The Misogyny Factor

The Misogyny Factor

by Anne Summers

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This provocative examination by a media-savvy writer who remains at the forefront of the political debate surrounding gender equality explores why equality between men and women has failed to be achieved in Australia. In 2012, Anne Summers gave two landmark speeches about women in Australia, attracting more than 120,000 visits to her website. Within weeks


This provocative examination by a media-savvy writer who remains at the forefront of the political debate surrounding gender equality explores why equality between men and women has failed to be achieved in Australia. In 2012, Anne Summers gave two landmark speeches about women in Australia, attracting more than 120,000 visits to her website. Within weeks thereafter, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s own speech about misogyny and sexism went viral and was celebrated around the world. However, Summers makes the case that Australians are still uncomfortable with the idea of women with political and financial power, let alone the reality, and she dismisses the idea that progress for women—as opposed to outright success—should be celebrated. She then offers an idea of what truly successful gender equality should look like.

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The Misogyny Factor

By Anne Summers

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Anne Summers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-639-0


The Misogyny Factor

It is Australia Day, 2013. This is the day when the nation puts itself on show, puffs out its chest and says: this is who we are. It is a day of citizenship ceremonies, when recent arrivals officially join our ranks, a day when we have barbecues and parties and all kinds of official events to celebrate our nationhood. It is also the day when large numbers of people are honoured by the government for their service to the community, and it is the day after we have learned who has been selected as 'Australian of the Year'. On Australia Day we show our face to the world, and to ourselves, and reveal what kind of country we really are. And that face, it turns out, is mostly male.

On 26 January 2013 Order of Australia honours were awarded to 571 people, 425 of them men and only 146 women. Just 25.5 per cent of these awards went to women. Not a single woman received the AC (the Companion of the Order of Australia), the highest of the honours, and the percentage of women honoured overall was one of the lowest on record. The night before, the magazine editor and publisher Ita Buttrose was named 'Australian of the Year'. She was the first woman for eight years and just the fourth woman in 20 years to have received this honour. In its first 31 years, until 1993 when the timing of the award was changed and no appointment made that year, it was somewhat fairer: between 1961 and 1992 seven women had been 'Australian of the Year', eight if you included Judith Durham, a band member of The Seekers, who were collectively named 'Australian of the Year' in 1967. This is just one of many examples in Australia today of women's representation in the organisations and institutions that define our country being not just low but lower than it used to be back when we seemed to take women's equality a bit more seriously.

How can this be? It is, after all, well over a hundred years after Australian women got the right to vote, and more than forty years since Gough Whitlam put equality of the sexes on the national agenda by promising in his campaign election speech, delivered on 13 November 1972, that his government would introduce anti-discrimination legislation and equal pay for women.

It seemed a simple goal. It was easy to outline what needed to happen: legal and other barriers to equality needed to be removed, measures to promote equality needed to be put in place, and women's particular needs recognised. Anti-discrimination laws would be a key tool to remove impediments to equality. Women would be given equal access to education, jobs and remuneration. They would be able to exercise reproductive control by having access to contraception and abortion. And, of course, childcare and other essential supports would be provided to enable them to combine participating in the paid workforce with having children. Equality would be all about ending the traditional view that women's only place was in the home, and promoting the alternative notion that women should participate fully in all areas of society. How hard would that be?

Extremely hard, as it turned out.

Forty years on we are not even close to achieving equality. It really is quite absurd when you think about it. Why is it that in forty years we have not been able to bring about a series of changes that are logical, rational, just and, as well as being personally beneficial to women themselves, would be of tremendous economic advantage to the nation?

Certainly it was an ambitious goal. In order for it to happen there needed to be a radical restructure of virtually all of our institutions in order to reform the old, unequal basis on which most of them were conceived and operated. It meant taking on and challenging, as a prelude to reform, entrenched attitudes and practices that were predicated on the idea that women had no legitimate role outside the domestic sphere. It meant confronting these attitudes – these prejudices – in major institutions of society such as business, the media, the military, and the church. It also meant trying to end decades, if not centuries, of privilege that were founded on the inequality of the sexes and which would be threatened by the large-scale entry of women into these organisations and institutions. There were clear national economic benefits, as well as individual ones, to be gained.

In the past, we have embraced huge, ambitious projects for national betterment. How ambitious, for instance, was it to reroute several rivers, flood a few towns and create a massive hydro project that would generate electricity and provide irrigation waters to parched farmland across half our continent? The Snowy Mountains Scheme was just that: logical, rational, just and of tremendous economic advantage to the nation. We managed to complete that in just 25 years.

