Missing Messiah: 'getting stuff done' helped Gillard dodge the Golden Girl trap but became her un-doing

In October 2012, two speeches were delivered in Canberra. The first occurred in Parliament House during Question Time, to a small audience of MPs, the press gallery, a handful of political junkies and tourists. A prime minister with her back to the wall came out swinging: "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man."

In October 2012, two speeches were delivered in Canberra. The first occurred in Parliament House during Question Time, to a small audience of MPs, the press gallery, a handful of political junkies and tourists. A prime minister with her back to the wall came out swinging: "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man."

This man was the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, who had objected to a text message sent by the Speaker, Peter Slipper, to a male staffer: Look at a bottle of mussel meat! Salty c---s in brine! It was a private text now on the public record as part of a sexual harassment allegation. Abbott was sufficiently outraged to move to have Slipper sacked.

How does a prime minister defend such a distinctive condiment? Labor had compiled material portraying Abbott as sexist, but Gillard had been loath to use it. Now her reservations fell away: "I will not be lectured by this man ... Not now, not ever." She listed Abbott's remarks and actions, and badged them with a word introduced by the opposition: misogyny. She did not step back from generalisation ("Misogyny, sexism, every day from this leader of the opposition") nor from the cheap shot - "the Leader of the Opposition now looking at his watch because apparently a woman's spoken too long".

"I was offended" ran her refrain, when "the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said ... 'Abortion is the easy way out'." When he "stood next to a sign that described me as a man's bitch".

The calculation was apparent, the practised use of rhetoric: I was offended when ... And the press gallery's verdict was unanimous. Politics as usual. Fail.

But another speech was heard by a great many more people. Broadcast on YouTube, it transcended its context - the salted genitalia, the market tests, its own cunning - and became a more intimate piece of theatre. Devoid of backstory, the speech's calculation is less obvious; up close, you register the woman's genuine rage, the tremor in her voice.

Abbott sits in silence, but as his half-smile gives way to grim forbearance, it is clear that he registers the speech's significance better than the press gallery.

This is the speech that was relayed around the world, and viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. Mothers reported sitting down and sharing it with their daughters. Many of those cheering for Gillard had no knowledge of Abbott or his putative sexism. In this version of the speech, the territory being contested was not Labor versus the Coalition, nor Gillard versus Abbott, but Woman versus Misogyny.

It was not quite I had a dream, but nor was it "essentially about herself", as the political correspondent Paul Kelly described it in The Australian.

The New Yorker's Amelia Lester and Newsweek's Andrew Sullivan both suggested Obama could learn something from the misogyny speech; the feminist website Jezebel described Gillard as a "bad-ass motherf---er".

Alexander Downer remarked on Sky News that "I think it is disgraceful to go around calling people sexist and misogynist". His objection was not that it is disgraceful to be sexist or misogynist; nor that it is disgraceful to call people sexist and misogynist inaccurately; simply that it is disgraceful to use these words at all. Neil Mitchell, interviewing Kevin Rudd, found the words equally suspect: "Is it legitimate to be throwing around terms like misogynist and sexist as a form of abuse?"

It was a persistent strain of commentary: this conversation should not be allowed. Miranda Devine, in The Sunday Telegraph, offered intelligence from the "real world": "playing the gender card is the pathetic last refuge of incompetents and everyone in the real world knows it. It offends the Australian notion of the fair go." From these howls of unfairness, it would seem that the gender card were some infallible trump, that producing it from the pocket would cause one's opponent to wither as in the presence of kryptonite. I am woman. Gotcha!

Perhaps some women are able to deploy it so triumphantly, but the gender card is frequently used in reverse. Like nagging or bitching, playing the gender card becomes a useful silencing term, through which female grievance can be reduced to phatic noise. As Julia Baird pointed out, "what women have understood 'gender card' slurs to mean is that if they call out sexism, they will be stigmatised as weak, or whingers, and their careers will be damaged."

There are many factors besides the gender card that prompt women to "cop it and move on": a reluctance to identify as victims, thereby reinforcing perceptions of female weakness; the Australian veneration of stoicism, of getting on with it; and, if a woman is successful in a male domain, her pride in the toughness it took to get there.

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out "within traditional institutions, success has often been contingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in ... being 'one of the guys'." But the gender card is implicated in all of these. A woman who complains of sexist treatment is a bad sport. It is not fair play, and so - according to Devine's formulation - nor is it fair dinkum.

In her inaugural speech to Emily's List, Julia Gillard described her female colleagues on both sides of politics as "tough women, resilient women. They are necessarily tough because politics is tough, and politics is tough because politics is important. It shouldn't be easy, and it's not. Not for the women - not for the blokes."

We have inherited an adversarial political system, but we have taken it to new levels of incivility. Abbott has been repeatedly described as the most successful Opposition Leader in decades, largely because he has delivered on his promise to be "a junkyard dog savaging the other side".

But as our politicians abuse each other, we also abuse our politicians. We have a collective need to despise our leaders, as if - as for Aztec sacrificial warriors - the privilege of office must come at the price of personal sacrifice.

