Sarah Hanson-Young is one of several female politicians to speak to news.com.au about the reality of being a woman in the public eye. And it’s not pleasant. Picture: Dean Holland
Sarah Hanson-Young is one of several female politicians to speak to news.com.au about the reality of being a woman in the public eye. And it’s not pleasant. Picture: Dean Holland

Why would any woman sign up for this?

ON ANY given day, you're likely to be called a stupid b**ch, an ugly cow or a sl*t, among a host of other colourful insults.

What you wear, your hairstyle and makeup, be it too much or not enough, is scrutinised and critiqued by pundits and members of the public alike.

And when you offer an opinion that's disagreed with, the reaction can be brutal, violent and threatening in nature.

That's the reality of being a female politician in Australia, with a number of current and former elected representatives sharing their experiences with news.com.au.

And they're fed up, calling for a total overhaul of the culture of parliaments across the country, and the tone of general discourse.

At the weekend, Liberal MP Kelly O'Dwyer announced she would not recontest the seat of Higgins at the next election, citing family reasons for her exit from public life.

The Minister for Women was promptly subjected to a barrage of horrific online abuse, with attacks about her personality and slurs about her personal life.

Disingenuous b**ch. Filthy rat. Sl*t. Disgusting piece of work. Unf***able. A loser.

 

Immediately after announcing she was exiting politics, Kelly O’Dwyer was inundated with horrific abuse on social media. Picture: David Geraghty
Immediately after announcing she was exiting politics, Kelly O’Dwyer was inundated with horrific abuse on social media. Picture: David Geraghty

 

Tanya Plibersek has spoken to news.com.au about the realities of being a woman in politics. Picture: Hollie Adams
Tanya Plibersek has spoken to news.com.au about the realities of being a woman in politics. Picture: Hollie Adams

 

That's the tip of the iceberg - just some of the comments made about and directed to Ms O'Dwyer on the day she revealed she'd suffered a miscarriage while in office - something that contributed greatly to her decision to leave.

"The things that were written about Kelly O'Dwyer were disgusting and they're not excusable, but unfortunately I'm not surprised," South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

"Sadly, this is an insight into some of the awful and disgusting things that female politicians cop when they become a public voice on issues or start to put their head up."

Penny Sharpe, Deputy Leader of the NSW Labor Party, said the abuse directed at Ms O'Dwyer was "appalling but not surprising".

"As we know, women are targeted with sexist abuse all the time, particularly if they've got a public profile," Ms Sharpe said.

"I'm no longer surprised about the abuse women in public life get. I think it's very disappointed that there's a basic lack of good manners and grace."

 

Tanya Plibersek says it’s disturbing to reflect on how Julia Gillard was treated as PM — much of it something a man wouldn’t have copped. Picture: Hollie Adams
Tanya Plibersek says it’s disturbing to reflect on how Julia Gillard was treated as PM — much of it something a man wouldn’t have copped. Picture: Hollie Adams

 

And Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Spokesperson for Women, said very little said on social media surprised her anymore.

"The worst of it is stuff you wouldn't see a man cop - there's still a special nastiness reserved for women at senior levels," Ms Plibersek said.

RAPE THREATS COMMON

Often, when a woman in politics speaks up about the way they are treated, either by trolls, the general public or even colleagues, they're accused of not being able to "hack it".

When Liberal MP Julia Banks opened up about being bullied during the party's messy leadership coup last year, her own colleague Craig Kelly told her to "roll with the punches".

And while parliament can be a boisterous and unruly place, Ms Hanson-Young said men don't cop the same level of violent abuse that women do.

"The starkest example of that is rape threats," she said.

"Our male colleagues don't receive rape threats. That shows there's still a long way to go in providing a platform where women are valued for participating in the political process and encouraged and supported to put forward strong opinions, free of that disgraceful vitriol."

 

Sarah Hanson-Young said rape threats are a common occurrence for women in politics. Picture: Dean Holland
Sarah Hanson-Young said rape threats are a common occurrence for women in politics. Picture: Dean Holland

 

A former female politician, who spoke to news.com.au on the condition of anonymity, saying she didn't want to draw attention to herself, revealed she once required police protection for several weeks after a threat of sexual assault.

The message, sent in writing to her electorate office, was in response to a position she took on a contentious policy issue. It listed in disturbing detail how the mother would be raped to "teach me a lesson".

