Mungo's got a new word: dynigynephobia

Let's start with a few definitions.

Misogyny: hatred or loathing of women.

Sexism: The upholding or propagation of an attitude which stereotypes a person according to gender or sexual preference.

Chauvinism: zealous and belligerent patriotism or devotion to a cause; hence male chauvinism.

Gynephobia: morbid fear of women.

There is even a specific word for fear of beautiful women: caligynephobia. I could not find an existing word for fear of strong or powerful women, but using the same principle it is easy to coin one: dynigynephobia, perhaps. And we need such a word, because that is the precise complaint from which Opposition Leader Tony Abbott suffers, as diagnosed by Labor's dreaded Handbag Hit Squad.

But distinctions between the various terms were seriously blurred last week, a confusion which enabled both sides to accuse each other of exaggeration, hyperbole and hysterical overreaction as the so-called debate boiled out of control. Not that it really mattered, as the argument was always more about raw emotion than high-minded analysis.

Take, for instance, the now notorious text message from the former speaker, Peter Slipper, comparing women's genitals to a pickled mussel. Outrageous, certainly, but does it actually show hatred and loathing? Some years ago the author Frank Moorhouse gave the celebrity luncheon address to a mixed audience at the Byron Bay Writers Festival on the theme of oysters. He made the same comparison, albeit more subtly; there were no walk-outs and he was greeted with laughter and applause. Let's face it, oysters and mussels are considered tasty snacks. Compare Shakespeare's King Lear on the subject:

"But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends'.

There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit

Burning, scalding, stench, corruption - fie fie fie, pah pah!"

Now that's misogyny.

Then there was the joke - again tasteless and outrageous - told by the stand-up comedian at an AWU dinner, which referred to the baseless rumour that Tony Abbott was having an affair with his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. This canard had been circulating for at least six months to my knowledge without provoking a frisson of excitement, interest or response in that time. Now, suddenly, it has become a capital crime, a vicious attack on womanhood. Treating it as such is an invitation to mass hysteria.

There is misogyny in Australia: you can find plenty of it in the dark corners of the internet, with throwbacks like Larry Pickering in the forefront. And it emerges occasionally in the mainstream: on his record, there is a fair case for describing Alan Jones as a misogynist, because his graceless attacks on Julia Gillard are simply the latest examples of a career spent impugning women with a bile he seldom expends on men.

Tony Abbott, on the other hand, clearly escapes the label. On a personal level, his relations with women are fine - well, most of them anyway. But given his stated comments on aspects of the female role, as detailed in this column last week and the further examples given by Gillard in her memorable and, for many women at least, exemplary excoriation, he can definitely be called a sexist and fits the old feminist category of "male chauvinist pig."

And perhaps he does have trouble with powerful women, particularly with Gillard, whose prime ministership he has always regarded as illegitimate. He claims that this has nothing to do with her gender; it is all about the way she got the job, but since he can produce absolutely no evidence to back up this claim, it may well have at least a touch of prejudice about it.

But if this is the case, there is reason to believe that it is a prejudice shared by a large number of his fellow Australians. After all, they can look back on centuries - indeed millennia - of history, religion, law and custom in which the inferiority of women was considered to be a simple and indisputable fact. It is only since roughly the time of our own federation that any real progress has been made towards gender equality and, as we see in the media on a daily basis, there is still a long way to go. In the real bastions of power - the parliaments, the courts, the board rooms and even the churches - women still lag far behind their male counterparts.

And of course until 2010 we had never had, or even seriously contemplated, a female prime minister and a lot of us are still not quite comfortable with the idea. This has less to do with misogyny, gynephobia or even sexism than with habit: we are just not used to the idea. And this is the real task confronting Gillard and her followers: they have to break the habits of a lifetime - indeed, of literally millions of lifetimes.

But at least they are not unique. Across the Pacific the most powerful man in the world faces the same problem in a slightly different form. Gillard has to combat gender prejudice; Barack Obama has to beat race prejudice, and it could be argued that his task is the more difficult. Slavery may have been formally abolished in the USA in 1865 but segregation remained a fact of life for almost another hundred years and its taint still lingers. There are pockets of America that never have and perhaps never will accept the idea that a black man could become their president and they will do anything to get rid of him.

The campaign against Obama is just as vicious and considerably better financed and organised than that against Gillard. Both are first time leaders seeking re-election in difficult times, facing popular anger and resentment brought about by circumstances not entirely of their making but compounded by the simple fact of who they are. It may be small comfort to our embattled prime Minister, but at she is not alone - well, for another three weeks at least.

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