Australia Modernizes Misogyny

Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard made an impassioned speech against the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the world was set ablaze. Gillard justly called Abbott out for his sexist actions and remarks against women. Although many news agencies applauded her actions, other writers called her everything from a hypocrite to a slanderer.

The last criticism? Oh right, Gillard was defaming Abbott because he wasn’t a misogynist — at least not according to the dictionary.

The Macquarie Dictionary is Australia’s largest national dictionary and at the time of the speech, misogyny was narrowly defined as “hatred of women.” So, if Abbott was able to stand in the same room as a woman, marry a woman or work with a woman (even if he happened to be demoralizing her along the way), he was just swell and peachy in the land of the pedants. In the same way you can’t be racist if you’re friends with a person of color or you can’t be a homophobe if one of your friends happens to be gay, Abbott wasn’t a misogynist because he doesn’t hate women.

If Abbott had been the one to use that defense it would mean one thing, but infuriatingly enough, news agencies actually made the argument for him by debating semantics and completely overlooking the meaning behind Gillard’s words.

Like the context that the speech was part of a deliberate, tested strategy of capitalising on the Coalition’s relative unpopularity with women due to Tony Abbott’s political aggression by conflating it with the unsupportable allegation that he actually hates females. – Sydney Morning Herald

I don’t think [Abbott] hates women – Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten

Way to miss the point. Gillard called him as she saw him, that was that. Given his despicable actions, sometimes words like sexist aren’t strong enough. Undermining Gillard’s actions by painting her as a mud-slinger is simply revolting. If anything, Gillard’s ass-kicking speech managed to hone in on a very important point:

If (Mr Abbott) wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he does not need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.

Acts of misogyny go as far back as possible and sadly it looks like they’ll be around for quite a bit of our future. Every time someone is treated as less than equal because she’s a woman, there aren’t enough words to express the injustice. Sometimes you have to rely on existing terms but subvert and massage their meaning. Anti-female actions don’t feel like just discrimination or prejudice, they feel more like hate. As the world and the face of female-oppression evolve, Gillard was spot on to identify Abbott as a modern day misogynist.

Macquarie Dictionary Editor Sue Butler decided to redefine misogynist to turn the discussion from semantics back to where it belongs. She stated that the 2013 version would better reflect today’s common use of the phrase. It would expand beyond the hatred of women to include “entrenched prejudice against women” as well. The dictionary was posed to redefine 300 words that have been evolving away from their printed definition, so Gillard’s impassioned speech managed simply made the word more visible.

Misogyny was strict hatred of women and it probably does need a second definition to cover entrenched prejudices of women, as opposed to an out and out fundamental horror at women. We need to add a second definition, which is slightly stronger than sexist but heading in that direction towards entrenched prejudice rather than a visceral hatred. – Susan Butler

But of course, even there, in the face of logic and reasoning, there is still more criticism. Word purists have denounced the action saying words shouldn’t be redefined, although other dictionaries have already broadened their definitions. Members of the opposition attacked Butler for redefining the word, accusing her of ceding to Gillard’s whims as Macquarie modernized the term. For the criticizers, the word misogynist can only apply to “true” hatred of women, so anything less than that is watering it down.

Our language is a very live language, but in this particular case, you have just robbed the language of a word to use to describe what is truly the hatred of women as evidenced by the Taliban … It is improper to change the meaning of a word simply because Julia Gillard doesn’t understand the correct meaning and usage of the words. – Mackellar Bronwyn Bishop

Languages evolve with use. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to continue using words to distinguish between specific types of hate, but we aren’t there yet. If someone is called out as bigoted, homophobic, transphobic, biphobic or misogynistic, the recipient knows exactly what was meant. Labels can be comforting, but they also aren’t an impenetrable shield. Common parlance makes words what they are today, even if they don’t jive with the ones originally printed in the book.

So even if Butler has to redefine her re-definition, I’ll salute her anyways. If she happens to discover a more accurate word to refer to Abbott while doing so, I hope she publishes it.

Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. I sort of really hate Julia Gillard…
    and am not really for her being praised in any way.
    But Tony Abbott IS a misogynistic prick, and I have to applaud her for standing up to him.
    The English language has never really been about purism, so I think it’s a moot point. However, I do realize that sometimes it’s obnoxious when situations are called “-phobic” when they’re not actually phobic. There’s a different between ignorance/hatred/bigotry and actually having a fear of something.
    But in this case, yeah, Abbott’s a misogynistic dickhead, and Gillard had every right to call him out on it.