During a speech in London in 2006, at a memorial for slain British Labour MP Jo Cox, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said threats of violence have become more prevalent for women in public life.

RELATED: Liberal women an 'endangered species' after yet another exit

 

Former PM Julia Gillard has spoken out repeatedly about the abuse copped by women in politics. Picture: Brendan Esposito/AAP
Former PM Julia Gillard has spoken out repeatedly about the abuse copped by women in politics. Picture: Brendan Esposito/AAP

 

"They can take the form of detailed death threats, or threats of violence against family, friends and staff," Ms Gillard said.

"And of course, as a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sickening dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily."

VILE SLURS AND VIOLENCE

Last year, Victoria's Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan revealed she had received death threats from taxi drivers who were angry over the ride-sharing sector's growth in the state.

Social media posts included a photograph of Ms Allan and description of her being choked or hanged with a scarf she was wearing.

Similarly, West Australian Transport Minister Rita Saffioti last year required armed protection after a death threat was delivered to her family home.

Her eight-year-old daughter opened the envelope, which contained Ms Saffioti's father's death notice, published in a newspaper, and promised her family would be next if she didn't address the taxi industry's concerns.

"The kids are probably doing a bit better than I am," Ms Saffioti told reporters at the time.

"It was a horrible thing. (My daughter) was asking why it happened and whether the person who did it had been caught."

And in 2012, a man was jailed for sending explosive packages and disturbing threats to former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Ms Gillard.

 

NSW Labor Deputy Leader Penny Sharpe said social media can be awful for women in politics. Picture: Daniel Aarons
NSW Labor Deputy Leader Penny Sharpe said social media can be awful for women in politics. Picture: Daniel Aarons

 

Ms Hanson-Young said having an opinion can put a constant target on your back, with people not often willing to discuss or debate an issue.

"Some people still have a problem with a relatively young woman having an opinion and standing up. I make no apology for that.

"Rather than debating me on my policies or tackling my arguments, often, and very quickly, it turns to personal and gendered attacks. I'm a cow, a b**ch, I'm fat, I either dress too dowdy or like a sl*t - I can never get that one right."

More often than not, it's not what a female politician says that is focused on - but how she looked when she said it, women in public life reveal.

"What you're wearing, how you're wearing it, what your hair looks like, whether you've got on not enough or too much makeup … it's constant," Ms Sharpe said.

"It has nothing to do with your ability to do the job. And blokes get to wear a suit and that's that."

Last year, an article in a conservative magazine about Ms Hanson-Young criticised the size of her breasts.

"That article suggesting I couldn't be taken seriously because I have boobs … I mean, what was that?" she said. "Yep, I have boobs. But I have opinions. I'm more interested in talking about that."

 

 

FAMILY FAIR GAME

Ms Hanson-Young is regularly the subject of violent and intimidating abuse, but last year received a sickening threat about her young daughter.

An Australian Federal Police investigation discovered that a NSW male police officer was allegedly behind the call to her electorate office.

The matter remains before the courts.

 

A NSW police officer is facing charges over the alleged threat that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young received. Picture: James Elsby
A NSW police officer is facing charges over the alleged threat that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young received. Picture: James Elsby

 

"I know some people will say that this is part of robust debate but no, sorry, it's not," Ms Hanson-Young said.

"There is well and truly a gendered element to the abuse that female politicians cop. It's above and beyond their male colleagues.

"I know male colleagues have had their families dragged into issues. It's not like it doesn't happen to them, and it's appalling.

"But I do think the relationship and family statuses of women are far more up for public discussion and debate than men in politics. It's fair game."

During her time in both Opposition and as PM, Ms Gillard copped repeated criticism for not being married and not having children.

"There's still a special nastiness reserved for women at senior levels," Ms Plibersek said.

"When you look at the treatment that Julia Gillard got as prime minister - and some of the worst misogynistic abuse lurking in the nether regions of the internet - it was awful."

In 2007, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan said she was unfit for leadership because she was "deliberately barren".

 

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was dubbed “deliberately barren” by a fellow politician and even copped questions about whether her partner Tim Mathieson was gay while live on radio. Picture: Gary Ramage
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was dubbed “deliberately barren” by a fellow politician and even copped questions about whether her partner Tim Mathieson was gay while live on radio. Picture: Gary Ramage

 

Her partner Tim Mathieson was also regularly the subject of sneering attacks, with radio host Howard Sattler even bluntly asking the PM live on air if he was gay.

