Each of us is here today because we believe in promoting more women, who are committed to equality for their sisters, into public life. All of us are here today because we understand that we can best achieve this goal by working together.
And of course, we are here to honour the memory of one great female politician who would have absolutely endorsed this celebration of unity and purpose, Jo Cox.
Togetherness, unity – these were values that drove Jo in all that she did. She believed in a world that celebrated and reflected our common humanity. She believed in a nation that was united and welcomed diversity.
Jo fought for togetherness throughout her life.
As head of policy for Oxfam, she had comforted victims of rape in Darfur, met child soldiers in Uganda, and empathised with the hopes and fears of elders in Afghanistan – all people who had born witness to the very worst consequences of allowing our differences to divide us.
In politics, Jo brought her passion for togetherness into everything she did. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons, she proclaimed to the chamber that whilst she loved the fact that her Constituency of Batley and Spen celebrated its diversity, in Jo’s words, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.
Jo was devastated by the conflict in Syria, and took personally the lack of urgency and compassion that was characterising foreign policy debates over Britain’s role as a global power and the responsibilities that came with it. She feared for the children of refugees, for their future, their safety, and their health and education. These were issues that she felt strongly enough about to challenge her party, and to challenge the Prime Minister. In doing so, she changed the foreign policy of this country.
In the midst of the toxic politics that too often characterised Brexit, Jo continued her personal crusade for togetherness. She believed in the Remain position because she believed Britain – the United Kingdom – was stronger in the European Union than out. She believed unity equalled strength.
This concept of togetherness was something that defined Jo. It was a value which she fought for in the community and throughout her career. Tragically, it was a cause that cost Jo her life, far too terribly and far too soon.
Like millions of others around the world, I remember where I was when I heard of Jo’s death. I was in a hotel room in Brussels and – unusually for me – I had the television on. Normally, I get my news online but I was sorting through documents and other stuff I had accumulated on the trip. I flicked the television on for background but on hearing about Jo I stopped moving around the room, sank on to the bed and watched – saddened, stricken and shuddering about what this said about our world.
Women friends of mine, who were campaigning in Australia’s election, were particularly shaken. They wondered; “What does this mean for us now?” Standing at street stalls and giving out pamphlets at train stations they asked themselves for the first time ever – “are we safe?”
How do those who loved Jo recover? How do we all move beyond the shock and the fear?
My answer is that while we must farewell Jo, we must never farewell the values that defined her.
Jo lives on through those who loved her, those who miss her, and through all of us that share her passion for social solidarity as we choose to step up and serve in public life.
I have been asked today to give you an honest account of the reality of being in politics.
The most important truth is one Jo understood so well. Politics enables us to drive and deliver real progress. If you are driven by a sense of purpose, as she was, politics and the pursuit of power enables you to achieve your dreams for your society.
Activism is wonderful and it serves an important role in our democracy. But if you want to see real change and you want to see it endure, then politics is where you need to be. This is why Jo Cox made the transition from campaigner to MP.
I genuinely believe that politics is a noble calling, not a grubby, necessary evil. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in free and fair democracies where we have the right to run for Parliament. Jo was an exceptional person, there’s no doubt about it. But she wasn’t unique, and she would have been the first person to say so. There are so many women in our communities who could serve with distinction: we need to help them to get into parliament and to be proud to be political.
Of course, this isn’t just about numbers, and it’s not about ‘having a go’. It’s about results. Women need power to change things. You can’t change things if you are a name on a ballot, a quota filled – you need your seat in Parliament. Participation is the start, but power is the end. Jo knew that – it’s why she worked so hard across party lines to make sure that women were running for seats they could win and it’s why she herself joined a party where she stood a shot of becoming an MP and, one day, a minister, even a Prime Minister.
Jo had courage, but she was also unashamed to have ambition. She wanted to go far, and she wanted to lift up others as she climbed. There’s no stain in aspiring to the highest office in your country. It doesn’t taint the purity of your purpose.
Today, I want to say to you loudly and clearly – Have the highest of ambitions for yourself, for your purpose. Jo believed Britain could be a force for change in the world, and she fought for that.
