Say no to sexist language in public discourse

Issue 
National Party MP Warren Entsch authorised these signs.

In the week that brought to light television personality Eddie McGuire's “banter” about sports journalist Caroline Wilson, the voters of Leichhardt, covering an area stretching from Cairns to Cape York and the Torres Strait, have been treated to campaign signs depicting a witch.

The signs have been placed next to campaign signs of the only woman candidate in Leichhardt, ALP candidate Sharryn Howes. The signs entreat the voter to “put Labor last” because winding back negative gearing is a “wicked thing to do”.

The incumbent National Party MP Warren Entsch, who authorised the signs, has “angrily denied” any comparison between his signs and the notorious “Ditch the Witch” signs used in rallies against Julia Gillard in 2011.

According to reports, Mr Entsch said: “It has nothing to do with anything else. We think it's a wicked and awful thing to do for small time investors. I didn't select the image and it has nothing to do with anything else.”

With respect, whatever Entsch's views, the Liberal National Party's views, or the voters' views of negative gearing and small time investors, it is not ok to use the language and imagery of witches about women. The implication of the image of the witch, deliberately positioned adjacent to Howes' campaign corflutes, is to invoke the comparison.

“Witch” is a term used to denigrate women. It represents a woman who has outgrown her sexual utility, often imagined as a toothless old crone. It might also represent the threat women pose to patriarchy — “through the magicke of their sexual wiles and fertility, the witch stands ready to trap unwary men”. The vast majority of those burned as witches were women. That is no accident. It was an effective means of keeping women in their place.

Today, “witch” carries its anti-women history even though many who use the term may not be conscious of it. As a word not used against men, and in light of the negative connotations it carries, use of “witch” is sexist.

The signs themselves go so far as to say “unfortunately, unlike the movies we can't get rid of them by pouring water on them”. They express disappointment at a general inability to keep witches — women — in their place.

I accept that the intention may be to express a desire to keep the Labor Party in “its place”, ie out of government. Sadly however, the clumsiness of the analogy and the language used instead conveys the time-worn expression of antipathy towards women. Women should not have to face sexist language. Women candidates for political office should not face sexist harassment in the course of doing so. We can be better than this.

Many will reject this interpretation. The metaphor is so deeply ingrained in our sexist culture that we have become immune to it. But we should aspire to a higher level of discourse, that seeks actively, consciously, to deal with the issues without resorting to historical gendered slurs.

Even if Entsch does not himself see the connection between the sign he authorised and the sexist implications for his opponent, he is now on notice that the posters are sexist and that many perceive them to be sexist. He is therefore in a position to step up, and to have the posters removed. That would be a fine contribution to public discourse.

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