"That's absurd," Ms Gillard said, showing remarkable restraint.

Sattler asked: "You can confirm he's not?"

"Howard, don't be ridiculous … that is bordering on … you and I have just talked about me and Tim living at The Lodge, we live there together as a couple, you know that."

 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA NIGHTMARE

The digital environment has become a critical area for politicians, where they can directly engage with constituents and cut to the heart of an issue.

While everyone in power realises the importance of being on social media platforms, all lament the ease with which users can be awful.

While she's aware of the vitriol routinely directed at her online, Ms Plibersek said she doesn't look at it and doesn't acknowledge it.

"I don't read it at all. Honestly, I do get it, but it's not psychologically good for you to pay attention to it, so I don't," she said.

"Those people who are saying those things don't know me. People have an idea about public figures and sometimes they are too generous in their assessment and sometimes they're too critical.

"I don't care what people I don't know think of me - I care about doing my job well."

 

 

Regardless of the party, policy or position, every woman in politics cops it, Ms Sharpe said.

"The abuse of women, particularly online, it pretty equal across party lines - people are appalling no matter who you are or what your politics," she said.

"And there's inappropriate and sexist abuse that comes from both the left and the right. None of it is ever acceptable."

 

 

Ms Hanson-Young said "a quick look" at her Twitter mentions reveals the extent of the problem.

"I don't want to pretend that it doesn't affect or it's not something that's upsetting. Of course it is. However, women have suffered this type of treatment for too long. If we pretend it doesn't happen or we don't talk about it, it continues.

"In my decade in politics, it's the biggest lesson I've learnt - sucking it up and trying to ignore it, for the sake of wanting to appear unaffected, to avoid being called weak, does nothing. It doesn't stop it. In fact, it gets worse - it gets louder and it gets more disgusting."

FROM WITHIN TOO

It's not just the public who level attacks at female politicians.

Labor MP Clare O'Neil last year described parliament as "toxic", particularly for women, on the back of Ms Banks' bullying revelations.

"So there's a level of aggression, of conflict, of egocentricism that dominates the culture in Parliament House and I think that is quite hard to handle," Ms O'Neil told ABC's Insiders program.

 

Tanya Plibersek says the progress made in the Labor Party when it comes to female representation has been long and hard-fought. Picture: Kelly Barnes/AAP
Tanya Plibersek says the progress made in the Labor Party when it comes to female representation has been long and hard-fought. Picture: Kelly Barnes/AAP

 

The Liberal Party's response to the allegations, said to have taken the form of threats and intimidation during the leadership showdown that saw Malcolm Turnbull ousted as PM, were highly criticised.

"I can say, very honestly, if there was bullying and intimidation put on me as a member of parliament, I would pick up the phone, I would call Penny Wong and call Tanya Plibersek and there would be a nuclear armageddon on the person who did this to me," Ms O'Neil said.

Ms Hanson-Young is currently suing Senator David Leyonhjelm for defamation over comments he made in the chamber and again on Sky News, ABC's 7.30 and radio station 3AW last year about her sex life.

 

Senator David Leyonhjelm was criticised for his disparaging remarks about Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in the chamber and in the media. Picture: Mark Brake/AAP
Senator David Leyonhjelm was criticised for his disparaging remarks about Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in the chamber and in the media. Picture: Mark Brake/AAP

 

Mr Leyonhjelm came under fire after telling her to "stop shagging men" during a debate about his proposal to let women carry pepper spray and mace.

Despite intense public pressure, he "proudly" refused to apologise.

Days later, in a television appearance, Mr Leyonhjelm made further remarks about Ms Hanson-Young's personal life.

Meanwhile, after her bullying revelations, Ms Banks announced she would not recontest the upcoming election and later resigned from the Liberal Party.

"There is also a clear need for an independent and whistleblower system as found in many workplaces to enable reporting of misconduct of those in power without the fear of reprisal or retribution," she said in an address to parliament.

 

Julia Banks and Julie Bishop have both spoken out about the treatment of women in politics. Picture: Kym Smith
Julia Banks and Julie Bishop have both spoken out about the treatment of women in politics. Picture: Kym Smith

 

Ms Bishop, who stood down as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and Foreign Minister after Mr Turnbull's rolling, has also spoken on numerous occasions about the poor behaviour in parliament.

In a speech shortly after, she said the conduct she witnessed "would not be tolerated in any other workplace in Australia".