I know what it is like to have power, to combine it with a sense of purpose and to deliver results. Whether it was improving our schools, introducing a National Disability Insurance Scheme or establishing the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, I was able to deliver on issues that mattered hugely to me and to the future of my country.
When I left the Prime Ministership, I immediately leapt into writing my memoirs. It was important for me to do this early, whilst the feelings, experiences and memories were fresh, and my reactions unsullied by the passage of time.
In doing so, I had to look back unflinchingly at my own time in politics. I had to unpack the highs and lows, the achievements and misses. The brutal politics, the incredible opportunities. And of course the way I experienced it all as a person, and as a woman.
I wanted as I wrote to send a strong message to young women contemplating politics and that message is define your sense of purpose, nurture your sense of self and go for it.
But as you forge ahead, understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it.
Let me share with you what that gender discrimination can look and feel like.
As Prime Minister, day after day, time after time, I would find myself in a room, often a business boardroom, where I was the only woman, apart perhaps from a woman serving coffee or food.
Because politics at senior levels in my nation and yours has been almost always the pursuit of men, the assumptions of politics have been defined around men’s lives – not women’s lives. It is assumed a man with children brings to politics the perspective of a family man, but it is never suggested that he should be disqualified from the rigours of a political life because he has caring responsibilities. This definitely does not work the same way for women. Even before becoming prime minister, I had observed that if you are a woman politician, it is impossible to win on the question of family. If you do not have children then you are characterised as out of touch with ‘mainstream lives’. If you do have children then, heavens, who is looking after them?
I had already been chided by a senior conservative Senator for being ‘deliberately barren’ and then had to stomach reading follow-up pieces like the one entitled ‘Barren Behaviour’ in one of our two national newspapers, which stated:
‘At the Junee abattoir, manager Heath Newton knows what happens in the bush to a barren cow. ‘It’s just a case where if they’re infertile they get sent to the vet to get checked and then killed as hamburger mince,’ he says . . . ‘In the Kimberley region, near Broome, where Senator Heffernan issued his public apology for his remarks on Wednesday night, the barren cows even have a name: killers. It’s the ultimate fate of an animal that can’t breed.’
Before becoming prime minister, I had also worked out that what you are wearing will draw disproportionate attention. It did when I became deputy leader of the Opposition. Pleading, ‘I like to wear suits’ or ‘I have been on the road for days’ simply did not cut it. Undoubtedly a male leader who does not meet a certain standard will be marked down. But that standard is such an obvious one: of regular weight, a well-tailored suit, neat hair, television-friendly glasses, trimmed eyebrows. Being the first female prime minister, I had to navigate what that standard was for a woman.
It is galling to me that when I first met NATO’s leader, predominantly to discuss our strategy for the war in Afghanistan, where our troops were fighting and dying, it was reported in the following terms:
‘The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has made her first appearance on the international stage, meeting the head of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, in Brussels. Dressed in a white, short jacket and dark trousers she arrived at the security organisation’s headquarters just after 9 am European time and was ushered in by Mr Rasmussen, the former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General.’ This article was written by a female journalist. It apparently went without saying that Mr Rasmussen was wearing a suit.
On another occasion, whilst in a bilateral meeting with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Earth Summit in Rio, a respected female journalist opened her article with: ‘As well as matters of state, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have had a chat about their hairstyles.’ Six paragraphs then followed on the matter of our respective hairstyles.
This gender stereotyping was at the very benign end compared to much of what I faced: ‘Ditch the witch’ on placards at rallies. The ugly ravings about how ‘women are destroying the joint’ from a conservative and cantankerous radio shock. The pornographic cartoons circulated by an eccentric bankrupt. The vile words on social media.
It may be easy and comforting for you to conclude that all this is something about the treatment of women in Australia. I regret doing this but I have to disabuse of you of that notion. Indeed, some of the sexist insults thrown at me were not original. Rather they had originally been hurled at Hillary Clinton when she ran first to be the Democrats’ nominee for President in 2008.
