Julia Gillard and Problem with Women in Politics

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WORDS Anna Glen

Julia Gillard’s time in power is going to be analysed to a great extent. More than anything it will be about the first time a woman was in the top job. In her outgoing speech Julia Gillard touched on being the first female Prime Minister and said, “It does not explain everything about my Prime Ministership nor does it explain nothing about my Prime Ministership.” This is an apt description.

In her early years in parliament Gillard did what most female politicians do: avoid the fact you are female and hope nobody notices. When she became Prime Minister in 2010 Gillard made the point that she did not perceive herself as a feminist pioneer. Her endeavors were not motivated by desires to “smash the glass ceiling” but were driven by a Labor vision of fairness in the Australian workforce. Regardless, in being the first female Prime Minster there were always going to be perceptions and expectations, most of which did not sit easily with each other.

First of all, Gillard could not be seen as too emotional. The idea that women are passive and more emotional than men has been a consistent stereotype that kept women out of politics for some time. Any indication of this is dangerous political grounds for a female politician. To do so would distinguish Gillard from her ‘rational’ male colleagues who are unseemingly overcome by emotion, and if they are, it’s perceived as the passion of politics rather than emotional sensitivity. For most Gillard fit the part well. However, when she became teary over the passing of the National Insurance Disability Scheme, many commentators claimed that Gillard was cracking under increasing pressure. The same was said of the formidable Hilary Clinton who cried at the Benghazi hearing. By comparison, when Barack Obama shed a tear about Newtown school shooting it showed the compassion that was considered required in a true leader.

The next thing to note is that showing little or no emotion, or being too ‘tough’, is also undesirable. This is because as the child bearers, so it is said, women have an ethics of care framework when approaching problems. Gillard offended many of these gendered expectations both in her public and private life. In her public life, she harshened Australia’s border controls to the point where there was little difference to the Coalition’s policies, she took a hard line on Palestine at the UN, and she reduced the benefits to single mothers to the consternation of many women and feminists. In her private life, she was unmarried with no children. Bill Heffernan in 2010 described Gillard’s decision to have no children as being “deliberately barren”.  Later that year, Tony Abbott said her childless status meant she did not understand the issues facing families. George Brandis agreed, saying the fact that Gillard had no children necessarily meant she was “one dimensional”. Similar remarks were made to New Zealand’s childless former Prime Minster Helen Clark, where her austere exterior also cast her as an “ice queen” and, like Gillard, she was questioned about the sexuality of her partner.

This institutionalised sexism was left untouched by most female politicians until Gillard’s famous misogyny speech caused a significant shift and officially put gender on the political agenda. While Gillard has many other achievements under her belt – Australia’s first National Disability Insurance Scheme, introduction of carbon pricing and the revolutionary overhaul of the education system – her misogyny speech showed she had teeth and laid the foundations for the next Australian female Prime Minister. It was exciting. Sexism in politics was finally in public discourse.

This is not to say that Australia is ready for a female Prime Minster. Gillard’s speech was an important step but it was just the first one, and there is great potential for ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Gillard’s leadership showed Australia is still not ready for a female Prime Minster. The events immediately leading up to the spill clearly demonstrated this. We saw the mock menu describing Julia Gillard as a “Kentucky Fried Quail; Small Breasts, Huge Thighs, and a Big Red Box”. We saw the emails degrading women circulated throughout the army condemned by Lieutenant General David who was not accused of playing the so called “gender card” but was praised (when men ‘play the gender’ card they are progressive, when women do they are playing a cheap political shot, apparently). We saw Perth radio host Howard Sattler asking Gillard whether her partner Tim Mathieson is gay, which by extension was commenting on the sexuality of the Prime Minster herself. We saw the ‘Women for Gillard’ speech and the scathing remarks coming from within and outside the Labor Party about desperately “playing the gender card”.

In midst of all this negativity, Australia’s first female Prime Minister was replaced. It was saddening. Julia Gillard was a gutsy Prime Minister with real conviction. In her outgoing speech it was clear she was proud of what she had achieved in a minority government, which had generated a hugely vitriolic political environment over the past three years. I think this is why Julia Gillard said that her gender “does not explain everything about my Prime Ministership nor does it explain nothing about my Prime Ministership”, because she had achieved great things not by virtue of gender but through her character and conviction, all while contending the gender criticisms thrown her way.