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Tony the Abbott and ‘his’ women

Today I did something I haven’t done in a long, long time – I bought the Women’s Weekly – the issue with the gorgeous Lisa Wilkinson on the front and the one with the infamous Tony Abbott interview. I wanted to give myself a context for understanding all the brouhaha that erupted last week when our budgy-smuggler-wearing Opposition Leader was quoted as having said ‘women should treat virginity as a gift.’ My knee-jerk response was, ‘You’re a gift, Abbott, with a silent ‘f’.

The interview, which also includes one with his wife, 52 year old Margaret who, readers are informed, runs a Childcare Centre on Sydney’s North Shore, is initially fairly benign and tells Abbott’s story, which is pretty well public property (his religious background, time at university where he thought he fathered a son, the public breaking of that tale, his time in a seminary etc.) in a sympathetic light. Only in the second half does it start to deal with issues in which readers of a women’s magazine might also be interested. Only, in this instance, the questions and Abbott’s answers, attracted a much broader audience.

Abbott, we know, has a very firm Catholic faith. He also has strong views on morality that are largely defined by his personal beliefs and Catholic teachings. There are very few people who would object to anyone having a personal moral compass and trying to raise their family according to that. What many people did and still do object to, however, is the fact that Abbott, as a politician who’s elected and paid to govern the country (or, in this instance, keep the elected Federal party in line), sees fit to offer his personal views as some kind of arbitrary ethical yardstick by which all women, families, relationships and even ideologies should be measured. The most infamous now being that ‘virginity’ is a gift ‘that women should not give away lightly.’ The inference being that many of us do – but surely, how, when and to whom a women ‘loses her virginity, is her prerogative? If we want to ‘throw it away’, that’s our decision, isn’t it? (Please note, I am talking about ‘women’ here – young women and those who, age appropriately, are capable of understanding and freely choosing a sexual relationship).

And why do we say ‘lose’? When a child first speaks, do we say, they ‘lost’ their silence? When a boy first ejaculates, does he ‘lose’ his semen? Interesting that virginity, the act of the hymen breaking and a first sexual experience for a woman, is somehow framed in a negative light.

At one point the interviewer expresses surprise that Abbott continues to answer questions that ‘almost every other politician in the country would have tried to avoid’ – namely, around sex before marriage, contraception, abortion and gay marriages. But Abbott ploughs right on ahead. Perhaps he explains the reason for this peculiar need to conflate personal beliefs and political leadership when he admits he’s always had a ‘a slight tendency to want to draw attention to myself.’

Seriously, Abbott is entitled to his views, he’s entitled to raise his family as he wants and instill in them his faith (which to a degree has failed as he can no longer ‘bribe’ the girls to attend church – but Margaret holds herself responsible for that), but what he’s not entitled to do is discuss ‘women’s issues’ (which in many instances are also men’s issues – we live together in this society), as if they are homogenous, framed by a Catholic or Christian principle, and is if he, with his very narrow and privileged world-view and experiences, holds the answers.

Analysing the interview through the lens of Abbott’s approach to women sheds some rather problematic light on some of his answers.

Let me demonstrate. Firstly, he apologises to the interviewer by saying ‘I have to call my princess’ – this is his term of endearment for his wife. He later refers to one of his three beautiful daughters (they are physically stunning), ‘as my darling angel.’ The use of the possessive is not lost on me, nor are the hyperbolic, if affectionate terms for his partner and daughter. But they are also terms which objectify and place these women on an unstable and very high platform. How easy must it be for a princess to stumble, to behave inappropriately and ‘lose’ that sheen he bestows, or for an ‘angel’ to fall and ‘lose’ (that word again) her halo? Just a thought. I know I wouldn’t want be described in either of those terms – too much to live up to and it also suggests that I don’t live in the real world, but a privileged and somewhat parallel reality. Or at least, Abbott places his women there.

