Women bagging women: the female politician.

27 Jan

Sisters forever sisters. By joanneteh_32 via flickr

Once again the media coverage of the appointment of a woman to a senior political position has brought forth angry criticism, and accusations of sexism from some of the body politic. The questions asked and the commentary published is sexist, and designed to undermine the authority of female politicians, it is alleged. Nobody, it’s claimed, asks these idiotic questions of male politicians, or demands that they explain themselves if they aren’t married.

I don’t think this is quite true, however, that’s an article in its own right, for another day.

Lara Giddings, the latest of several ALP women promoted to the top job in state and federal governments, was yesterday asked the usual questions about her marital status, her childfree status, and the current absence of a boyfriend in her life. As yet, we haven’t heard what people think about her appearance, her hairstyle and colour, and her earlobes, but I’m confident that will come.

Yet when it comes to making ad hominem comments about female politicians, some of the worse offenders are women. Nikki Savva in the Australian of November 23 2010, offered sarcastic sartorial and political advice to Julia Gillard, in a piece titled Smarten up, PM, and do not wear green

Also in the Australian, July 28 2010, Janet Albrechtson’s Let’s be honest about Julia’s free gender leg-up ,while not focusing on her appearance, attacks Gillard’s alleged inability to relate to the women who’ve chosen to marry and raise children, given her own choices to do neither.

Social commentator Bettina Arndt also criticized the de facto arrangements of Julia Gillard in the Sydney Morning Herald article of June 29, 2010 titled: Shacking up is hard to do: why Gillard may be leery of the Lodge. Arndt questioned Gillard’s value as a role model for young women who wanted marriage, children and career.

Hard-line feminists describe those who launch such ad hominem attacks as “anti feminist women.” A few years back they described such a woman as “having a pr*ck in her head.”

(Ad hominem arguments are those that attack the speaker in the hope of undermining her or him, rather than addressing the argument. They frequently take the form of comments on physical appearance. For example, one I’ve never forgotten that came from a short, chubby, ageing bald fellow who exclaimed when he was introduced to me: “But you can’t be a blonde and have a PhD, darling!”)

It’s unrealistic to expect that women will be kind to each other just because we’re women.  Nevertheless, there is an unspoken, unexamined and entirely unproven expectation that we are somehow bonded through our gender, and therefore less likely to betray one another.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Women deceive other women all the time, with their male lovers and partners, for example. And very many women, in the throes of shock and despair, will say that while they sort of expect men to behave like that, and they are desperately upset, it’s how the woman betrayed the woman that really cuts to the bone.

Many women survivors of childhood sexual abuse reveal that while the perpetrator did them untold damage, they have never and will never understand why their mothers didn’t help them, and this betrayal is impossible to grasp on a very deep emotional and spiritual level.

Women can be unbelievably hard on their daughters, begrudging them success, and an easier life than they’ve experienced.

And yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, women continue to believe in and yearn for the kindness of other women, and continue to be disappointed  when it’s not forthcoming.

Women might need to toughen up and let go of the hopeful fantasy that women are the greatest supporters of women, or that they should be. I sometimes wonder if allegations of sexism against men, while frequently entirely justified, might also work to conceal and deny the truly frightening hatred we women are capable of experiencing and enacting towards each other.

Everyone recognizes the woman who seeks approval from a man by denigrating other women, thus portraying herself as “different” and “better.”

Women who have a public life in any field, are targeted by both genders for ad hominem attacks. There are feminists who explain this phenomenon as a consequence of overwhelming patriarchal influences that have set us against one another in order to further the patriarchal agenda. This may well be one of the explanations for a learned rather than innate cruelty, if indeed that’s what it is. And there’s another argument.

However, the explanation doesn’t justify the hostilities, and after so many years of feminist analysis, we can no longer claim to be ignorant of what influences motivate us and how we perpetuate those influences in our lives.

Perhaps it’s time for women to take responsibility for our attitudes towards other women, especially those in public life. Perhaps one way of doing this is becoming aware of when we’re engaging in the ad hominem argument, and stopping it before it starts.

Everybody does it to some degree, it’s almost like breathing. The things I’ve said about Julia Gillard’s voice. 


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