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Dec 20, 2012

After shaky start, 2012 a triumph for feminism

Despite all the claims that feminism is dead, 2012 proved a landmark year for women around the world -- from Julia Gillard's misogyny speech to Hillary Clinton. Is social media facilitating a new wave of feminism?

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It didn’t begin well. The first memory I have of 2012 is of Prime Minister Julia Gillard being clutched to the bosom of a burly security man and being half carried, half dragged away from a group of irate demonstrators, who were baying for opposition leader Tony Abbott’s blood. She had tripped while being hustled away and lost a shoe, hence the unseemly footage. It reminded me of the old movies I used to hate as a kid where the heroine tripped and fell when running away from the baddies so that the hero got to prove his bravery by rushing back into the teeth of danger to save her.

Gillard had another wardrobe malfunction later in the year and again it was her shoes that let her down, causing her to face-plant spectacularly.

The polls at the beginning of the year were hideous for Gillard, although they weren’t much better for the opposition leader. And women like me were growing weary of the excessive vitriol and sneering that was being directed at the PM mostly, it seemed, for daring to be a woman and hold high office. Just like the lame (in every sense of the word) heroines of those old movies, a message was being sent to girls with every word of gendered abuse hurled at Gillard. The message was: Don’t aspire to high office, girlie, because this is how we will treat you.

Journalist Wendy Harmer bravely made this point publicly and received another bucket of gendered abuse for her trouble. I can (and have) criticised many of Gillard’s policies, particularly on education and asylum seekers, but “the worst prime minister we’ve ever had” always seemed way over the top. Turns out it seemed that way to a lot of other women too, and not a few men.

The next memory is better: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s brilliant response to the meme that was created of her staring solemnly at her BlackBerry. Texts from Hillary began with two young guys posting ideas of who she might be texting. It took off like a rocket and exploded into the stratosphere when Clinton created her own witty and deft meme in response. Already considered to be doing a phenomenal job as Secretary of State, she became the coolest woman in the world over 60. At last, there was a credible, funny and courageous woman in power.

Then Anne Summers delivered her brilliant and forensic analysis of the gendered abuse being thrown at Gillard in a speech called Her Rights at Work. It hit a nerve and gave women the ammunition they needed. Then the carbon tax became a reality and when the sky didn’t fall, Gillard’s approval ratings began to rise.

“Far from feminism being dead, as was so confidently stated by so many until very recently, social media and the power it gives women to voice their opinions and band together …”

In September, Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones let rip at Gillard again. In reaction to Gillard promising some aid to help more women in the Pacific, Jones suggested women like Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and ex-Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon were “destroying the joint” and that there wasn’t a chaff bag big enough for them — a reference to a previous suggestion that Gillard be sewn into a chaff bag and thrown out to sea.

That night, women hit Twitter in droves at #destroyingthejoint. The hashtag trended worldwide and a Facebook page sprang up. Women didn’t have to cop insults about their gender in impotent silence. Thanks to social media and the unmediated access it gave them to the public conversation they could — and did — make their point of view heard loudly.

Only a few weeks later, soon after the death of Gillard’s much-loved father, Jones told a function that John Gillard had “died of shame” because his daughter had told so many lies. An attendee wore a suit made from chaff bags. Businesses discovered there was a high price to pay for advertising with Jones. The chaff bag wearer lost his job. Major sponsors left 2GB promising never to return, costing the station more than $1 million.

And polls revealed Abbott, never popular with women, was sinking further. He turned to his wife Margie who confidently outed her husband as having been a closet feminist all along. The significance of the most socially conservative candidate for PM for decades calling himself a feminist to have a chance at re-election was not lost on many who really were — feminists, that is.

Only a few days later, Abbott used the same phrase about dying of shame in a debate over former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper’s sleazy texts about female genitalia. Gillard, shaking with what appeared to be genuine fury, rose and delivered the speech of her life. The “misogyny speech”, as it has come to be known, resonated around the world with more than two million YouTube hits. Women who watched it alternatively wept and punched the air as Australia’s first female prime minister put into words what many of them had struggled against all their working lives.

Next morning, what is becoming rather disparagingly referred to as the “mainstream media” reported the speech as cynical, a distraction and a failed ploy. But as they found out immediately, the days of the media being able to set the parameters of debate are over. Women were not having a bar of it. The reporting of the speech by the gallery was pilloried. Journos belatedly changed their tune. The disconnect between how women heard the speech and how political journalists reported it became as much the story as the speech itself.

The year drew to a close with President Barack Obama winning a second term; and women got him across the line. Obama won 55% of the female vote; women are 53% of the US population and are more likely to vote than men. Right-wing Republicans now face a dilemma. The religious values they see as central to their platform are the same ones that stop women, particularly single women, from voting for them.

Far from feminism being dead, as was so confidently stated by so many until very recently, social media and the power it gives women to voice their opinions and band together to offer encouragement and support, has brought it roaring back onto the agenda.

Social media could prove to be as revolutionary for women and their role and opportunities as the invention of the pill was in the 1960s. If I am right, 2013 could be even more exciting.

*I would like to dedicate this column to the memory of Victoria Soto, Dawn Hochsprung, Mary Sherlach, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D’Avino and Anne Marie Murphy; teachers and staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. All were killed trying to protect their students. My daughter is a teacher.

*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda

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