Gillard versus giggling

I recently had the great pleasure of allowing several of my young musicians to have a go at conducting the orchestra. One, a girl of about 14, showed an unusual degree of natural talent in terms of gesture and sensitivity. I complimented her and said she should perhaps think about pursuing conducting skills further. A little later, she came up to me, trying to talk to me about the experience, but preventing herself from being comprehensible by giggling her head off. I was quite strict with her: I told her to “stop that giggling straight away – it is that kind of behaviour that prevents women – and especially girls – from achieving!” She stopped giggling (to her great credit), and we had a serious conversation.

This exchange came back to me when I had the pleasure of watching Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia, using a speech to castigate Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, for sexism and misogyny. You can click here to see the full version. I highly recommend watching the complete version (15 minutes), but if you haven’t time, there is a shorter extract here (which is also a Guardian blog post by Chloe Angyal).

A number of things impressed me about this speech and the way it was delivered.

1. At no point did Gillard descend to personal name-calling or the admittedly imaginative and often amusing insults that bespatter the macho world of Australian politics. She certainly employed sarcasm, but she kept well away from the unedifying mud-slinging of which she has herself been so frequently the target.

2. She maintained her dignity and consequently came across as totally unapologetic about what she had to say. At no point did she let any weasel words creep in, such as ‘I’m sorry if people find this hard to take…’, or ‘It may not seem ladylike of me to say this, but…’ She laid it on the line, making the transgressions she described appear more heinous.

3. She did not elaborate or embroider – she knew her material would speak for itself.

4. She was not afraid to give her opinions – after all, she is the PM. So many women hang back from offering opinions or reactions to offensive actions or words – she showed how it should be done. (Of course, it helped that she had Madam Deputy Speaker keeping the hecklers in order.)

Julia Gillard gives us an exercise in assertive communication for women. Smiling, giggling, offering social excuses for those offend us or allowing them to present their offensiveness as ‘banter’ are all entirely counter-productive. Such stratagems prevent us from fully engaging our intellects and allow us to fall into bad habits of communication which will never be effective. They also diminish us in our own eyes.

I think Gillard’s speech should be required viewing – for women AND men, to show us all what equality could look like, and sound like. I’m certainly going to pass it on to my young musician – it might speed her on her way to conducting the London Symphony Orchestra one day.

Published in: on October 10, 2012 at 13:22  Comments (9)  

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  1. It is a fine speech indeed, although it is perhaps a shame that it was given in an attempt to protect one of her government’s appointees who had been caught in the same sort of behaviour for which she condemns Abbott (who is, by the way, a ghastly man with ghastly views). Still, didn’t matter, as the speaker resigned later that day.

    It would be good to hear more forthright and robust speeches like this in British politics, actually in defence of an idea, rather than besmirched by slippery Realpolitik and afraid to call a spade a spade because the politicians are all in hock with big business interests. A vain hope, perhaps.

    I like your piece and agree with every word. Like the way you have tied in the misogynist attitudes of men like Abbott to self-negating attitudes in many women, which have their effects in things such as the nervous giggling of your promising student; and then giving assertive female performances such as Gillard’s as an example to such women of how they can be. Cleverly done, and a good point well made.

    • Thank you Badger – how nice to have such detailed feedback – and it is also nice to know that I have put across exactly what I wanted to express.

      I agree with you about Abbott – I like to feel that this speech was a factor in prising him out. but I actually don’t agree that the speech was intended to protect him. She asserts a number of non-negotiable issues – anti-sexism and anti-double standards – and sticks to them herself.

      Your phrase ‘besmirched by slippery Realpolitik’ is perfectly lovely!

  2. Oh no, I meant she was protecting the Speaker, Peter Slipper. This speech was during a motion of no confidence in the Speaker brought by the opposition. Slipper, although he had been a member of Abbott’s Liberal opposition, was appointed by Gillard’s Labour government, and so her attack on Abbott – fully justified and brilliantly done – was an attempt to defeat the motion of no confidence. So in the background of what come across as non-negotiable issues is the fact that she’s speaking to defeat a motion of no confidence brought against one of her appointees because (in part) of misogynistic and homophobic text message Slipper had sent. She says she was offended by them, but still attempts to save Slipper’s position.

    This doesn’t deduct from the force or validity of her attack on Abbott, but the context leave a smidgeon of bad taste in my mouth. If these things were as non-negotiable as she says, she might not have been speaking against the motion. I may be being unfair, as she does say she doesn’t support the motion because Slipper was the subject of a court case at the time (not sure whether it was directly related to these matters – he had also been accused of fiddling expenses) – I don’t know enough about the specifics of the case. I just do know party politics, and the aptitude for double-talk amongst party politicians.

    But I don’t wish to detract from the force or validity of what she says about Abbott – that was simply brilliant and stunningly done. She even manages to turn his looking at his watch against him. It was a bravura performance, and as I said I would love to see more impassioned speaking of this nature, which is actually about something that matters rather than being merely cheap points-scoring, in British politics.

    • Hello again Badger. I meant to say ‘Slipper’, not Abbott. I absolutely take your point about this but I got the impression she would be quite happy to see Slipper go. Using the speech to expose Abbott was a brilliant stroke, but it also meant she didn’t have to come out in favour of Slipper (which you’ll notice she really didn’t).

      • You may well be right, and yes, certainly she didn’t speak in support of him, even if she didn’t accept the motion of no confidence. And she did say she was very offended by the content of his text messages.

      • In fact, the more reflect on it, and what she did actually say in her speech, the more I tend to agree that you’re right: she wasn’t defending the Speaker, but saying that sexism and misogyny can never been acceptable, and pointing out the hypocrisy of the opposition leader in making a bit of party political opportunism out of such behaviour when it was rife in their own ranks. More power to her for doing so, and doing it so well.

  3. Congratulations on your advice to this girl. You’ve done her a big favour.

    Other things that females do that reduce their credibility:

    Mistake sexy for smart – cleavage and high heels in the daytime.
    Mistake dowdy for serious – just makes you look as if you don’t respect yourself.
    Mistake flirty for friendly.
    Either suck up to men or act as if they are all rapists trying to oppress you.

    I blame t’telly.

  4. I too enjoyed this speech immensely and am very impressed with what you said to your pupil. I’m re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books at the moment (no laughing at the back – they’re nothing like the execrable TV series) and she was such an extraordinary creature, learning to control her rebelliousness and to put lightheartedness in its place where necessary. She still had such a lot of fun, but she knew what life was about. Obviously she was brought up as a 19th-century woman, but she is a lesson in hard work, thoughtfulness and achievement.

    By the way, having recently seen “Julius Caesar” at the RSC, I found myself being reminded of Mark Antony’s rhetoric when I listened to Gillard. Even the little “asides” and references to outside factors or peoples’ previous deeds mirror the way he speaks at Caesar’s burial. “…and Brutus is an honorable man”, repeated and repeated… yes, what the hell, Gillard was Shakespearean.

    The Gillard speech seems to have gone viral and produced a lot of comment – much of it simply on the quality of the speechmaking, ie Why can’t we hear rhetoric like this in *our* parliament? This country’s children are not taught to speak well: I wish they were.

  5. Pertinent, interesting, required watching for girls/young women/older woman not sure how to enter the fray. Not giggling is exactly the advice to start with and then move on to other things that take away the impact of perfectly accurate statements.

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