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Lucy Mangan on defining misogyny

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“You’ve all seen it by now, I hope. But, in case you missed it, go now to YouTube and find Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering all that has ever been meant by the word ‘smackdown’ to leader of the opposition Tony Abbott. Go on – it’ll be the best 15 minutes of your day.

For those of you who work in open-plan offices, let me fill you in. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, had recently been sex-textually disgraced and, although Gillard and her party supported him, resigned. Abbott then accused Gillard of sexism, misogyny and hypocrisy. She rose and began to speak – slowly, clearly and with a fierce passion.

‘I will not be lectured on sexism or misogyny by this man and his party,’ she began. ‘Not now, not ever.’ She went on to provide listeners – of which there were soon millions as the video went viral – with a selection of Abbott’s choicest utterances and deeds, such as referring to ‘the housewives of Australia doing their ironing’, calling abortion ‘the easy way out’ and referring to Gillard as a man’s bitch, before condemning his party’s conduct as ‘vile’ and him as a man ‘capable of double standards but incapable of change’ and sitting down to a huge round of applause from her party, which you suspect was being furiously echoed internally among the women of the opposition too.

Everything about the speech is brilliant. The content is dense, punchy, powerfully and vividly articulated and her performance is flawless – her timing and the delivery of each verbal blow is perfect. She says exactly what she means and means every word she says.

Gillard says what she means and means every word

The cherry on the icing on the cake, however, was that as a result of Gillard’s speech the Macquarie Dictionary – Australia’s answer to the OED – has announced it is changing and expanding the definition of misogyny from ‘hatred of women’ to include ‘entrenched prejudice of women’. Dictionary editor Sue Butler said it made them realise a second definition was needed that was ‘slightly stronger than “sexist”’ but less strong than ‘visceral hatred’. Gillard’s actions, in essence, prompted a recognition that a word and the concept attached to it were no longer fit for purpose. It crystallised a moment when language had to change to reflect a growing need.

It made me realise we need new words and definitions to help us in old fights. The narrow definition of misogyny was a blunt tool in the feminist armoury, conjuring up pictures of men beating wives and other such physical or otherwise unmistakable exercises of cruelty from a more primitive time. I don’t, of course, say these things are in the past – they are not, as any scan of any newspaper’s headlines on any day of the week, alas, tells us. It is used far more often these days to try and describe… well, entrenched prejudice against women. But the old definition (and yes, for the pedants among you, the etymologically sound definition) worked against us. It always sounded like you were using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and gave your interlocutor or opponent a chance to accuse you of being shrill, overdramatic or hysterical.

In a way, of course, we are looking at this the wrong way round. Dictionary definitions habitually follow a change of use rather than lead them. But, at the very least, Gillard’s beautiful, brilliant stand crystallised the moment when understanding deepened and acceptance – that antiwomen attitudes take many and mutable forms – widened. Macquarie saw that the scales had tipped and has now enshrined it on the page. That’s quite a feat for one parliamentary speech.

What we need now, of course – apart from the new definition to be adopted by the OED, Chambers, Collins et al and to become part of the working vocabulary of the global English-speaking population – is for them to announce a new adjective: Gillardian. It means ‘to deliver with grace and style, intelligence and wit a verbal hammer-blow to a small but powerful little scrote who has been in need of it for years, leaving millions cheering in your wake.’”

You can contact Lucy by email at lucy. mangan@stylist.co.uk or follow her at twitter.com/lucymangan

What did you think of Julia Gillard's speech? Do we need new words and definitions to help us in old fights? Let us know in the comments section below

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