A Great Day For Feminism?

A Great Day For Feminism?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s searing attack on opposition leader Tony Abbott has gone viral attracting over 300,000 hits on ABC News and YouTube, generating countless memes, and gaining media coverage in the United States, Britain, India and many other countries. If you haven’t yet seen the clip I suggest you check it out below.

Commentators were quick to point out the hypocrisy of Gillard’s speech in light of Peter Slipper’s text messages and the Labor Party’s ongoing support for the disgraced former Speaker. On blogs and social media, many were quick to point out the hypocrisy that the same Prime Minister who voted against same-sex marriage was now rallying against sexism and misogyny.

Yet few picked up on the bigger feminist hypocrisy that took place on Tuesday. Legislation that will move 100,000 single parents off parenting payments and onto Newstart quietly passed through the Senate. This will reduce the income of single parents on welfare by $56 to $140 a week, the ALP’s rationale being that this will encourage parents to enter or rejoin the workforce. Though ostensibly applicable to both single mothers and single fathers, in reality it will disproportionately affect women as 90% of single parent households are women. It is not a stretch to call it a gendered piece of legislation.

Many commentators have weighed in with their opinion (or bemusement) on why Gillard’s fiery speech went viral and attracted so much media coverage around the world. Some decried it as yet another round of political point-scoring by a government desperately clinging to power. Others bestowed praise on a fine example of politicking; the New York Times suggested the ‘blistering speech’ was a model for Obama. A few simply scratched their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about when there are clearly more important things going on in the world: global poverty, climate change and the Eurozone crisis, just to name a few.

Yet most of this commentary has missed the point. The speech captured the attention of women (and men) around the world because sexism and misogyny is prevalent is almost every society on the planet. It effects almost every woman, and many men, who immediately identified with Gillard’s message. Discrimination has real and devastating effects, the most common being economic marginalization. Women make up the majority of those living in poverty, with some estimates suggesting that women make up 70% of the world’s poor. In Australia women consistently earn less than men and consequently accrue $35,000 less superannuation over the course of their careers. Women bear the brunt of climate change, conflict and economic downturn. These ‘more important’ events are inextricably linked to sex-based discrimination and other inequalities such as discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. This is something increasingly recognized by the development sector and is why sex and gender is a hot topic of debate within the sector and is integral to policy formulation.

Gillard’s speech resonated simply because millions of people around the world face sex-based discrimination a daily basis. The fact that Tuesday’s welfare cuts will disproportionally and negatively impact upon women is a stark reminder that inequality persists in Australia, and the negative socioeconomic consequences thing brings.