Politics Opinion

Ground lost in the war on women but the fight continues

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(Cartoon by Paul Dorin / @DorinToons)

In the past week, there have been setbacks for the pursuit of equality as the mainstream media continues to lash out against women's rights, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

FORMER Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said on ABC radio recently that we (women) “lost a lot of ground” last week, after several days of unrelenting attacks on Brittany Higgins and Labor politicians who supported her, by the Liberals and their media arms.

Further to Ms Jenkins’ recent report into the conditions women endure in Parliament House, many of her recommendations are being introduced into that workplace. However, there’s little chance of useful reform when politicians create a climate in which it is extremely difficult for women to take advantage of the new processes.

After witnessing the public savagery inflicted on Higgins by powerful actors in politics, media and the legal system for several years now, it will be a brave woman indeed who risks reporting sexual harassment and/or assault in that place. This of course has a flow-on effect to all of us outside, particularly as the role of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in this saga implodes under scrutiny.

The Liberal goal appears to be the framing of Ms Higgins’ alleged rape and subsequent events as a conspiracy by her and her supporters with the then Labor opposition, to ensure the Morrison Government lost the 2022 Federal Election.

Political editor of the Australian Financial Review, Phillip Coorey, went so far as to claim that the conspirators succeeded in this ambition, bewailing the

‘...handful of teal Independents who are in parliament due in large part to the political weaponisation of the rape allegations in the first place.’

The “woman who brings down good men” trope is a foundational myth in human development. That Mr Coorey chooses to employ it as an explanation for the catastrophic failures of the Morrison Government is both wearily boring and discouraging. The myth attributes dark powers to women and in so doing, validates our mistreatment as dangerously evil entities who will destroy men and civilisation with our uncontainable sexuality and labyrinthine plots.

The tactic spectacularly backfired in a manner that can only be described as chef’s kiss karmic, when the Liberals ended the week with their own Senator, David Van, being exposed as an alleged serial sexual harasser by Senator Lidia Thorpe and former Senator Amanda Stoker.

While the slavish adherence to the myth is, sadly, to be expected from some of our more hidebound male journalists such as Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan of The Australian, the rage-fuelled article by Guy Rundle, published by Crikey, came out of left field so to speak. Rundle’s article has since been removed after readers expressed their abhorrence, or possibly due to the receipt of a concerns notice given the nature of Crikey’s statement which included an apology to Ms Higgins.

I’ve done a brief analysis of Rundle’s article on this thread.

The underlying cri de cœur that erupts from the contorted psyches of these emotionally runted men is that women are not behaving in ways they think women ought to behave.

According to Rundle, Higgins acted with agency when she shouldn’t and did not act with agency when she should. According to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, Thorpe did not act as she should on any number of occasions, an observation he made in the same moment as he threw Van out of the party room, thus acknowledging Van’s wrongdoing while blaming Senator Thorpe.

According to Coorey, Higgins should never have gone public with her allegations because he believes women should only go to the police when they’re raped. And look what she caused by going public — the downfall of the Morrison Government. 

Women refusing to do things in the ways some men think we should is, of course, outrageous and deeply unforgivable. Nobody should be surprised when affronted men react with rage and the urgent desire to punish. Higgins’ defiance and her extraordinary determination to use her personal tragedy to bring about change is a powerful trigger for those who seek to control.

Worse, Ms Higgins’ situation mobilised hundreds of thousands of other women which in turn has led to reforms in that most staunchly blokey environment at the heart of our political system, the only workplace in the country where men could get away with all manner of sexist abuses — Parliament House.

Kate Jenkins is right when she notes that the events of this last week have been a significant setback for women. There is, make no mistake, a war on women in this country. It is fuelled by male rage and a determination to make us pay for any gains we might make.

In the words of former PM Scott Morrison, women should rise, but not at the expense of others. The events of last week chillingly demonstrate that this is a view widely shared.

We did indeed lose a lot of ground in last week’s battle. But we haven’t lost the war.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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