Sadly, the current Presidential election campaign in the United States is showing us that this sort of gender discrimination isn’t set to leave us any time soon.
A Washington Post analysis that looked at 100,000 tweets made during the New Hampshire primary found the most ‘gendered’ words used about Secretary Clinton were a common swearword starting with ‘b’, a reference to her sexual organs, including a word starting with ‘c’ and the term ‘rapist’, including threats that she should be raped. For Mr Sanders, ‘dad’ and ‘basketball’ were as gendered as it got. Donald Trump today labels her as “Lying Hillary”, “Crooked Hillary” and he appeared to give a subtle endorsement to the use of violence against her at one of his rallies, where it has become routine for the crowd to shout ‘lock her up’ or even ‘string her up’. In this week’s debate, he embraced the spirit of these chants saying Secretary Clinton should be in gaol.
While not as dramatic or coarse, we have already seen Prime Minister May’s appearance and childlessness be subjects of focus.
Obviously, any one contending for high office has to be scrutinised and tested and no gender analysis should be taken to mean that female candidates should be immune from criticism. But these gendered references are the antithesis of valid critiques and there is a responsibility that lies on everyone’s shoulders – men and women – to make sure in any political campaign that criticism is not gender based, that it is not about precluding a woman from leading simply because she is a woman.
Beyond sexism, there are other very real risks that women in public life must face, and I fear those are much greater than they were when I commenced my own journey into public life.
Violence against women is nothing new in our world. Conservative estimates tell us that at least one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. These statistics traverse geography, race and age. In the United Kingdom, the number of violent offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, rose by almost 10% in 2015-16.
Now threats of violence have become more prevalent for women in public life.
Once upon a time, to criticise a public figure, you generally had to put your name to that criticism. Be it a letter to an editor, a confrontation at a town hall meeting, a considered critique delivered on screen or a view written in a newspaper.
Now, both seasoned commentators and the general public can say what they like, protected by the anonymity of a twitter handle. They have the power to fire barbs directly at their targets without any fear of consequence.
At best, these can be snarky and occasionally witty criticisms of a politician’s decisions or actions.
At worst, they can take the form of detailed death threats, or threats of violence against family, friends and staff.
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.
In the United Kingdom, the number of cases of extremely offensive online abuse against women is sharply rising, despite concerted efforts to highlight and challenge this type of abuse. I commend the Guardian’s The Web we Want campaign, and the cross party Reclaim the Internet campaign. This work represents important first steps, but there is much more that needs to be done to stem this flow of abuse that so disproportionately impacts women.
Our community would not consider it acceptable to yell violent, sexually charged abuse at a female politician walking down the street. Why is it okay to let these voices ring so loudly in our online worlds?
These voices weaken, ridicule, humiliate and terrify. Not only do they challenge the resolve of the women who cop the abuse, but they deter other women from raising their hand to serve in public life. For all the structural barriers to women’s participation in politics, and for all the gender bias and sexism that must be addressed, so too must we challenge and defeat the online abuse.
We don’t yet know to what extent online abuse translates into physical violence. But I am certain the connection is real, that women feel and fear it, and that it is preventing women from standing up and serving in public life.
All this needs to change. And in this room, we have the power to change it. When we reflect on what feminism has already achieved for women – voting rights, anti-discrimination laws, education, workplace rights, financial freedoms, better policing of crimes against women and the list goes on – we should be fortified and inspired by what we are capable of achieving next.
Jo Cox’s purpose in public life was togetherness: she wanted to see a world that was more fair, more safe and much less divided.
Through her work she delivered on this purpose. The world truly is a better place because of Jo’s service.
Let her purpose serve as the inspiration for us to fulfil our own.
Let her fearlessness give us the strength and courage to serve in public life, not withstanding all that we know about its potential perils and dangers.
Let her ambition and pride in her work be our own.
And for the women, like myself, who have already experienced the great opportunities of public life, let us stand in solidarity with the next generation of women and support their right to serve and lead, safely and freely, but most importantly – powerfully.