Just over 10 years ago, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard stood up in the House of Representatives to deliver one of the most unforgettable political speeches in recent history.
Office workers shared it by the water cooler and by coffee cups. Mothers shared it with their daughters. The speech went viral on the internet. And was watched by women all over the world.
Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’ forms the incendiary incident and climatic conclusion to Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Julia, produced by the Sydney Theater Company, starring Justine Clarke and Jessica Bentley.
Only this time – on opening night at the Sydney Opera House – Gillard’s words arrived in a changed world, receiving a standing ovation that was as much for Clarke’s 90-minute virtuoso performance as for Murray-Smith’s impassioned writing.
This play is not only about the extraordinarily toxic sexism Gillard endured, but how she endured it.
Murray-Smith powerfully depicts the felt life, memories and emotions of the woman behind the words, in a work that is openly fictional, even though it is constructed from the facts of Gillard’s life.
“I will not let this man lecture me about sexism and misogyny”
The opening lines of the piece set the tone: Canberra, 9 October 2012. Gillard, as Prime Minister, takes on the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, in the House of Representatives, opposite the letterbox.
The first three words of the speech – “I don’t want to” – bubbling up deep inside her, send her hurtling back through time and memory. She finds herself in a childhood conversation with her mother, whose lilting Welsh accent is seamlessly taken over by Clarke, as is the voice of a primary school-aged Gillard, who insists, “I won’t have” children: there are better things to do.
Clarke proves herself an actor of extraordinary range in what is essentially a one-woman play, with Bentley playing a silent role, as a younger woman watching.
Clarke goes from Gillard as a child to a young woman caught up in the ‘big hair’ and dance moves of the 1980s, a successful corporate lawyer and then Prime Minister. Amazingly, Clarke pulls her face into a very familiar, crooked grin, and there’s Tony Abbott, to whom she says:
“This man will not lecture me about sexism and misogyny. I will not. And the government will not let this man lecture on sexism and misogyny. Not now, not ever.”
Read more: Julia Gillard hits back at long history of sexism in parliament
Deep-seated prejudice against women
Gillard’s speech erupted onto the political scene when misogyny – redefined by the Macquarie Dictionary in the aftermath of her speech as “deeply rooted prejudice against women” – became so pervasive, so normal and so expected that it was invisible to many.
It was five years before #MeToo, six years before Liberal MP Julia Banks resigned her seat in the House of Representatives over allegations of sexual harassment, including actual groping. It took nine years for Brittany Higgins to report her alleged sexual assault to the federal police, and ten years for the Commissioner for Sex Discrimination to report on the systemic and entrenched sexism crippling Australia’s political system.
It also took a decade for a “blue-green wave” of female independents to come to power and do away with the male-dominated Liberal Party in its metropolitan base.
It was a time when the Australian media loved to amplify sexist insults about Gillard’s clothing, hair, make-up and the shape of her hips. Even the allegedly progressive age equated her lifetime achievements to a bowl of fruit, minus “the bananas”.
In a much-repeated statement, a Liberal MP described her as “deliberately sterile”. And Abbott liked to pose for television cameras in front of a bunch of waving signs that read, “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch.”
Not unexpectedly, when Gillard gave her speech, most of Canberra’s press gallery – with a front row seat – completely fell away missed the point.
Courage without strength
Gillard, with only a small grip on power, mostly as the leader of a minority government, succeeded in a phenomenal 543 individual pieces of legislation in 1,098 daysmaking her the country’s most prolific prime minister, if passing legislation is understood as a government’s measure of effectiveness.
And it is Gillard’s extraordinary capacity as a negotiator, aided by her deep pragmatism, that provides Murray-Smith’s most penetrating insight.
It also contains the most memorable lines of the play. “Courage” without “strength” is “just a fabrication,” she tells us, explaining how the heart flutters in those moments when political pragmatism soars on “wings of idealism.” It is a portrait of politics and policy-making as the art of the possible, driven by a concern for what or how much can be achieved – not necessarily what one thinks, wants or most desires.
The ideas gain traction in the way Murray-Smith contrasts Gillard’s controlled workday with her nighttime fantasies – dreaming that radio shock jocks and childish young liberals will put aside their poisonous vitriol.
The play talks about Gillard’s reservoirs of emotional strength, but doesn’t shy away from where she failed, or what she did wrong. This includes failure to act on refugees, same-sex marriage, and the extension of Howard-era punitive “welfare to work measures” to single-parent families (which, ironically, passed the Senate on the day of the “misogyny speech”).
It also shows a clear awareness of what has been lost. And what should have happened but didn’t happen.
Perhaps at the end of the play, it’s not the rage and passion and rage that lingers, but the sense of hope and fragile optimism. An idea that we can do better, do better.
It was, I suspect, hope that rallied the audience on opening night.