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Jan 25, 2011

‘So what if she doesn’t have a male handbag?’: female ex-MPs fight back

Crikey asked three female former politicians for their take on women in politics and whether anything has changed.

Lara Giddings became Tasmania’s first female premier yesterday, after her predecessor David Bartlett resigned to spend more time with his family. When Giddings was first elected at just 23-years-old, she became the youngest female ever elected to parliament in Australia. In 2008, she was elected deputy-premier, only the second woman ever to hold the position. When announcing his departure, Bartlett declared that as far as he was concerned, “Lara has always been heir apparent.”

Yet The Australian greeted readers this morning with this front-page story, proclaiming “Leftist Lara still looking for Mr Right.”:


Not that The Australian was alone, much of the mainstream media focused on Giddings being a single female. Is this really how it is for women in politics?

Crikey asked former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, former Liberal MP Fran Bailey and former Democrats leader turned former ALP MP Cheryl Kernot for their take on women in politics and whether anything has changed at all.

What do you think of the treatment of Giddings? Are you surprised?

Bailey: Part of me is, because here we are in 2011 and people still have these sort of attitudes. But then, there seems to be such a superficial focus on women, either talking about their dress, hair or their marital status. It’s very disappointing.

Stott Despoja: I’m a little surprised, I was hoping that the coverage would focus more on her political challenges less than her so-called personal challenges.

Kernot: It surprised me that it still happening in 2011. How far have we come from Joan Kirner and the polka dot dress when the first thing they want to talk about is that she’s looking for Mr Right? Have we asked any men that recently? I don’t think so.

It’s a backhanded article [in The Australian], talking about her long experience and her capacity, so why doesn’t that get the headline? That should be the headline — ‘Capacity to Lead’.

So what if she doesn’t have a male handbag, do you think it’s affected her brain? And there’s the implication, that if she doesn’t have Mr Right, or has an empty fruit bowl, then she’s less of a person and not a good leader. It’s insidiously malignant.

Instead, it panders to that gossipy side of women’s lives, which happens to women who occupy positions of influence, but particularly in politics. Do we see much about [CEO of Westpac] Gail Kelly’s life, comment on her clothing? No we don’t, we accept her capacity to run a bank. It’s just so out of date and it’s frustrating.

Were you overly aware of the press asking  you different questions or framing articles about you around looks, personal issues and relationships because you were female?

Bailey: I can’t say that relationships ever came in to it, but often attention was made, comment was made about your dress etc, and to be quite honest I think most female MPs take it in their stride. I spent over 18 years in politics and I thought it had got better. But then you hear this response [to Giddings] and I just shook my head and just thought ‘Men. How pathetic.’

Stott Despoja: I think in the history of women in public and political life there has been at times a disproportionate focus on personal lives, including martial lives and parental status, as well as appearances, but I had hoped that some of us had borne the brunt of that already. There were other trail blazers, like Joan Kirner and Cheryl Kernot.

It’s improving, but to highlight ‘the search for Mr Right’ is pretty out there.

Kernot: I wrestled with challenging it. I got reduced to a red boa.

Once, I dyed my hair a bright pinky red, the colour was called ‘Titian’. I did it deliberately, I was coming back from being ill and I knew there was going to be a beat up and I wanted to see who would cover it. And only the men did, Laurie Oakes rang up Greg Turnbull in Kim Beazley’s office and asked ‘Why did she dye it?’

Is politics really a boys club?

Bailey: Of course it’s a boy club, it always has been. Until you have a critical mass of women in parliaments around the country and they are there for a long period of time, it will remain like it is.

It’s the same in regard to female CEOs, yes we have some outstanding, highly qualified women in some of the most senior positions around the country, but I don’t think these attitudes by some sections of the media will change until we have that critical mass.

Stott Despoja: Look, it’s a male dominated profession and I’m a staunch believer that critical mass makes a difference. The more women in representative institutions, the less of a novelty it becomes to have a woman in a position of power. I am enthused by things that have taken place, I do believe that life in politics is now easier because of other women who have paved the way, and that’s how it should be.

I really believe the public is more conscious of this and the public is sick of tired of ridiculous portrayals and stereotypes and there is some old mainstream media that are perhaps a little slow on the mark but this will change. Overall, I’m positive that things have changed and Lara Giddings represents a new milestone and sometimes mainstream media are not sure with how to deal with that kind of novelty. Now she’s there, focus on her politics, policies and the difficult circumstances she’s dealing with.

Kernot: I think it’s changing. But the fact of the matter is, it can’t change significantly while all the major newspaper editors are male, all the major political commentators are male, while all the faction leaders are male and all the leading party apparatchik are male. The only one that gives women political commentators an equal go is Insiders, where women commentators feature prominently. The rest of the political media, it’s been Laurie Oakes, Kerry O’Brien, even Chris Uhlmann will be doing The 7:30 Report interviews.

Affirmative action’s helped. But it makes you wonder if we’ve made any progress when this can be the front page of the newspaper. Because the subtext is that there’s something wrong with her. That men are allowed to devote themselves to a political career and be a full time politician without any comment but women can’t.

Does this kind of attention discourage women from entering politics?

Bailey: Entering politics is a very hard decision for women to make, because you do have to give up a lot. There’s a lot of travel, time away from your family, those are the issues that do affect decisions by women that enter the federal parliament, that overrides the media issue.

We need to make it much clearer to the public the role that women can play in making such a difference as law makers. I would favour emphasising all the positive things that female MPs can achieve, rather than the negatives. Women bring a different perspective to politics; a keen sense of public service, the attention to detail. Women ask far more questions than men. A lot of people won’t ask questions because they don’t want to make a fool of themselves, while women will always ask the probing questions.

