“Women are hard on women. Women dislike women.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
Over the last century, the feminist movement both internationally and here in Australia has won enormous gains for the political empowerment of women. Encouraging women into positions of leadership has been an important part of that. The suffragettes intentionally excluded men from their movement because they believed that the support of other women was essential to encouraging women to step into leadership roles.
If female solidarity has achieved great things for women in the past, events of the past week demonstrate that this unity is sadly lacking in modern Australia. Perhaps Virginia Woolf was right to question “the sisterhood”.
Federal politics in Australia has been dominated in recent weeks by revelations of the toxic culture as experienced by women working in the federal parliament. Allegations of sexual assault occurring after-hours in ministers’ offices, as well as videos of lewd behaviour carried out by male staffers in female politicians’ offices — to name just a few — have surfaced.
One point of common agreement to emerge from the furore is that a key way to change this toxic culture and make Parliament House a safer place for women to work, is to strengthen female representation in parliament. In particular, there have been repeated calls for the Liberal Party to adopt quotas for women’s representation within the party and the ministry.
An editorial in the Age newspaper argued that “[w]omen have different views, but having more talented women in Parliament will put more of their voices at the centre of political debate and help end a ‘swinging dick’ culture, as former foreign minister Julie Bishop put it.”
Similarly, Nine newspapers columnist Jacqueline Maley has argued that “[i]t seems clear that until there are more women in Parliament, its culture will not change in any meaningful way.”
Last week the Prime Minister announced a Cabinet reshuffle and the creation of a number of female-centred portfolios. Where this might have been the signal for applause from women’s advocates, instead, it triggered a round of personal attacks directed particularly at the newly-promoted Assistant Minister for Women, Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker.
Senator Stoker’s critics include Australian of the Year and sex abuse survivor Grace Tame, who, referring to the Senator’s critique of universities’ inconsistent approaches to free speech and de-platforming, accused her of supporting work “aimed at falsifying all counts of sexual abuse on [university] campuses across the nation.” This is despite the Senator’s long history advocating for survivors of sexual violence.
Another attack came from actor and activist Magda Szubanski, who clearly disagrees with Senator Stoker’s politics:
This reshuffle has handed power to Amanda Stoker, another of the small but noisy ‘Christian Soldiers’ faction hijacking the national agenda.
Szubanski’s criticisms went further than Senator Stoker; she effectively impugned the mental functioning of all women who differ from her politically:
I think many, if not most, women have some degree of self-loathing and internalized misogyny. Entirely similar to internalized homophobia. And it is a life’s work to free ourselves from this strangling detritus which drags us (& men) under.
Such views make no allowance for diversity of opinion among women.
One would expect feminists to support the development of strong women leaders in parliament. Instead, it seems they are only willing to support those women who will reinforce a set of pre-approved opinions, handed down by some invisible self-appointed moral authority. It is legitimate to ask how such an impulse to control what women think, say and do differs materially from the “patriarchal” oppression that feminists have worked so hard to overcome.
Most concerning, however, are the damaging negative messages these attacks send to the next generation of women considering entering the political fray. Who could blame young women for shying away from public life, if this is the support they can expect to receive from those who claim to advocate for women?
As Senator Stoker stated in her defence: “Our lives will never improve if you don’t stop tearing down women for having the ‘wrong’ beliefs and instead focus on making things better for everyone.”
My husband and I are raising our girls to believe that they can do anything and that aspiring to serve their country and the people who live in it is a noble thing. … But it’s very hard for little girls who grow up seeing other women attack their mother in such a groundless way to grow up thinking that this is a good thing to do.”
When I am at the school gate I find women with the full spectrum of personal experience, from women on the career and leadership path who want to know that nothing is closed to them, to women who are equally smart and capable who have made the decision that they want [to exercise] leadership in their families and communities.
It’s important that as a government we speak to the full range of women’s experience.
Senator Stoker rejected the notion that she is not a strong advocate for women. ”[T]he attacks from women who claim to want to help their gender are actually turning off those who wanted to participate in the process, but worried about being torn down for their personal, political or religious beliefs.”
For there to be genuine equality for women in our society, it is imperative that women of all different views and backgrounds are represented and encouraged to participate in the public sphere. Shaming and attacking women we disagree with will only silence women further and dissuade them from considering a career in politics.
Labelling views we disagree with as evidence of “internalised misogyny” or “self-loathing” is incredibly disempowering for women. The message conveyed is that if you do enter the fray as a woman and your views or personal beliefs are found to be “wanting” or the “wrong type”, not only will you find yourself attacked and undermined, you will be at the mercy of the mob, pretending to advocate for female “empowerment”.
Is this really female liberation?
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia.
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