“If you are a supporter of gender equality you are a feminist. So say it with pride.” Thus tweeted one of the Labor opposition’s most senior women, Penny Wong, in response to the departing Liberal Julie Bishop’s latest refusal to call herself a feminist.
If you are a supporter of gender equality you are a feminist. So say it with pride. https://t.co/SfcsnbYoza
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) March 6, 2019
Ms Bishop had declined the description during a media interview this week, saying she preferred “to be judged on what I do in pursuit of gender equality, rather than how I may self-describe”.
Senator Wong’s cheap political shot was certainly popular, but it missed the obvious point – it really doesn’t matter if Liberal (or any other right-of-centre women) call themselves feminists, what matters is if they are genuinely doing something to advance the rights of women.
Because, as we’ve seen, there’s a credibility chasm between what Liberals say they’re doing to eliminate disadvantages for women, and what they’re actually doing.
The Liberal women who reject the word ‘feminist’ do so because they equate it with the word ‘activist’. They see activists as noisy and aggressive disrupters who rally in the streets, rather than those who strive to bring about change from inside the system – as they do.
As conservatives, who support the status quo, many Liberal women feel threatened by feminists’ claims that women are suppressed by the patriarchy, or that society is structured against them, for they have learned to survive and thrive (to an extent) in this environment.
They therefore reject any suggestion that women are ‘victims’ of men or that a revolutionary act such as ‘smashing the patriarchy’ is needed to set them free. The glass ceiling is ‘invisible’ to them, as Ms Bishop once admitted in yet another explanation to the media of her need not to embrace that word.
Even so, Ms Bishop smashed into that ceiling during the Liberal leadership contest in August last year when her moderate colleagues tactically voted for Scott Morrison instead of her to prevent Peter Dutton from becoming prime minister. It’s difficult to conceive that a man with the former deputy Liberal leader’s experience, qualities and yes, even her flaws, would have been similarly dismissed and despatched.
The unrest that this event unleashed among Liberal women has been rumbling within the party ever since. Most would not be prepared to call themselves feminists (although there are notable exceptions), but these women took unprecedented action in an attempt to arrest and reverse their party’s descent into toxic masculinity.
Acts of intimidation and bullying were called out. Retirements from Parliament were announced. And in one spectacular case, a defection to the parliamentary crossbenches occurred.
It was a great start, even if not quite revolutionary, but since then, the rebellion has mostly gone quiet.
Which is perhaps why the PM and Liberals more broadly were all over the shop this week, while trying to put on a brave face for International Women’s Day.
The week started with the promotion of Linda Reynolds to Minister for Defence Industry, bringing the number of women in cabinet to an all-time high of seven. PM Morrison committed to promoting Senator Reynolds even higher to the role of Defence Minister if the Coalition is re-elected, and to maintaining that number of women in the cabinet.
Senator Reynolds’ promotion is a plus and a minus for Liberal women. The ex-Army Brigadier and former deputy federal director of the Liberal Party is eminently credentialed for the role. But as a cabinet minister she will have less freedom to speak out and agitate on issues such as women’s representation, as she has done in the past.
Meantime, Senator Reynolds’ colleagues in the conservative-dominated WA Division of the Liberal Party spent the week leaking unfavourable information to the media to thwart the preselection of a moderate female contender, describing it as a “good hit” to one reporter.
This follows their preselection last month of the only male candidate in a field of five to run for the reasonably safe Liberal seat of Stirling.
In contrast, a senior member of the PM’s ‘soft right’ faction, Alex Hawke, argued early this week that the low number of female Liberal MPs was a huge problem and that the party needed to get past its resistance to (and obsession with resisting) quotas to address the issue.
Mr Hawke might like to whisper this advice into the ear of his good friend, Scott Morrison, who boasted last weekend that “since I have become prime minister, 18 women have been selected in either Senate or House of Representatives seats”.
The PM omitted to mention that only 10 of those women are expected to win, with the rest likely to be cannon fodder in the Labor rout. Liberal candidates who are not in safe seats or the first two positions on the party’s Senate tickets are unlikely to be elected at the upcoming election if the swing to Labor is as strong as anticipated.
Come polling day, Australian women won’t cast their ballots according to the female Liberals who are ‘proud’ enough (or not) to call themselves a feminist. Women will vote for the politician or party they trust most – or distrust the least.
Women voters certainly won’t trust a party that doesn’t trust women enough to put them in safe seats or leadership positions.