Stott Despoja: I’d like to think the standard of media treatment of newer female MPs and leaders has improved. MPs like Kate Ellis, Nicola Roxon, they don’t suffer the same ridiculous stereotypes some of us did on occasion.

I am a passionate advocate for diversity in our representative bodies. Whether that be women or different backgrounds, ages, indigenous and non-indigenous, diversity is what matters to me. But a lot of women are certainly put off by the added double standards and scrutiny.

What advice would you give to Giddings?

Bailey: What I’m sure what she will do is get on and do the best job that she can.

Stott Despoja: Don’t lose focus, don’t let them distract you. My advice for the media: get over it. The days of double standards of reporting of women in public life are surely over soon. We have women in the top political positions, it’s time to move on and not be so surprised.

Kernot: Just continue being herself. Hasn’t let her down yet has it? Continue being herself, pursuing the priorities that she thinks are important, trusting her judgment and challenging them when they insist on asking these questions.

When Julia was asked personal questions — like the one about the earlobes — she should have confronted that and collectively we have to keep confronting it. But there’s a funny subtext: women don’t confront and challenge, they whinge. I can’t tell you the times I was accused of whinging rather than raising a point of interest to me.

But she’s a competent women, appropriate for the job, and that ought to be what we are celebrating.

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39 thoughts on “‘So what if she doesn’t have a male handbag?’: female ex-MPs fight back

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    I was wondering what the gender balance in The Greens parliamentary party was? No guernsey?

    Also this is probably trite – isn’t there an inherent gender bias in the above analysis, just as male commentary would also be biased of course. I have no idea how to transcend that. Well I may, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

    Which is why this topic is inherently corrosive.

    And the real issue surely is at 38 years, what is the new premier’s compelling work and educational credentials. The voters should know. It may be impressive, but we are not to know it seems.

    I suppose great leaders in past ages were quite young, but the boomers take alot shifting these days. What I heard on news radio was the new premier referring to Doug Lowe. Wow that’s Franklin Dam all over again. One of the good guys. But then in the same breath praise for the rednecks who came after. So all things to all people?

  2. elbl

    I hope as the baby boomers begin to leave seats of power younger generations can overcome former treatment of women in positions of power. I’m not blaming a generation, but hoping that the ones to follow can act differently.

  3. David

    I expect nothing more from the unAustralian, creeps.

  4. Julian

    The media conference at which Lara responded about her relationship status was just an example of a weakness being picked up by the media. I found it pathetic that Lara even answered the question (I didn’t hear the question, only her response). She displayed every vulnerability that it seems people expect exists in a near 40 year old single woman.
    It’s not that the question was asked but that it was answered with such an embarrasing helplessness. If women are surprised that this can happen in 2011 then perhaps they don’t understand the basic blood lust that exists in people. While it illustrates that women are still treated differently to men, it also shows that women behave differently to men. Place any prominent male politician in this situation and imagine what you would see, quite different I suspect.

  5. zut alors

    ‘When Giddings was first elected at just 23-years-old, she was the youngest person ever elected to parliament in Australia.’

    More thorough fact-checking required here, Amber. I was still wet behind the ears when Andrew Jones won the federal seat of Adelaide in 1966, he was 22 years 184 days old. He was then touted as the youngest ever – but not according to Wikipedia.

    One discovers Jones was only the second youngest MP ever elected. If Wiki can be believed Edwin Corboy was 22 years old when he won the federal seat of Swan in WA way back in 1918.

    No doubt this sensationalist ‘youngest ever’ description nicely fills the copy space in Oz news sheets but it’s inaccurate.

  6. Liz45

    @DAVID – I agree with you. In fact, the best thing to do about anything the “unAustralian” publishes, is to ignore it. It makes me wonder about the person who wrote that article. Thank goodness I’m not living with them. I can only imagine what they’re like!

    One day, this sexist crap might cease! (sigh)

    @JULIAN – It’s not that the question was asked but that it was answered with such an embarrasing helplessness. Yes, and if she curtly responded that it wasn’t anyone’s business, can you imagine how that would’ve been reported? It is OK to make those sorts of comments if men and women were already being treated as equals – they’re not! Therefore, women can’t win! She’s damned if she does etc.

    There’s a few articles around that discuss the ‘male privilege’. I suggest you do some research and educate yourself – then in time, you might be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem!

  7. Amber Jamieson

    @Zut Alors: Absolute correct, it is supposed to be “youngest female ever”. Now updated. Thank you.

  8. Julian

    steady on there @Liz45. So what I said was not OK and I must educate myself because I am part of a problem? Forgive me for not undertaking womens studies. I was trying to tell it how I saw it and you’re blaming things on me. I’m not sure that you’re adding anything constructive to the situation.

    I was thinking that perhaps Lara had looked at the journalist in question as if he/she had just arrived from another planet and moved on to the next question?

  9. FriendlySavage

    The grammatical and spelling errors in this article stand out more than the comments. Sorry, just cannot read it all. Probably why I didn’t resubscribe…

  10. Elan

    Itza a bugger init, I luv BGO? (I’m not keen on resubscribe me sel’ but spell check sayz itz OK).

    Sorry LIZ (honest!), but I agree with JULIAN.

    I’m young; I’m considered good enough to get myself elected. I am considered good enough by my peers to make Depooty Premy (ha! ha! F SAVVY!);-now I am Premier.

    …………..without question I would have- politely- demolished the little turd.

    Giddings has done alright up to now. She needs to assert herself. If she’s criticised for that, then tough goolies. It is the better of the two options.

    This kind of attitude is not just the domain of The Oz. Why did Lee Marvin say “I love Australia, they still beat their wives there”? And he did say it.

    Giddings needs to make it abundantly clear that she will not answer questions that are not relevant to the job she’s doing.

    We DO buy into this. It is time we stopped.

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