its wider sense, including not dissociating himself from plainly misogynist banners at a recent rally, seems convincing enough and suffices to answer Bernard’s apology for Abbott that he has now outgrown his former misogyny. As to whether we can expect misogynist policies from an Abbott government, which goes well beyond Julia Gillard’s response to his attempt at a wedge, it is not obvious that we do not need to worry, especially if the policy is along the line of being proud of one’s purity in giving no support to women in overcoming historical disadvantages. Although Bernard does not mention it, the most significant worry about a possible Abbott government is its policy for dismantling the welfare state and dismantling regulation of business necessary to protect the environment and prevent exploitation of disadvantage. How else are we to continue the shift in income and wealth toward business and force poorer people to pay for the GFC if this does not happen? So I expect the media-ranked at 65 out of a hundred and quite possibly, on these issues, now ranked 80-to continue their reputation for lack of bias and balance.

  30. Warren Joffe

    BK mistakes the use of language intended to be as insulting, upsetting or unbalancing as possible against a particular person or small group of people as evidence of misogyny. (Surely he can’t think that using those words is itself misogyny?). It could at a stretch be called “evidence” in the sense that a misogynist is more likely to use such offensive language than someone who is not. But that wouldn’t help much with Abbott who is surely not a woman hater. (And I recognise that some misogynists are uptight characters who are married with children and don’t beat their wives but are uneasy with all other women. But that’s not Abbott).

    If you are as Catholic as Abbott about abortion (and zygotes and blastocysts and embryos) then there saying any of the conventional (and to most of us untrue or at best inadequate) things against abortion, such as its being the easy way out, is not evidence of misogyny. To fail to feel, sympathetically or empathetically, the anguish of a woman who doesn’t want to have an abortion but feels she must is far from being evidence of misogyny. It’s rather like saying that “putting them down is best” about racehorses that have been sufficiently badly injured not to be able to race is evidence of hating and fearing four footed mammals.

    Many a woman would say of the choice she might have made without regard to the religious views that she doesn’t hold that as between starting motherhood, nappies, school runs etc again after 10 years abortion was the easier choice, “indeed not a hard choice at all in the circumstances”. So, another woman, a Catholic or a very maternal type, might say critically that she took the easy way. And why shouldn’t Catholic Tony Abbott say it without its being held out as evidence that he actually hates and fears the female sex? (Yes I am old enough to think of “gender” as a linguistic/grammatical term).

    I am of the Whitlam school, BTW, that regards abortion as being often desirable and preferably retrospective.

  31. Liz45

    @Warren Joffe – The point with Abbott is not ONE comment or action – it’s a collection of statements, political actions, actions in public (like abusing Nicola Roxon instead of being genuinely apologetic for his rudeness by being at least 30 minutes late???) is why he’s branded a misogynist. He has shown over decades a ‘prejudice against women’? As per the updated Macquarie dictionary addition.

    When you add to these his behaviour towards JG since she became PM – his encouragement for; allowing and fostering media hatred almost to the point of violence (taking up arms?) then you have to concede that he’s one nasty little man who behaves in a hateful way to women. His comments about women having abortions as the ‘easy way out’ at best showed gross insensitivity to the whole issue of the many problems that can beset women who face an unwanted pregnancy or a severely handicapped child – for life! Abbott has never lived with a woman who’s been pregnant with his child for a start! He opted out early in the one case we know of?? What the heck would he know anyway. His wife already had those girls when they met! SO, he doesn’t have a clue!

    There’s one main reason why he wouldn’t treat men like this – because he’d probably get flattened! Literally! Some bloke, rightly or wrongly would’ve beaten the stuffing out of him by now! So, like all bullies, he’s a coward. And that’s another nasty aspect of misogyny – they bully! relentlessly, and without shame. IF, as the PM says, he tells her to shut up and uses ‘cat calls’ etc when she rises to speak – then, that’s another example of his attitude to women. Disgraceful!

    Boys in the playground should be in strife for such behaviour. For a person who aspires to be Leader of any country to behave in this manner, he’s a disgrace! IF he was one of my sons, he’d have that aspect of his personality pulled up well and truly by the age of 15, not 50? His mother fell down on the job – his father too!

    I’ve spoken to a few women about the ‘wifey coming out to stand by her baby’ and they just roll their eyes! How juvenile is the comment I hear most? What a joke? The interesting part is, that they don’t think he did himself any favours – with women or anyone? In fact, one told me today that like me, she felt annoyed with his wife!

    Can anyone honestly imagine this person advocating on the right of girls to go to school in countries where awful misogyny is the norm? Or discussing any other area of world importance? What will be his role re women in poor countries dying from having too many kids with no medical support? Speaking up for them and advocating education about contraception etc in the UN? Hardly!

    Do you want him to ‘swagger’ up to the mike at the UN representing Australia? I KNOW I DO NOT!

    PS. Bernard – Will you please come back to ABC local radio on a Friday afternoon? Instead of that idiot Joe from the DT? He says one ‘you know’ every 10 words at least – I swear! He’s an idiot – biased(surprise) childish and plain stupid! But what would you expect from someone who’s employed by Murdoch?

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