In Parliament, a successful sledge is one that is both particular and recognisable, such as Keating's characterisation of Hewson's performance as being "like being flogged with a warm lettuce". A successful sledge homes in on a perceived area of weakness, including appearance: Kim Beazley and his girth; John "spot the eyebrows" Howard. But what message is being conveyed to our daughters when being female is the weakness, the Achilles heel? Because this is the form that sledges against Gillard have repeatedly taken: Lady Macbeth, harridan, (dis-)honest woman, barren woman.

Keating's sledges, while vicious, were unlikely to spill out of Parliament and implicate an entire gender. Describing Hewson as "a lizard on a rock - alive, but looking dead" may be cruel, but is unlikely to provoke a dismayed self-recognition in a young man, or discourage him from entering politics.

Those who accuse Gillard of deploying the gender card argue that she demands special treatment because she is a woman, with outdated expectations of chivalry. If it's too hot, get out of the kitchen runs the cliche: if a woman is too delicate for politics, she should not be there in the first place.

Gillard, clearly, is not too delicate for this environment. The problem is that other women watching will stay out - not because of heat, but sexism.

The Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, acknowledges that "you don't get to be prime minister without suffering the slings and arrows occasionally and overcoming them, but the thing that disturbs me about it on occasion is I never want a young woman to look at the treatment that the Prime Minister receives, and think, I don't want to do that job, because if I'm going to be a target like that, I don't want to let myself in for it".

GETTING ON WITH IT

Downer accuses Gillard of "whinging". He concedes that "some of the criticism is unfair and some of it may occasionally be sexist. But she's the Prime Minister. She should rise above that. As Thatcher and Clark did."

Ironically, rising above it is what Gillard has forever done. In the absence of a clear philosophical position, getting on with it appears to be her personal credo. A keen student of the fate of her female predecessors, she described the "Golden Girl vortex" to Julia Baird as that phenomenon whereby "the media decide they're the next big thing, [and] the reporting quickly changes from what they do to who they are".

That men should do and women should be remains a persistent bias of our culture, even as it bears no resemblance to the actual division of labour.

Gillard's strategy has been to deflect any speculation about who she is, almost to the point of self-effacement. Despite having more to explain than the average prime minister - besides her gender, there is her professed atheism; her childlessness; her de facto living arrangements - she has not provided any reassuring narrative of self, any Dreams of My Father user's manual. Instead, she just keeps on doing stuff, resilient as a Duracell bunny: forging alliances, making deals, retracting promises, passing legislation. She wears her action as a kind of armour; her survival strategy is to remain a moving target.

Getting on with it speaks to a recognisable truth of female pragmatism. Guy Rundle has suggested that men "like glory and bullshit", but, "Women are different, like it or not. They remain the household budgeters, the domestically oriented, and in that sense the greater realists."

And so we recognise a version of our own lives in Gillard's constant action: ridden with compromise, dousing fires on many fronts, getting on with it.

In many ways it is a useful credo. Besides repudiating gender stereotypes, it means stuff gets done. But it runs the risk of over-correction. In her avoidance of "personality-based inquiry", Gillard has created a void into which her opponents can hurl insults with impunity. (One of the traits of the witch is inscrutability.) In the absence of clear evidence to contradict them, they stick. Hence the surprising durability of the Juliar moniker: it became a handle by which we could explain her.

Perhaps we have backed Gillard into a corner. Misogyny and feminism each obscure the face behind her femaleness. There are those who will vote for Gillard because of the sheer fact of her anatomy, a qualification that trumps any policy. And there are those for whom Gillard's gender is the only disqualification required.

Getting on with it might promise some escape, except that it becomes a further form of self-effacement. Gillard is right to reject a cycle "where the news becomes not what these professional women politicians do - do they ask good questions in question time? Do they release a good policy? - but who they are."

But it is also reasonable that we should seek to know our politicians, as our decision-making proxies. Leadership is not only about doing, but also about being: a symbol, an inspiration. Barack Obama's virtuosity lies in his handling of the (sometimes parallel) currents of rhetoric and pragmatism. Even Australians, sceptical as we are of American Messianic rhetoric, crave something more than stuff getting done. We want to believe in something, evinced by how readily so many of us embraced the heady promises of Kevin '07. The politicians the public rallies around - Obama, Hawke, even Rudd - are those with a strong enough sense of self to exude magnetism.

Unfortunately for the female politician, our culture rewards female narcissism above female egotism. And charisma is not available to the egoless.

Ironically, all Gillard's "doing" may yet petrify into a type of "being". After the abortive March 2013 leadership challenge, Mark Kenny in The Age likened her to "the liquid-metal cyborg in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day", for being "unstoppable", and wondered whether Labor might start "explicitly marketing Gillard as Churchillian in her toughness".

By nature, Gillard's is a leadership of compromise, dictated by a minority government and the identity crisis of modern Labor. But if ever a leader was required with the vision and charisma to define a party, it is now.

Part of the power of the misogyny speech was that it marked the moment Gillard went off-message, the moment that liquid-metal cyborg came to a standstill. For a moment, her relentless agency gave way to subjectivity. I was offended when ... With that tremor in her voice, she stopped being a blur of action and became a person.

There comes a point at which female stoicism becomes complicity. Mothers offered this speech to their daughters as a necessary template. Of not getting on with it. Of being offended. Could this - paradoxically - be the enduring image of Gillard's leadership?

This is an edited extract from "Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny" by Anna Goldsworthy, published in the latest Quarterly Essay, out on Monday.