Five years on, women leaders in Bendigo reflect on legacy of Gillard's misogyny speech

It was the speech heard around the world, one that earned praise from heads of state and was even enshrined on its own commemorative tea towel.  

Now, on the fifth anniversary of Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech”, female leaders in Bendigo have reflected on its continuing legacy, saying the address empowered women to “call out” sexist behaviour in their personal and professional lives.

The milestone arrives at a time when women in Bendigo are enjoying unprecedented power. 

All of the region’s state and federal lower house seats are today occupied by women and the City of Greater Bendigo has a majority of female councillors, including its mayor, Margaret O’Rourke. 

But despite winning office, Victorian MPs Jacinta Allan and Maree Edwards, federal representative Lisa Chesters and first-term councillor Yvonne Wrigglesworth all said discrimination and mistreatment on the basis of gender continued to pervade public life. 

Ms Chesters said the former prime minister’s speech, in which she declared Australian women were “entitled to a better standard” than the one Opposition leader Tony Abbott afforded them, would continue to be regarded as a “calling or an anthem” to females. 

‘I will not be lectured’

It was unlikely Ms Gillard knew when she approached the despatch box that day, ready to respond to a motion from the Opposition she stand down speaker MP Peter Slipper, that her words would be remembered five years later. 

It was not the first time Mr Abbott had called for Mr Slipper’s head (the former Liberal was accused of sexual harassing staff member James Ashby, allegations the Federal Court would later dismiss).  

Labor had nominated the member for Fisher to the speakership, an effort to bolster its lower house numbers. It was therefore the government's responsibility to sanction him, Mr Abbott argued.  

But there was something different on this occasion, and it was perhaps just one of his words – “shame” – that was the catalyst an address Hillary Clinton would later call striking. The word appeared five times in the transcript of Abbott's speech, nine if you count 'ashamed'.  

"Every day the Prime Minister stands in this parliament to defend this Speaker will be another day of shame for this parliament and another day of shame for a government which should have already died of shame," Mr Abbott said. 

These were words he used regularly - it even featured in his budget address to television audiences earlier that year - and might not have piqued Gillard's attention had they not come just two weeks after a Sydney University Liberal Club event at which shock jock Alan Jones told attendees Ms Gillard’s late father had "died of shame" because of his daughter’s parliamentary performance. 

Her response was blistering.

"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man," Ms Gillard said, pointing at a laughing Mr Abbott. 

But the attack did not let up. 

"If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he does not need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror," she continued. 

Ms Gillard would go on to list examples of her rival’s behaviour she believed were sexist: his pondering of whether men were more adept at exercising authority, his apparent endorsement of signs calling Ms Gillard a witch and a bitch, and his failure to reprimand Liberal MPs who remained silent while Mr Jones besmirched the prime minister’s father.  

Asked whether she too experienced sexism in public life, Bendigo East MP Jacinta Allan scoffed.  

“Of course,” she said. “There are, sadly, many (examples).”

Jacinta Allan, Bendigo East

It is perhaps a silly question to ask the woman who, when elected to the Victorian lower house in 1999, became the first woman to represent Bendigo in either federal or state parliament. 

Even as transport minister, it was not uncommon for her to be the only female in a meeting room; after all, just 16 per cent of employees in the sector were women. 

Ms Allan was at home, on maternity leave, when she first heard the prime minister’s speech.

“The raw emotion and energy in her voice came through the radio and it really hit me, I had a physical reaction to it,” she remembered.

“Part of me was celebrating that, after some time and after everything she’d been through, she finally called it out for what it was.”

While she would not elaborate on specific examples of sexism she had encountered, Ms Allan did describe how she handled herself in those situations.

Her approach was, like Ms Gillard’s, to “call it out” - something which typically embarrassed the person responsible – and then to quickly move on.

Maree Edwards, Bendigo West

Bendigo West MP Maree Edwards considered Ms Gillard’s speech alongside Paul Keating’s Redfern address as one of the most memorable Australian speeches in recent history, and creditted it with giving her more confidence to confront sexism. 

“Back in the early days, I probably just ignored it,” Ms Edwards said.

“Now I’d be much more inclined to call it out.”