But while we are good at engineering such huge national construction projects – think also of the Overland Telegraph and, currently, the National Broadband Network – perhaps we are not so adept when it comes to engineering social projects. In fact, we don't even like to think of equality between the sexes in such terms. We – or many of us – would prefer to talk about rights and fairness and entitlements. I want to argue here that such talk has not achieved what we want and maybe it is time to take another approach.

The question I explore in this book is: Why have we Australians denied ourselves the benefits of equality? We know that increasing women's workforce participation adds substantially to national economic growth, as well as providing financial benefits and personal fulfilment to women themselves. So why have we been so irrational as to forego the economic and other advantages that would stem from having a truly equal society? And why, when it comes to equality of the sexes, have we seemingly laid aside our longstanding concerns for social justice? Australia has a long and proud tradition of pioneering reforms that have granted or improved upon political, social and economic rights for her citizens. Australia created the secret ballot to prevent corruption in elections. Australia led the world with many reforms designed to end the exploitation of workers and to improve society for everyone: it was the first to introduce the eight-hour day, recognising that workers were entitled to leisure as well as rest after their labour; Australia introduced conciliation and arbitration processes for fairly determining wages and settling disputes between workers and employers. Australia was one of the first places in the world to grant women the right to vote (the states of South Australia and Western Australia enfranchised women in 1894 and 1899, respectively, before national suffrage was introduced in 1901). We were the first to introduce such reforms as child endowment, the widow's pension, and policewomen. Why, with such an innovative history, have we fallen so short with women's equality?

Why is it that despite at least forty years of legislative and other measures designed to achieve equality, women are still paid considerably less than men, women are still seen as having the primary responsibility for raising children, women's workforce participation rate lags behind men's and the top ranks of our major organisations are still, overwhelmingly, male? Why haven't our anti-discrimination laws eradicated this inequality? Why haven't decades of agitation and activism by women, and the men who support them, led us to our goal? What we wanted seemed to be so self-evidently necessary and fair that we found it hard to imagine that we could fail. We thought it was going to be simple: a matter of a few laws, a lot of persuasion, perhaps a little bit of enforcement. What has gone wrong? Why have we failed?

My years of thinking, writing and acting on the many issues surrounding women's equality have led to me to conclude the following: in pursuing the strategy we did, we failed to take into account that it was not just a matter of legislating to prevent discrimination against women. We did not realise that it wasn't just a case of challenging the sexist assumptions that women should remain locked in traditional roles. We were, perhaps understandably but in retrospect naively, unwilling to admit that there was actual opposition to the very idea of equality. Not everyone agrees that women and men should be equal. We saw this dramatically on display when the Sex Discrimination Act was first introduced into federal parliament in late 1983; the opposition to it was ferocious, with people claiming it would destroy the family, strip women of their femininity and all kinds of other ludicrous claims. We underestimated the extent of the actual resistance. And the strength of the forces that were going to do everything they could to prevent women from having an equal role in our Australian society. In short, we failed to fully understand the misogyny factor.

We can see it clearly now. It has always been there, we realise, but we thought it would diminish over time. We thought our arguments would prevail. We perhaps thought that people would just get used to the fact that women were everywhere, doing all kinds of jobs. We thought that our continued presence would permeate into acceptance, maybe grudging at first, but gradually approving, even welcoming. Not so.

On 29 January, the ABC's opinion and news analysis website The Drum ran a poll that asked the following question: 146 women, compared to 425 men, received Australia Day honours. Do we need a new system to ensure parity? By 31 January when the poll was taken down, 2934 people had voted. The results were confronting: 59 per cent had voted 'No' and only 41 per cent 'Yes'. This poll was conducted on the same day as The Drum published my article about the extraordinary bias against women in the Order of Australia Honours system. So those who voted against there being parity in our nation's honours were not doing so in ignorance of the fact that women are awarded only a tiny fraction of these awards. We can only conclude those people agree with the bias, that they do not want equality of the sexes in this country, or perhaps they do not value highly the contribution women make to the nation. This is the misogyny factor clearly on show.

