Women in politics: this is your moment, don't waste it
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Women in politics: this is your moment, don't waste it

Can you hear it? It’s the winds of change, growing by the day. The latest blast was Julie Bishop finally saying she’s probably been holding in for years.

"Our party, in fact all parties, recognise they have a problem in attracting and maintaining women, diversity in general,” the former foreign minister and deputy of the Liberal Party said at the Australian Women’s Weekly Women of the Future awards last week.

Julie Bishop has spoken out about sexism in politics.

Julie Bishop has spoken out about sexism in politics.Credit:AAP

Bishop continued, "When a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don't say 'toughen up princess', say 'enough is enough'."

Bishop’s intervention opposing the sexism in Australian politics is not before time. It wasn’t so long ago that she was toeing her party’s line in portraying former Prime Minister Julia Gillard as playing the "victim card" for documenting Tony Abbott’s appalling record of commentary and actions about women in her 2013 "misogyny speech".

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While Bishop has since spoken publicly about the sexism she experienced in the Abbott cabinet, her recent comments are another welcome contribution.

There’s no doubt that being snookered so comprehensively by the Liberal Party Boys Club has gone some way to loosening Bishop’s tongue. But she is too disciplined and too smart a politician to vent her spleen out of rage or revenge.

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Bishop is seizing this rare moment in Australian politics where women are prioritising equality over partisan politics. Women are so sick of being sexualised, harassed, bullied, and overlooked that they are reaching across the political divide in solidarity.

The united front began in July after David Leyonhjelm's sexist slurs against Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. Former Liberal staffer Peta Credlin said, "I barely know Sarah Hanson-Young but when she called out years of sexual innuendo aimed squarely at her character, I want to make it clear, I back her 100 per cent".

Since then we’ve seen Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi condemning the mistreatment of Labor MP Emma Husar, and Kelly O’Dwyer speaking out about the women problem in her own party.

And on Friday, Catherine Marriott, who lodged sexual harassment allegations against Barnaby Joyce, publicly criticised the Nationals for weaseling out of their investigation claiming they were unable to make a determination, and then refusing to release their report.

To be sure, this is a moment in Australian politics. And it might remain just that: a moment.

It’s up to women in public life not to waste it; to change the rules of the game for women in politics, whatever their party affiliation.

But they will only capitalise on these winds of change if they continue to back each other and stand together. Individual stories will be dismissed and forgotten, but united voices can create large-scale change.

Just as the collective action of women speaking out against sexual harassment sparked, and has succeeded in maintaining, a shift in calling out sexual harassment through the #metoo movement, the unified voices of women from all sides of politics can be just as powerful.

I’m not suggesting that fighting against centuries of entrenched sexism is a simple or easy task. Party structures and loyalties, set up by men to the serve the interests of men, are unusually strong in Australian politics.

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And this is not some Pollyanna-ish hope for a mythical oestrogen-fuelled utopia. Fundamental political difference and debate are going to remain (as they should). But, if those differences prevent women from uniting against sexism in politics, the status quo will prevail and we will lose this chance.

The next time a sitting female assistant minister gets rolled by the young guy she trained, don’t just say “sorry Jane” and mumble some nonsense about merit. Name it as sexism, and fight for your female colleagues.

Call out the sexist remarks and derogatory slurs in parliament. Bring to light the bullying behind closed doors. Highlight the underfunding of women’s campaigns or the shuffling of women into marginal seats. Name, shame and amplify. Get organised: build a war chest. And have a serious conversation about quotas. As Julie Baird notes, quotas are hardly radical — even AMP has them these days.

In the words of Queen Elsa, a woman who knows quite a bit about riding the winds of change of female empowerment: let the storm rage on.