Alfred Deakin Research Institute

Sex, Gender and Politics

Fri, 09 Nov 2012 15:55:00 +1100

Women's bodies have long been a site for politics, but over the past few months political games and posturing have put issues like misogyny, sexism, rape and gender in the headlines. Whether it’s American Senate Candidate Richard Mourdock's comments about rape and pregnancy or Julia Gilliard’s address to Tony Abbott, from Australia to America politicians are buying into gendered debates.

As the political race drew to a close in America and candidates grappled for power, gender and women's votes were and are on the table. Some candidates didn't do so well when it came to understanding women's needs, rights and bodies. For instance, in an effort to appease conservative voters Rickard Mourdock had tied rape and religion together in strange and unnerving ways. Mourdock remarked that pregnancy resulting from rape is 'something that God intended to happen'. This comment attracted outrage from women's rights advocates like online magazine Feministing who hit back saying: 'Good morning! It’s October 24, 2012, and Republicans still don’t believe that you should have any control at all over what happens to your own body ... Republicans are still hugely, unapologetically, unsurprisingly anti-woman.'

As if Mourdock's comments aren't scary enough, Republican Todd Akin recently said: 'If it's a legitimate rape the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down'. A legitimate rape? Akin and Mourdock’s comments have had a big impact on their popularity and caused many people to ask if men like these should really be in positions of power. Mourdock's supporter Mitt Romney did not do himself any favors either when he described having 'binders full of women'. Romney said he made a ‘concerted effort to go out and find women’ to fill positions in his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts. Women were left asking why Romney didn't know or interact with any women who he could imagine in such positions of power?

With men and women in America eager to elect a leader that will serve the best interests of both the sexes, they could be excused for thinking their options seem limited. Natasha Lennard (for Salon) suggests that the U.S. might like to borrow Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to take on Congress’ 'misogynist caucus'.

Julia Gillard recently took Tony Abbott to task for his history of misogynistic comments about women in positions of power. The Prime Minister declared that she would not be 'lectured about sexism and misogyny' by Tony Abott who had recently said abortion was the easy way out (he also asked the Prime Minister if she was going to make an honest woman of herself 'politically speaking', and suggested that men were better suited than women to exercise authority).

Julia Gillard's speech uniquely confronts undertones of sexism in politics and Australian society. Gillard 'cut through the disingenuousness and feigned moral outrage of her opponent to call him out for his own personal prejudice, hypocrisy, and aversion to facts' (Amelia Lester for The New Yorker). She has shown that such issues of sexism can and should be named and addressed in political spaces and this approach has been picked up on in America. In confronting and naming these issues the Prime Minister herself has come under attack. Some are now calling for an end to these 'gender wars' and a focus on 'serious issues'.

We  may be used to seeing issues like women's rights, pregnancy and abortion trotted out in political games of power - but Gillard’s talk shows that it is significant and meaningful to stand up to the latent sexism that underpins the politics of certain individuals.

Dr Campbell has written an equally fascinating piece on Women and The Arab Spring - you can find it in the navigation menu to your left.


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Dr Perri Campbell
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19th July 2012