Australia: Year of the women
- 31 December 2012
- From the section Asia
Australian radio shock jock Alan Jones was in characteristically cranky mood on his breakfast show in late August.
His gripe of the day - that at a gathering of South Pacific leaders, the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard had offered $320m ($336m;£206m) in aid to "expand women's leadership and economic and social opportunities in the region".
Mr Jones, who has built a reputation and a loyal radio following on his bullying outspokenness, quoted Julia Gillard as saying that "societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating".
He, however, took a wholly different view. "Women are destroying the joint," he told his listeners, citing a female former police commissioner in Victoria, Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and the Australia prime minister herself.
Not long after, social media delivered its verdict. "Got time on my hands tonight," tweeted Jane Caro, an advertising executive and social commentator, "so thought I'd spend it coming up with new ways of 'destroying the joint', being a woman and all. Ideas welcome."
Next came the hashtag #destroythejoint, which was the invention of Jill Tomlinson, a surgeon in Newcastle, New South Wales. "Bored by Alan Jones' comments on women destroying Australia?" she tweeted. "Join with @JaneCaro and suggest ways that women #destroy the joint."
Next came a Facebook page, Destroy the Joint, which now has more than 22,000 "likes". Jenna Price, a media academic in Sydney, was among the women who set it up. "It came from a sense of 'I can't believe that in the 21st Century a man is saying that kind of thing about women as a whole.' We needed sexism to stop right now."
Mr Jones made headlines again in late September, when it emerged that he had told a dinner of Young Liberals in Sydney that Julia Gillard's recently deceased father had "died of shame".
At the dinner, a jacket made out of a hessian sack was also auctioned, a play on Mr Jones's much-criticised statement that the prime minister should be put in a "chaff bag" and dropped out at sea.
The Destroy the Joint campaign responded instantly. So strong was the social media pressure on advertisers on Jones's radio network, 2GB, that many withdrew their sponsorship. Mercedes-Benz took back his loan car. "We were putting feminism on the front page of every newspaper," says Jenna Price. "What we are talking about is how women are treated."
The journalist and author Anne Summers was driving from Sydney to Newcastle when she saw Alan Jones's original "Destroy the Joint" remarks being quoted on Twitter.
She was due that afternoon to deliver a lecture at the University of Newcastle, which ordinarily would probably have received little attention. But now her address entitled Her Rights at Work: The Political Persecution of Australia's First Female Prime Minister seemed perfectly timed.
It detailed the insults and slights against Julia Gillard since she took up the post in 2010. There was the use of the phrase "Juliar," which was also popularised, and perhaps also coined, by Alan Jones - male prime ministers had not been called "liars", claimed Ms Summers.
Placards had been held aloft at anti-carbon tax rallies saying "Ditch the Witch". Press reports regularly described the prime minister as "Julia", whereas John Howard and Paul Keating would rarely be referred to by their Christian names.
The internet was also littered with obscene and derogatory comments and pornographic imagery. Some of the most offensive came from Larry Pickering, a right-wing cartoonist, who always depicted Gillard naked, wearing a strap-on penis.
After Ms Summers posted the lecture on her website, it took off. It has now received more than 110,000 views.
"We had thought it enough to break down barriers and change laws and that everything would follow," says Anne Summers. "But this wasn't the case. There's still a lot of resistance to females in positions of power. Alan Jones exemplifies the hatred. It's taken a woman prime minister to reveal how bad things are."
'Not now, not ever'
The Destroy the Joint campaign and the Summers lecture helped create the milieu for what became the most talked-about political event of the year. During the 2010 federal election campaign, some of Julia Gillard's advisers had urged her to attack the conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott over sexist comments that he had made over the years.
She refrained, according to advisers, because she feared that Liberals would retaliate with accusations that she was involved in a union scandal in the 1990s. Now, though, she decided to attack - although the context, paradoxically, was the defence of Speaker of the House Peter Slipper, who had been found to have sent a puerile text message describing the female anatomy.
"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man," said the prime minister, pointing at Mr Abbott. "I will not. And the government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever."
Then she detailed a series of what she said were sexist remarks. "What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…" he had said, when campaigning against the government's carbon tax. "Thank you for that painting of women's roles in modern Australia," said Ms Gillard, derisively.
Ms Gillard's 15 minutes of invective brought her more than 15 minutes of global fame. Over the next 24 hours, the speech became a viral sensation, drawing admiring editorials in publications ranging from The Guardian to The Spectator, from the Daily Telegraph to the Daily Beast, from New Yorker to the feminist website Jezebel, which described Ms Gillard as "one badass mother----er". On YouTube, it has received more than two million hits.
"Initially she shied away from being an advocate for her sex," says Anne Summers. "Now she knows that its part of her job as the first female prime minister to deal with this stuff."
Male public figures who make chauvinistic comments about women are now immediately placed in the public stocks of social media. When Graeme Morris, John Howard's former chief of staff, called the popular ABC current affairs presenter Leigh Sales "a cow" after she had subjected Tony Abbott to a tough interview, he was forced to make an apology.
Former Australian rugby great David Campese also had to say sorry after complaining via Twitter that the Sydney Morning Herald had a "girl" covering rugby.
Television anchor Tracey Spicer also produced another online hit with an excoriating attack on some of the male TV executives she had encountered during her career. "I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse," one had shouted across the newsroom.
Australia's Year of the Woman comes with a surprising footnote. On the popular ABC debate programme QandA, a panellist observed that Julia Gillard wore unflattering jackets and had a "fat arse". But they were the comments not of a male chauvinist pig, but Australia's most internationally famous feminist, Germaine Greer.