This is taken even further when the interviewer points out to Abbott that many women have a ‘problem’ with him (I don’t know him, so my problem is not with him, per se, but it’s certainly with his personal and public politics – the personal which he continuously makes public). Instead of acknowledging this is probably true, he does what many politicians have a tendency to do when backed into the Truth Corner, they fudge the answer and/or fall back on shaky statistics to support their position. ‘I suspect,’ he states, ‘that it is probably more than 10 per cent, but less than 70 percent’ [of women who resent him]. Probably. That’s a word that crops up again and again – it’s non-committal – it’s an all-too-easy escape clause.

But look at his stats. Why is it so difficult for him, a politician for goodness sakes, to accept that many women (and men) don’t like the fact that he’s so prepared to advise them on their morality, sexuality, bodies and relationships. That he appears to believe that he is morally superior – as if he’s graduated from Catholic seminary. He treats the world as his pulpit and sermonises constantly. And we loathe it. That he wraps it in a quite specific religious rhetoric alienates us even more, as if those who don’t follow the Rule For ‘Clean Living’ as espoused by Tony the Abbott, are morally inferior or already on their way to hell. The road to hell, as Abbott sees it, must be littered with all sorts of ‘fallen’ women – and let’s remember, when you place anything on a pedestal, not only is it easy to fall, but it becomes very damaged once it hits the ground.

But, instead of acknowledging this tendency to disenchant females and/or venerate them as ‘angels’ and ‘princesses’, he further justifies his self-righteousness by giving us a very clear picture of the type of women who do not like his ideologies. He is quoted as saying: ‘…I suspect that [what] we are talking about here is a woman of a certain age, in a certain line of work.’
Wait.. it gets better… he takes it further…

‘I think we are talking about younger professional women, essentially, who, for perfectly good reasons, don’t want to be told by anyone else how they should live their lives.’

Deep breath. According to Tony’s logic, older women, non-professional women (what’s a ‘non-professional women’ anyhow?) and those in certain ‘lines-of work’ (what does he mean there?), might like what he has to say. I imagine they are either ‘angels’ or ‘princesses’ as well. For the record, please note that at least Abbott does admit he has a tendency to instruct women – he states that women ‘don’t want to be told by anyone else how they should live their lives.’

No. We don’t. That’s because, young, old, professional, non-professional, angels or princess, we can actually decide that for ourselves.

You know, in making our politicians household names, that is, beyond their elected roles and beyond the hustings, through interviews, the talk-show circuit, guest appearances on prime time shows, we’ve allowed this bleed of privately held beliefs into the public domain to occur. It’s encouraged as we seek to turn elected leaders into ‘celebrities’ or ‘personalities’. Now, even someone as intelligent as Abbott appears to be, doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. No, worse, he does, but we’ve given him a platform from which to be heard, validated him through the media, and now he believes it’s his God-given right to preach to the non-converted.

Interestingly, for a man that’s surrounded by women – wife and three daughters, closest friend, the private things he keeps preaching about are those which effect women – our minds, our bodies, our potential to have successful professional and personal lives – ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, religious or non-religious and regardless, it seems of cultural or socio-economic background and education. For all that he loves his ‘princess’ and his ‘angels’, has a reputation for flirting, and is represented as supportive of women beyond his family – except in actions and words – I can’t help but feel that Tony has a big problem with the opposite sex. That problem centres on his lack of ability to control them and his responses to them. That at one stage he chose to live a religious life cloistered with men is very telling.

Last year, Tony’s daughter, Frances, called him a ‘lame, gay, churchy loser’ – something which he repeated at a public forum. Why? Because it gave him kudos to admit to ‘failing’ in his child’s eyes. It, like everything else that Tony Abbott says, is timed to evoke a deliberate response.

Choosing a woman’s magazine to articulate and ‘explain’ his views on women’s and other controversial social issues was another of these strategies. Even the fallout has been, if not contrived, at least micro-managed in order to give him further opportunity to explain and appeal to conservative (ultra-conservative) views. Working under the premise that any publicity is good publicity, I think that Tony Abbott still fails to understand that when it comes to women, we’re more inclined than ever to think like his daughter.

In this latest interview, Abbott has exposed more then he intended. He’s an anachronism that has no place in Twenty-First Century politics and certainly has no right to preach what he tries (and fails) to practice. Tony, you’re not an Abbott.

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