Ms Bishop slammed her party's actions, saying it highlighted the need for a "much broader debate about workplace culture" including "allegations of bullying, harassment and coercion and the unequal treatment of women".

RELATED: Julie Bishop reveals the 'pain' felt in recent months

 

TIME FOR BROAD CHANGE

The treatment of women in politics gained attention last year due to the bullying allegations levelled by Ms Banks, the preselection defeat of Liberal MP Jane Prentice and stepping down of Ann Sudmalis, and the snubbing of Liberal veteran Julie Bishop by her own party.

A number of female parliamentarians also spoke out about the abuse they have copped both within the halls of power and online.

But the problem is nothing new, female MPs told news.com.au, and something has to change.

"I think what's going on is an exposé on how women have been treated for a long, long time in politics. They're experiences that tend to be very gendered and sexualised," Ms Hanson-Young said.

 

Those on the other end of the political spectrum to Kelly O’Dwyer have praised her for reaching across party lines to support fellow female politicians. Picture: Kym Smith
Those on the other end of the political spectrum to Kelly O’Dwyer have praised her for reaching across party lines to support fellow female politicians. Picture: Kym Smith

 

"Some people will be shocked and some people will be disheartened, but really, this is stuff that's been going on for a long time because the moment you name it, you're accused of not being up to the task, not tough enough for the job.

"You can't roll with the punches. This isn't rolling with the punches. It's about the basic expectation of civility and respect - for all politicians."

 

 

Ms Plibersek said she worries the things female politicians have to contend with - particularly the abuse - might dissuade women from considering putting their hands up for politics.

"That is actually my biggest worry," she said.

"The vile stuff that people say about women in politics … it's important to call it out as a thing is because I don't want anyone considering a life in public office to decide not to because they don't want the abuse.

"That's a really terrible loss for public life. That would be a tragedy."

Those female role models who are there serve an important purpose, Ms Sharpe said, in encouraging more women to step up.

But the experiences of Ms O'Dwyer and Ms Banks, to name a few, were "saddening" and potentially damaging.

"Women outside thinking about coming into politics might stop and think about whether the awful stuff is worth it, and that's a great loss no matter what side of politics you're on."

 

Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard was the subject of the worst kinds of misogyny. Picture: Gary Ramage
Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard was the subject of the worst kinds of misogyny. Picture: Gary Ramage

 

Ms Hanson-Young said she disagreed with Ms O'Dwyer on "almost all areas of policy" but revealed the two political opposites often supported each other.

"She did amazing things to show that you could be a strong-willed woman and take on the various ministries that she did, to have a voice and an opinion.

"She's one of the people who across party lines would reach out from time to time, and who I would reach out to."

It was an example of the unofficial female support networks that exist in politics, and Ms Hanson-Young wants to see it formalised.

"I really believe it's time for women to untie across all party lines and take the issue on more directly. We need to support each other in a more upfront manner. It's time for a women's caucus.

"There's that cross-party support but I think it's time to formalise it with a women's caucus across all parties."

BIG STRIDES MADE

Labor is approaching 50 per cent female representation among its federal ranks, which is a stark change from when Ms Plibersek entered parliament in 1998.

Women and men had fought "for generations" to make the party more equitable and it had helped to change the culture of politics, she said.

 

Labor leader Bill Shorten and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek with the ALP female candidates who will contest next year’s election. Picture: Danny Aarons
Labor leader Bill Shorten and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek with the ALP female candidates who will contest next year’s election. Picture: Danny Aarons

 

"It didn't start with my generation. We've had really strong Labor women since the 1890s. This isn't something you turn around in a day.

"I feel gratitude, but also responsibility. Where we still do have inequality or unfairness, we need to tackle that as well.

"At almost 50 per cent, we're doing much better than when I entered parliament. I don't deny there are challenges we have to meet. We need to make sure other unrepresented groups have the opportunity.

"We need to make sure we have different religious and ethnic backgrounds, different ages, people with kids and without, grandparents, different family make-ups, carers … the broader the collective life experience of the team, the more in touch we can be with the issues all Australians face.

"It's important to have more women, but also a parliament that more closely reflects the entire Australian population."

 

Continue the conversation shannon.molloy@news.com.au | @sleemol

 

 

The abuse directed at Kelly O’Dwyer is indicative of the state of politics for women. Picture: Kym Smith
The abuse directed at Kelly O’Dwyer is indicative of the state of politics for women. Picture: Kym Smith


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