Illustration: John Spooner.
Feminists of my vintage have long scoffed at the notion that we are living in a post-feminist era. If only. The extraordinary response engendered by Prime Minister Julia Gillard's misogyny speech made it clear that sexual politics is alive and well and thoroughly unresolved. In the heat of that debate, sexism and misogyny were conflated, a grave error that diminishes both offences. Sexism is the daily routine of belittling that we have all endured: the inequality around the boardroom table, the grope at the Christmas party, being talked over or through.
Misogyny is a deep loathing, it is visceral and often expressed in gynaecological terms. Exhibit A: Peter Slipper's mussels-angst. Exhibit B: Sam Newman's denigration of Caroline Wilson. Exhibit C: Matthew Johns' attitude to group rape. The distinctions are important.
Credlin's ''coming out'' on the fertility challenge should be welcomed as genuine, rather than as yet another political stratagem in an election year.
On Sunday, Peta Credlin, the Opposition Leader's chief of staff, revealed that she had been juggling work with the gruelling and discouraging process of IVF treatment. She was immediately criticised for exposing herself to help ''her'' man and attacked for an apparently tactical revelation. It must have been a difficult decision to make this personal matter public. But context is everything. In this instance Credlin's revelation was an interview for the next issue of Marie Claire of 10 women under 45 who are leaders in their field. The fact that women are still rare in senior roles in politics and that Abbott has a female chief of staff, is still a story in itself. Credlin's professional life and private hopes were revealed for a woman's magazine, they were not a calculated effort to humanise Abbott. Indeed, it would be deeply sexist to suggest that a strong and competent professional would insouciantly ''out'' herself to ''stand by her man''.
Storing one's IVF drugs in the boss' private office suggests a relationship that is mutually respectful and supportive. Obviously Credlin's task is to get her bloke into the Lodge. But the ability to manage the arduous process of IVF and the obligations of the role also suggest a generosity of spirit between colleagues.
As Abbott's publisher I have a particular relationship with the author and his chief of staff. My own observation of that dynamic is that the relationship is robust and honest. I have been mesmerised by Credlin instructing Abbott on the value of modernist art, arguing with his literary judgments and nuancing his public relations. Abbott for his part appears to listen, to take her counsel.
Her decision to discuss the business of trying to conceive later in life must have been a difficult one. But all credit to her for describing a reality that now confronts many professional women. Credlin's ''coming out'' on the fertility challenge should be welcomed as genuine, rather than as yet another political stratagem in an election year. Which leads us back to Abbott and his ''woman problem''.
I write about Abbott across a yawning ideological chasm. After the publication of Battlelines, we discussed a second book. To whet his appetite I canvassed the views of the women in our office and forwarded to him a comprehensive list of our reasons for a unanimous intention not to vote Liberal. That list included: workplace relations, asylum seekers, gay marriage, unionism, republicanism, education, indigenous policy and the independence of the judiciary. This year these important policy differences between the parties will come under renewed scrutiny.
Abbott certainly needs to find a way to defuse the perception that he has a problem with women. Is it that modern women fear his faith as an adherent of a church whose views on women are oppressive and retrograde? We assume his private morality and faith will influence his political judgments - why? Is that any more a given than the influence exercised by the avowed atheism of our PM?
Abbott has said repeatedly that he wants to ensure that abortions are ''safe, legal and rare''. That seems spot on to me, as does his advocacy of more effective education and contraception. Does the perception of a ''woman problem'' derive from an anxiety that fitness fanatics are repressing primitive instincts, that Abbott's Speedos partially clothe a Neanderthal, a brutish cave man? Surely not.
In 2013 Abbott will be compelled to show us who he is, or so goes the script. It is odd because so much is already on the public record: the competitor boy, the sparring youth, the political acolyte, the scholar student, the aspiring priest, the drama of the reclaimed ''son'', the media-shy commitment to indigenous youth. None of this is unfamiliar territory. And yet Abbott is still apparently an enigma, a work in progress, a rough draft of a would-be prime minister.
In my limited exposure to Abbott he is unfailingly considered and courteous. One of his daughters described him as a ''gay, lame, churchy loser''. Daughters do that to their fathers, they mock them to keep them grounded. It would be interesting to know how the Prime Minister's intimates keep her grounded. The drawing of baths, the knitting and the exclusion from Tim's shed are equally lame gestures to ''humanise'' Gillard for a curious public. For now the Prime Minister is as much a conundrum as her opposite. An unmarried atheist who nevertheless professes to value Bible stories, has chosen not to have children, is opposed to gay marriage, who was once a member of the Socialist Left? Both the PM and the Leader of the Opposition have paradoxically shown themselves too little and too much. My hope for 2013 is that this election is fought on the turf of competing policies and visions for Australia rather than contesting personality flaws.
Louise Adler is the chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing and president of the Australian Publishers Association.