Gillard’s ‘Misogyny Speech’ and the ‘gender card’

By Kate Chapple,
PhD, The University of Queensland

Australia, 2013, a federal election year. The key players — a female prime minister, the nation’s first; a male opposition leader … situation normal. The context — a precarious hung parliament and a minority government clinging to power in its third year. The chief antagonists wage a new level of lethal verbal warfare. Former independent member of the House of Representatives Rob Oakeshott called it the “gender war”. Why did the usual jostling and jousting for poll position between party leaders come to be badged as a gender war? Wind back a few months to one particularly fraught Question Time on 9 October 2012. Prime Minister Julia Gillard was at her feisty best, despite (or more likely because of) the fetid muck that needed shovelling from the floor of the House that day. The ‘muck’ being legal evidence that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, had been sending inappropriate text messages to a young male staffer, who had since brought a sexual harassment claim against him. The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, alluded to “gross references to female genitalia”. The attack upon the reputation of the Speaker was also a thinly disguised attack on the integrity of a government that had lured Slipper away from the Coalition ranks in order to protect its paper-thin majority. Now that Slipper was ensconced in the Speaker’s Chair, the Government needed to hold onto him. So, whether as a matter of principle or political pragmatism, the Government argued that Slipper was entitled to remain in the Chair whilst the courts dealt with the allegations. As has been meticulously documented by Anne Summers, Gillard had by then been the focus of widespread ridicule and vilification, some of it of a sexual or gendered nature, in social media and public spaces. This was the backdrop to the day Gillard deployed her now-called “misogyny speech”, an excoriating polemic fired from the despatch box in response to Abbott’s allegations of hypocrisy and ethical bankruptcy, and his motion that Speaker Slipper be removed from office. With a fighter’s opening, “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man”, Gillard’s invective hurtled across mainstream and social media, onshore and off. Gillard had unleashed her feminist voice, a voice that was hitherto unknown to the Australian electorate. The next day, Abbott told the media that Gillard had played the ‘gender card’.

In Gillard’s case, there was no escaping the Slipper baggage. Yet, as the country’s first female Prime Minister, how could she allow herself to be seen as either defending or down-playing Slipper’s sexually offensive behaviour?

US feminist scholar Erika Falk1describes the accusatory gender card metaphor as a rhetorical device used implicitly to convey the idea that when women mention gender on the campaign trail, it gives them a strategic (though unethical and unfair) advantage in the contest. In the early wake of Gillard’s misogyny speech, published opinion polls had her popularity surging and the Government narrowing the Coalition’s long-established lead. It’s reasonable to argue that Gillard’s rivals’ persistent references to the ‘gender card’ were intended to discredit and counter a potential source of advantage to an otherwise deeply unpopular government. So, how might we evaluate the Coalition’s tactic? Recent scholarly analysis of political discourse has sought to understand what makes for a good argument2. The assertion is that the strength of an argument lies more in its central claim than in the means employed to support that claim. Both Gillard and Abbott claimed to be seeking to uphold the integrity of parliament — Gillard by advocating proper process; Abbott by not tolerating member transgression. Setting aside questions of political motivation, the leaders’ stated claims seemed honourable enough, and their proposed solutions equally reasonable. In Gillard’s case, there was no escaping the Slipper baggage. Yet, as the country’s first female Prime Minister, how could she allow herself to be seen as either defending or down-playing Slipper’s sexually offensive behaviour? How could she, as Prime Minister, preserve the concept of parliamentary integrity while not censuring conduct that threatened it most? These are the critical questions raised by Gillard’s claim made on behalf of ‘due process’. The means used by Gillard to simultaneously defend Slipper and attack Abbott are open to question. It was rousing oratory and, in a different context, readily plausible. However, Gillard’s line of argument had no connection to her central claim in defence of the Speaker. At best, this was an attempt by Gillard to extinguish Abbott’s authority to speak on any matter concerning gender and sexuality. As such, it did nothing to advance what Gillard claimed to be her core argument — that Slipper be allowed ‘due process’. For some, Gillard’s appeal to the issue of gender was her trump card, but others ask, “In what game?” In her final months as Prime Minister, Gillard spoke openly and purposefully about issues of gender equality and their implications for policy. Many women have welcomed her contribution to this discussion, even if some wonder why she left it for so long. The moral of this story is that such matters should be addressed for their own sake and not as a potent weapon to defeat ones political foes. In short, the ‘gender card’ should not be played to trump one’s opponents in the game of politics.

1. Falk, Erica. ‘Clinton and the Playing the Gender-Card Metaphor in Campaign News.’ Feminist Media Studies, 13:2 (2013), 197–207. 2. Fairclough, Isabela and Fairclough, Norman. Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012.

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