Julia Gillard’s descriptions of her sense of isolation as a woman in politics will, for many professional women, elicit only a sense of tired familiarity.

My Story

Julia Gillard. London: Bantam Press, 2014. £25.00. 512 pp.

When Julia Gillard, then Australia’s somewhat unlikely prime minister, addressed the Australian parliament on 9 October 2012, the situation was tense. Her minority government was foundering at the polls, and the man her Labor Party had backed as Speaker of the House of Representatives was facing a motion of non-confidence after comparing, in a leaked text message, parts of the female anatomy to a jar of molluscs. As Gillard attempted to defend the indefensible, she succeeded in delivering one of the most impassioned and compelling feminist speeches of our time. 

It may not have been the most eloquent of speeches, delivered as it was in the casual and clumsy language that is typical of Australian political discourse. And as critics rightly pointed out, the speech was also a highly calculated and viciously personal attack against then-opposition leader – now prime minister – Tony Abbott. But by giving voice to her outrage over the sexism and misogyny she had experienced throughout her time in politics, Gillard’s speech rose above simple political opportunism to encompass a broader message about the treatment of women, both in politics and in society more generally.

‘I was very offended personally’, she declared, her voice wavering slightly with fury, ‘when … the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said, and I quote, “Abortion is the easy way out.”’ ‘I was offended’, she continued, ‘when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of parliament and stood next to a sign that said “Ditch the witch.”’ She recalled instances when Abbott had asked whether, ‘if it is true … that men have more power, generally speaking, than women’, that was necessarily a bad thing, and if it was possible that men, ‘by physiology or temperament [are] more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command’. ‘If [the Leader of the Opposition] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia’, Gillard observed, ‘he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror’. As she spoke, Abbott glanced down at his watch, his trademark smirk gone. 

The speech, quickly uploaded to YouTube, would soon go viral, reaching audiences around the world. While Australians themselves, exhausted by political rancour, were divided in their reception of it, Gillard received praise for her remarks from then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and congratulations from young girls in the streets of India, among others (p. 111).

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Charlotte Kennedy is a freelance contributor for the Economist Intelligence Unit and a Master of International Public Policy candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She formerly worked for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was a junior staffer in the office of Kevin Rudd in 2007 when he was leader of the opposition.

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