I had documented the fact that only 30 per cent of awards had gone to women since they had been established by the Whitlam government in 1975 (replacing the old imperial honours system of Knights and Dames, OBEs and CBEs). As we have seen, the 2013 Australia Day honours fell short even of that low benchmark, with only 25 per cent of the awards going to women. But what was even worse, I argued, was the distribution of the awards. Of the 7645 women who received Order of Australia honours between 1975 and 2010, only 0.73 per cent were awarded the highest honour, the AC (Companion of the Order of Australia); just 4.26 per cent got the next one down, the AO (Officer of the Order of Australia); 19.4 per cent were awarded an AM (Member of the Order of Australia), while the rest – a full 75.6 per cent of all women who have ever been 'gonged' for service to their country – had to be content with the lowest-ranking honour, the OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia). The comparable statistic for the 17,917 men who were honoured over the same period are: AC – 1.84 per cent; AO – 8.95 per cent; AM 29.26 per cent; OAM – 59.95 per cent. This is a stark demonstration of the misogyny factor at work. Here is continuing and, on the 2013 figures, worsening, institutional bias against women in the honours list that demonstrates who we as a nation rank as having best served our country. When it comes to deciding what kind of service is most meritorious, women and their work are devalued in cruelly unambiguous terms.

If we understand that it is the misogyny factor standing in the way of equality of the sexes, then perhaps we will be able to fight it more effectively. Naming something, and understanding how it operates is the start of the process of changing it. Observing it in action, documenting its insidious effects, laying it out for all to see, means we can no longer pretend that we just need to be patient, or more polite, or more clever, and things will eventually change. We have clung to that belief for forty years and where has it got us? It's time to stop asking nicely for what is rightfully ours. It's time to demand equality. And that means confronting, head-on, the continuing and entrenched bias – some of it exhibited in actual hatred – towards women in this country. It means taking on the misogyny factor.

Put simply, the misogyny factor is the entrenched, institutionalised resistance to women's equality. The misogyny factor encompasses the concept of 'misogyny', a term traditionally defined as the hatred of women, but it is broader than that. In today's 21st-century Australia, where we have had at least a century of women struggling to engage fully in public life (fighting for the right to vote, to stand for parliament, to enter the paid workforce, to be paid the same wages as men and so on), the misogyny factor is a more complex and sophisticated set of responses than can be explained by mere hatred. The misogyny factor is manifested in the public and private institutions that run our country and which have proved extraordinarily resistant to having women exercise real power within their ranks. These institutions, and the individuals who run them, don't necessarily hate women, they just don't want women around, at least not as peers and equals – and certainly not running the show. It is fine to have women as handmaidens (secretaries or personal assistants) or doing all those middleranking jobs in the offices and other workplaces around the country, but women are not welcome further up the ranks. There is no room at the top. The fact that Australia has a female Governor-General, a female Prime Minister and (a small number of) women in top positions in some institutions does not disprove what I am saying. In fact, as I will show, the fact that these few women have managed, against all odds, to make it to these top jobs has unleashed such an extraordinary torrent of hatred and hostility that it underscores my argument.

Misogyny is embedded in our way of life and always has been. We thought we were making inroads, changing these attitudes, introducing true partnerships between women and men but, we now know, we were wrong. The misogyny factor is the embodiment of resistance to the equal participation of women and men in our society. It is remarkably resilient and resistant to reason, to argument, to rationality, even to legal intervention. Simple commonsense ought to dictate that the economic benefits of equality to society and to individuals should trump misogyny. That has not been the case. Nor has the fact that many men advocate and fight for equality. The misogyny factor is not simply a case of men against women. It refers to a set of attitudes and behaviours that can just as easily be exhibited by women. The misogyny factor is not just men expressing bias or a desire to exclude women; many women actively support and perpetuate the system that prevents their sex from fully participating in all areas of society. Why these women act as apologists for their own oppression is mystifying; perhaps they think they will be treated as exceptions and, unlike other women, will not be spurned and demeaned. They forget that it is the exceptions that make the rule.

So my argument should not be seen as anti-male. It is not. And this book is not just for women. The misogyny factor is an entrenched system of attitudes and practices that are designed to exclude women, or to demean them if they do succeed in gaining entry. Not all those who perpetuate and benefit from the misogyny factor are men, and not all men benefit from it, but it is fair to say that the vast majority who do are men. Those men don't want to relinquish their power, or even to share it, and so they make it as difficult and as unpleasant as possible for those few women who manage to infiltrate their ranks. Misogyny is exemplified by the exclusion of women from exercising power in the non-domestic areas of our society: that is how hostility towards women is manifested in modern Australia and it is the misogyny factor that has been largely responsible for frustrating all our efforts to date to create a society where women can share real equality with men.


Excerpted from The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers. Copyright © 2013 Anne Summers. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Anne Summers is a writer, a journalist, and the author of Damned Whores and God’s Police, The Lost Mother, and On Luck. She writes for a number of publications, including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and the Australian Financial Review. She has worked as a senior bureaucrat and political adviser, is the editor of the digital magazine Anne Summers Reports, and is the former editor in chief of the landmark feminist New York–based Ms. magazine.

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