She did just that on the eve of the 2014 state election when she used social media posts from former Liberal opponent Jack Lyons – including his suggested pick-up line, “Hey, does this rag smell like chloroform to you?” – as the basis for her argument “misogyny was alive and well” in Bendigo.

While women were more empowered because of Ms Gillard’s speech, behaviour like Lyons’ was still too common, Ms Edwards said, pointing to the media’s treatment of British prime minister Teresa May as an example of an ongoing obsession with women’s appearances.

It reminded the Bendigo West MP of criticism she received, and of the slurs levelled at Ms Gillard. 

“Commentary about her voice, the carriage of her body, what she was wearing, her hair, all those things became suddenly more important than the fact she was Prime Minister of this country.”  

Lisa Chesters, Bendigo

Like Ms Edwards, Lisa Chesters also took strength from the Misogyny Speech. 

The federal MP was already chosen as Labor's candidate for Bendigo in the 2013 election when Ms Gillard delivered the speech and she said it steeled her resolve to enter public life. 

Ms Chesters said she did not encounter instances of sexism on the campaign trail, creditting Ms Allan and Ms Edwards with having paved the way for her election.

In fact, as the only woman candidate from the four major parties, she considered her gender an advantage, donning her now signature red coat to emphasise the fact she was different from her competition.  

She was also outnumbered by men on her first day in Canberra - not so much in her own party room as in the House of Representatives. 

Ms Chesters called the Liberal frontbench of the time “a sea of men”, with deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop the lone woman in the government’s cabinet.

“I felt like I was back at university and I'd walked into the wrong pub where a blokes' football team was celebrating the grand final and there wasn't another woman in sight," the MP said.  

The 2016 election saw 73 women – just 32 per cent of the parliament – elected to Canberra, a rise of just one per cent from the previous term.

Forty-two of those women represented the ALP.

Ms Chesters and the two Bendigo state MPs credited affirmative action for increasing the number of women in their party and the country’s parliaments.

Labor women’s network EMILY’s List first lobbied for quotas in the 1990s and again campaigned in 2015 for Labor to run women in half of winnable seats in the next decade.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating: you’ve got to have these sort of institutional arrangements in place to make a difference,” Ms Allan said.

Yvonne Wrigglesworth, councillor

City of Greater Bendigo councillor Yvonne Wrigglesworth was less fond of quotas, saying women should be rewarded because of their achievements, not because of their gender.

A better appreciation of what women offered – abilities sometimes referred to dubiously as “soft skills” – was what she believed the community needed.

“I don’t want to think we’re just filling numbers around the table,” she said.

”What people need to [know] is those soft skills are exactly the hard skills we need to use in a lot of tough environments.”

At 40, the Axedale resident is the youngest of Bendigo’s current councillors.

Although she only began taking an interest in politics since the time of Ms Gillard’s speech, her background in science and health management meant she was well-accustomed to worlds in which men filled most senior ranks.

Like Ms Edwards, she too has given her own misogyny speech of sorts, telling a July council meeting that, in her first few months in the role, she was the recipient of gendered language that “aimed to hurt”.

Ratepayer emails sent to both Ms Wrigglesworth and her council colleagues were worded differently, depending on the gender of the recipient, she said. 

In a phone call with a resident two weeks ago she was told: “You’re a good girl for calling me back.” 

It was patronising language a male councillor would not confront, Ms Wrigglesworth said.

It tended to be older, white men who were the culprits, she said. 

At community events, these people would get too close for comfort, “looming” over her in what Ms Wrigglesworth interpreted as an attempt to intimidate her.

“It’s that part that I find confronting, and I hate that (I feel that way), because it means they’re winning,” she said.

But Ms Wrigglesworth believed it was not just men who needed to challenge their preconceived notions of gender roles.

Some of the strongest criticism she received was from senior women in her own family, who worried her professional life might come at the expense of her family’s wellbeing.

Ms Edwards agreed, recalling the time a female opponent called her and Ms Allan “dumb an dumber” in the lead up to the previous election.

“There’s a saying in EMILY’s List: ‘When women support women, women win’,” she said.​

“Without the support of other women, it just makes the struggle that much harder.”

Ms Gillard declined to comment.