Outcry over Abbott's 'women of calibre' comment

Firing line: Tony Abbott at an autism centre on Tuesday.
Firing line: Tony Abbott at an autism centre on Tuesday. Photo: Penny Stephens

Labor has reignited the misogyny war, with senior government ministers leaping on comments by Tony Abbott that women of the ''calibre'' of a university education should be encouraged to have a family and a career.

But the Opposition Leader drew an unexpected defender in feminist Eva Cox, who said Health Minister Tanya Plibersek and Finance Minister Penny Wong had over-reacted to his words.

The pair had accused Mr Abbott of sexism after he told reporters in Melbourne on Tuesday that higher earning women were entitled to the Coalition's $4 billion paid parental leave scheme, which would pay six months' full salary to new mothers earning as much as $150,000.

Eva Cox.
Eva Cox. Photo: Matthew Vasilescu

"We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career," Mr Abbott said.

"If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme of paid parental leave is all about."

Ms Plibersek said Mr Abbott's comments were an "insight into his values: his lack of respect for low income workers, and women in particular".

"Who exactly does Mr Abbott think are 'women of calibre'?" she said.

"What does he think about women who are childcare workers, nurses and community sector workers? Are they of lower calibre than women who are law firm partners?"

Senator Wong waded into the debate on Twitter; within hours, feminists, including Jenna Price and Anne Summers, were using the phrase "women of calibre" to aggregate outrage on Twitter.

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But Ms Cox described that as an over-reaction. "Paid parental leave is a salary-related, work-related payment, not a welfare payment. I think that's what Tony Abbott was trying to say, in a somewhat clumsy way," she said.

"If it's a work-related payment it should be at a salary level. People off with the flu or on holiday are paid at the same rate. Why should a woman having a child be put on the minimum wage?"

Other posters on twitter took the opportunity to make light of the Opposition Leader's comments, including Mike Farrell, who posted, "I wish I could meet #womenofcalibre. I miss being a kept man. long lunches, getting drunk, sailing, having her draw my bath". Jess Lilley posted, "Today, I shared my scotch biscuit and showered before work. I am among the #womenofcalibre."

Mr Abbott's office issued a statement on Tuesday night, saying, "Mr Abbott was commenting on the clear advantages of the Coalition's Paid Parental Leave scheme, which recognises PPL as a workplace entitlement which will pay women who access the scheme their replacement wage over Labor's scheme which sees women, regardless of their salary, rely on the minimum wage."

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