When I came into parliament at the age of 25, as the youngest woman ever to be elected, I was naive about how damaging and hurtful sexist comments can be. I didn’t call it out at the beginning and in the 10 years I’ve been in parliament, it’s only gotten worse. I have seen the tone of political debate fall lower and lower.
When I’m in the chamber, I will often hear commentary about what I look like. Some members of parliament always make snarky remarks about the dresses I wear. There’s one male colleague who will shout out at me when I’m debating a serious issue, saying, “Why don’t you just smile at me, Sarah?” Then there’s the nasty, underhanded sexual innuendo. I’ve had men’s names yelled at me while I’ve been on my feet in the chamber, with the insinuation that I’m apparently sleeping with them. It’s all designed to throw me off my game, break down my confidence and shut me up. It’s used as a weapon to make me think twice about getting to my feet again.
In the past, when a comment was made I tried not to react – to pretend like I didn’t hear it. The downside of ignoring it is that [the behaviour] continues. When Senator [David] Leyonhjelm shouted across the chamber that I should “stop shagging men”, I felt like I had a responsibility to call him out. Subconsciously or consciously, I think I was really encouraged by the #MeToo movement to break my silence. As a leader in our community and a woman in a privileged position, I felt like I needed to set an example to other women. And, as a mother, I needed to set an example to my daughter [Kora, 11].
I’m a strong woman – I give as good as I get in the rough and tumble of political debate – but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Calling this out as slut shaming has forced me to confront the issue and talk about it publicly. It’s also opened me up to the attempted shame of the comments. Having my apparent sex life discussed in public has been a surreal experience. And Senator Leyonhjelm has continued his bullying: he has tried to shame me, silence me more and punish me for speaking out.
Despite all of that, the response has been incredibly heartening. I’ve been contacted by a number of other women in the parliament who have told me their stories of similar experiences. I’ve had encouragement from other female politicians, such as Kristina Keneally, and messages of support from male colleagues. One of the thousands of messages I’ve received from the public was from a woman in her 80s, who said she had waited her whole life to see this happen. She’d watched women’s participation in the workforce grow but the issue of sexism not stop. I feel quite encouraged by the outpouring of support.
My daughter, Kora, has been my rock through this whole process. I’ve always taught her not to let the bullies win, so I wasn’t going to sit back and let this reprehensible behaviour stop me from doing my job. I want her to never be afraid of standing up for what she believes in. I want all women to feel empowered in their opinions and to not have to suffer in silence. If we are to have this cultural shift, we need more strong female role models in leadership and more young women in politics. Women deserve to have a voice, and we are not going to be slut shamed for daring to use it in political debate. We have every right to be there and we will say what needs to be said.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of marie claire.