Australia: PM Howard's underhand misogyny exposed
The Sunday Age -- Melbourne -- May 6, 2007
A glaring double standard on womenRachel Woodlock
When it was reported last October that an older male public figure made comments insulting to women, Prime Minister John Howard was quick to condemn. "They are appalling and reprehensible comments," he said, "out of touch with contemporary values in Australia."
Fast forward to last week: when another older male public figure made sexist comments , Howard did not seem to mind.
"People say funny things all the time and the question of whether they apologise for them is a matter for them," he said. It was only later, after howls of protest around the country, that he forced an apology.
The first public figure was the controversial cleric Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, who had described women without hijab as "cat's meat", while the second was Howard's close friend and fellow Liberal, Senator Bill Heffernan, who inferred childless women were unfit for leadership.
Why the double-standard on insulting sexist comments?
Of course, this is not the first time public protest has forced Howard to reign in Heffernan. Heffernan had to resign from his position as cabinet secretary in 2002 after making spurious allegations against High Court Justice Michael Kirby under parliamentary privilege. Both the openly gay Justice Kirby and Heffernan's current target, deputy Opposition leader Julia Gillard, challenge the socially conservative mores to which Heffernan and Howard subscribe. The Prime Minister and his friend were raised in an era in which "family" meant a man, his wife and a brood of kids. The father was the breadwinner the mother stayed at home dealing with Heffernan's "buckets of nappies".
Today it is recognised that family patterns can be diverse. There are divorced parents, single-parent families, blended-families, de facto marriages, homosexual couples with adopted children, foster parents and more. Women who do not have children are hardly removed from family experience - they have been raised in one.
But these changes to family patterns are deeply threatening to social conservatives, who feel that the moral fabric of society is being threatened. This is expressed in debates about women having careers versus being stay-at-home mothers. It is also occurring in Muslim countries where older conservative men feel threatened by the rapid changes that are giving women more power and autonomy.
Howard has often referred to himself as a supporter of traditional family values, but as an economic rationalist he needs women in the workforce. This is the tricky tightrope he walks, courting traditional Labor voters (working-class mums and dads, whom he describes as "mainstream Australians") with his "values", while many of his policy choices are deeply anti-family and anti-women, not least WorkChoices. The two positions, social conservatism and economic rationalism, are fundamentally irreconcilable. Women are both expected to stay at home raising babies and populate the workforce for the good of the economy?
Back to Senator Heffernan who was caught simply and crudely representing the values of Howard's social conservatism. According to Marion Maddox, author of God Under Howard, this is a common strategy for the Prime Minister, capitalising on the extreme and inflammatory comments of others to make himself look moderate but at the same time giving them soft support. Hence, his passing off of Heffernan's "funny" comments. But this time it backfired.
When Heffernan insulted Gillard, he also managed to insult swathes of Australian women, and they did not like it one little bit. Whether Muslim women, or women in general, they are simply not willing to give up the autonomy and independence for which they have fought long and hard. It is a lesson that Hilali, Heffernan and Howard must learn.
Rachel Woodlock is a researcher at the Centre for Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies, Monash University.