Sydney’s great feminist institution, the Ernies’ Awards for Sexist Remarks, turns 25 this week. It’s unclear whether this should be cause for celebration or profound despair.
Trawling through the 2018 nominations, I realise it is a bumper crop. Barnaby Joyce, David Leyonhjelm and Barry Hall are all nominated … and that’s just the tip of the misogynist iceberg.
The Ernies began in 1993 as an impromptu gathering of women to celebrate the retirement of famous old sexist trade union official Ernie Ecob. Like the original Oscar, the original Ernie has faded from significance but his awards night lives on.
Each year we award trophies for the most sexist remarks of the year in six different categories: political, judicial, industrial, sport, clerical and media. Remarks are read out against the name of the person who made them and winners determined by the level of boos (and table thumping) each comment draws from the 400 women attendees. From the six category winners, one comment will be judged to be most offensive and awarded the Gold Ernie.
We are the largest longitudinal survey of sexist behaviour in the world and have charted what women find offensive each year.
Based on this history, here are some things that really get up women’s noses. First of all, sexism combined with ageism: a “stylist” won an Ernie in 2001 for saying “sleeveless is a bad look on many Australian women, especially those over 30”. Anyone who attacks one of our favourite gals is a sure-fire bet for getting a big boo. The year that Cathy Freeman’s former partner/trainer said “I never turned away from Cathy ... no matter how fat she was” you could hear the booing in Mackay.
Anything that implies that all-male entities exist because there are no women of "merit" produces explosions of anger. Any media body which doesn’t treat women’s sport with respect cops it too. Well-meaning plods who warn women to avoid public parks or only walk in groups will get a verbal kicking from enraged women who quickly spot a ‘blame the victim’ mentality. Other sure fire issues are domestic violence, the use of the word "cat-fight" or the implication that educated women are ball breakers. The Herald won in 1994 with a series “Why Professional Women Can’t Get a Man”.
There is no party political bias, politicians of all stripes have won: Bob Carr and John Howard, Mark Latham and Tony Abbott. We are equal-opportunity blamers.
The tide of sexism ebbs and flows. It rose to viciousness in the Julia Gillard years. Remember Mal Brough’s joke menu, “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail - Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box” or the abattoir owner who displayed a machine to dispatch cows with no calves, “so it’s designed for non-productive old cows - Julia Gillard’s got to watch out”.
In 2015 during the racist booing of Adam Goodes it also became clear that racism and sexism are inextricably linked. The five sports commentators who behaved worst in that dispute were all past winners of the Sports Ernie (the Warney): Eddie McGuire, Jason Akermanis, Sam Newman, Dermott Brereton and Shane Warne.
Do the male "winners" ever complain? Indeed they do. After Senator Bill Heffernan won with his description of Julia Gillard as "deliberately barren", he rang me to object the next day and gobsmacked me with his explanation: "I’m an old farmer, I know about bulls and cows and rams and ewes".
Each year I ask the "first time Ernies attenders" to raise their hands and about half do. On those rough figures, over 5000 women have attended the Ernies since 1993. Using humour and derision to pin-prick misogyny works for us. We call it our celebration of oral sexism.
Dr Meredith Burgmann is an academic, Labor MP and feminist who founded the Ernies Awards in 1993. The Ernies will be held at Parliament House, Sydney, on Thursday.