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Damned Whores, 40 years on: women still stereotyped, says Penny Wong

Women in politics still treated in a sexist way, says Senator Penny Wong at conference celebrating Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police

The opposition leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, says she has been described as shrill and hysterical by attorney-general George Brandis. Photograph - Mike Bowers for the Guardian

The opposition leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, says she has been described as shrill and hysterical by attorney-general George Brandis. Photograph – Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Women have made big strides towards equality in the past 40 years, but they are still treated in a sexist way in Australian politics, says Labor frontbencher Senator Penny Wong.

Wong said at a conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of the landmark feminist book, Damned Whores and God’s Police, that remarks about women in parliament were too often belittling and stereotyped.

“When we look at politics, sometimes I feel we haven’t come far at all,” she said. “Eric Abetz has gone and been replaced by George Brandis and that’s not much better.” In prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ministerial reshuffle this week, Brandis replaced Abetz as government leader in the Senate.

Attorney-General Brandis has described Wong as “shrill and hysterical. I’m well known for that,” she said. Former Greens’ leader Christine Milne has been berated for “throwing a tantrum”.

“They’re so blind to it, so accustomed to belittling women it’s just par for the course,” Wong said. “There’s a long way to go in terms of how people talk to each other.”

Turnbull has distinguished himself from the Abbott government by appointing five women to his cabinet – the same number as former prime minister Julia Gillard appointed. Abbott chose just one woman for his first cabinet, foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Wong said she was once dismissive of the importance of critical mass, but saw that it had made a difference in Gillard’s cabinet.

“It did change the dialogue, the dynamic, it changed how we interacted,” said Wong, who was finance minister under Gillard. “It meant it was easier to speak and that matters.”

The Sydney conference is discussing the impact and legacy of the book, written by prominent feminist Anne Summers.

Summers told the conference that Julie Bishop, who was Abbott’s deputy before shifting support to Turnbull last week, had been described as Lady Macbeth by some critics, the same insult hurled at Gillard when she toppled Kevin Rudd as prime minister.

“Malcolm Turnbull, no problem,” she said. “Women can’t wield a knife, but men can.”

Summers believed it was a “major thing” having women foreign and defence ministers in the new cabinet. “We have a prime minister finally who is at least modern, who understands that women are equal and are entitled to equality.”

In her keynote address, Summers told the audience that while much had changed for the better since she wrote the book in 1974, women remained constrained by their family-centred roles.

The book’s key argument is that two rigid stereotypes of women deny them their own identity and real choice. They are either bad girls – such as prostitutes and prisoners – or good girls, mothers assumed to be ethically and morally superior to men.

Today, women’s choices have expanded exponentially, but their role as mothers remained a fundamental question that needed confronting, Summers said.

“We have not said: women might be the ones who bear the children, but their entire lives should not be defined by that one capability. We’ve changed a lot but we haven’t changed this.

“Many, if not most, women still accept, deep down, that it is their role to be God’s police.

“We have not disavowed that motherhood is still the central, preferable and most admired option for women.”

• Damned Whores and God’s Police 40 years on. Its impact. Its legacy. Our Future. 21-23 September, University of Technology Sydney


SRC: By Gay Alcorn – THE GUARDIAN

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