    • Why do you hate Julia? I understand that a lot of people (including me) disagree with her stance on marriage equality however I feel it’s better to have a PM that cares about women’s rights but disagrees on marriage equality rather than having a PM that doesn’t want either

  2. Oh hey let’s never update the dictionary definition of words, so the gay queer people are actually just merry weird ones. Wicked means evil, naughty means cruel, and awful means “inspiring awe”…

  3. “If someone is called out as bigoted, homophobic, transphobic, biphobic or misogynistic, the recipient knows exactly what was meant.”

    Exactly. People just do this semantics thing to avoid taking responsibility. If an individual on the receiving end of a legit oppression (like, not misandry omg I’m annoyed every time I see that word) says you’re being messed up about it, you’re being messed up about it. The end. Tony Abbott needs to just go into the woods and ponder his life.

  4. Thank you for changing the phrasing in the article.

    Actually Raef, the phrase has multiple meanings and unfortunately, the racist one came into being in the early 20th century. As a black woman, I became sensitized to it through my particular lived experience. Look it up.

    It’s great that the writer and editor of the piece responded so promptly, and it’s great that the main topic – the definition of misogyny in the post – acknowledges that hatred of women can be manifested in many covert ways. Like another poster said, “the recipient knows exactly what was meant”.

  5. This part of the debate really infuriated me. It’s bizarre as an Australian to go onto Autostraddle and other places on the internet and see people who are just excited about the speech as I am, but then to go to Australian news and have them mostly being pedantic and dismissive.

    That dictionary definition was haunting the debate. What was the most bizarre was that people were saying “he doesn’t hate ALL women, he has a wife therefore he isn’t a misogynist” as though that dismisses everything, including Julia’s listing of his sexist quotes.

    TONY ABBOTT I DO NOT LIKE YOU AND YOUR CONTINUED ABILITY TO HAVE PEOPLE LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SAY. STAWP IT.

    • It is bizarre to go onto autostraddle and see aus being talked about but it’s also nice to know the rest of the world knows we exist. I feel sorry for NZ they get even fewer mentions than us

    • The worst part about the media response is that it was all so utterly predictable.

      Having said that, it has also substantially limited the reach of the speech. If all anyone reads about it is that Gillard was aggressive and that Abbott loves his wife, they’re hardly likely to go look it up the video.

  6. The other part of the speech that was really great was
    “I was OFFENDED when the leader of the opposition stood next to a sign describing me as another man’s bitch” and then proceeded to repeat
    “I was OFFENDED”
    “I was OFFENDED”
    I was listening to morning radio the day after the speech, and one of the mouthy female radio hosts whose comments usually extend to reality TV and fad diets, brought up the speech, and said how much she liked it. She asked for callers, and one woman called up and in an awful, nasal tone “I think it was really inappropriate for her to bring her personal feelings into parliamentary time” – and usually when people say revolting bigoted things they just thank the calller for their input and hang up (the shining example being “I wouldn’t want my son to bring home a friend who had two dads” “Okay, thanks for that”). Instead, the host proceeded to rip into the caller “Are you suggesting that you don’t want a Prime Minister who is offended on the behalf of all of the women in this country that the leader of the opposition is a threat to equality between the sexes?” -silence- “Okay, thanks for that”
    Made my whole day.

  7. I’m from the UK and watched the speech on the internet after hearing about it. I wish we could swap PMs with Australia…! I guess it’s easier for people to focus on the semantics because it means they can ignore the huge, difficult problem of sexism. What struck me was how much time Gillard got to speak without anyone interrupting her. Is that the norm in Aus politics? She would have been jeered to silence within 30 secs in the UK. I hate the confrontational nature of our parliament.

  8. Thank you, Kristen, for writing this piece. I learned so much. Very serious, heavy issues are at hand here for Australia & I’m glad people like you are thinking and writing about them. I came across this article today and while it actually has nothing to do with what’s being discussed here, it sort of also has everything to do with what’s being discussed here….apparently, Koalas are lesbians.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/strewth-australia-rocked-by-lesbian-koala-revelation-437806.html

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