The lack of agreement on the question of whether undue criticism of Gillard is sexist boils down to how we think about sexism. Is sexism something we view at an individual level or a wider social structural level? Is it still sexism, when gender discrimination occurs at a structural level?

Before addressing this, I’d just like to mark a special moment that arose because of this issue; Monday saw Christopher Pyne and Bob Katter coming out in support of women’s rights. Who would have thought that in 2012 Katter and Pyne would be the standard-bearers in the fight against sexism?

Oh, except they really aren’t.

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After reassuring the Australian people on Monday that he would be the first to call out any sexism against Gillard, two days later Pyne was labeling her ‘worse than lady MacBeth’. Way to single her out specifically on the basis of her gender characteristics Christopher Pyne.

And then there’s Bob Katter. He correctly identified that Australia has a female Governor-General, a female Premier and female Prime Minister. You’re right Bob Katter, Australia couldn’t possibly be denying opportunity to women. But it took only one sentence for him to say that it’s “you know, if anything probably the other way around”. Oh well, back to square one.

But ‘hey!’ you might say, ‘is it really sexist to compare Gillard to Lady MacBeth? After all they are both women and that seems pretty good grounds on which base a comparison.’ This is a good point, one that was addressed by Cheryl Kernot and Kerry Chikarovski in a thoughtful and articulate interview that is really worth having a listen to.

Preempting Pyne’s Lady MacBeth comparison, Kernot suggests “that there are elements of our cultural conditioning… the palace coup, the Lady Macbeth image is deeply ingrained in us.” She goes on to say more directly

She’s the leader of a political party. Do we allow women to be politicians first or women first? Or do we always expect them to be women first and load them down with expectations that they should talk in a particular way and be domestic in a particular way. We don’t ask that of our male politicians.

What Kernot is highlighting is that the gender roles society expects from women do not entirely line up with what we expect from our Prime Minister.

Gillard herself touched on the at times discordant expectations we have of women and politicians in an interview on Sunday night. In what was actually kind of a touching moment of personal candor, she said she had always thought of the Prime Minister as “a bloke in a suit”. And then in what is also a pretty reasonable comment she offered that she “is a different image of leadership” and understood that it might take “a bit of time to settle with the Australia public”. Then the next day, after having tried to be less cold and present more personality, Abbott goes and accuses her of playing the ‘sexism card’.

The expected repertoire of the female politician, it seems, is a complicated balance. It is important to be demure but not weak, authoritative but then not cold and tough but certainly not hysterical. So far Gillard has not been judged favorably. While the calculating political logic of the Machiavellian Prince is deemed to be ‘part of the game’ for most politicians, when Gillard exercises the same pragmatic ruthlessness it it is widely read a deadly betrayal.

Chikarovski addresses the perception that women are not political operators, referring equally also to her own experience.

People don’t expect women to do those things, which is kind of bizarre when you think about it. Paul Keating knifed Bob Hawke, Bob Hawke knifed Bill Hayden. It’s kind of the way of Australian politics. Yet women when they do it cop an enormous level of abuse.

This again is the Macbeth image of betrayal and manipulation, an image that has stuck more firmly to Gillard than other politicians. There is a sense that the betrayal is personal. She stabbed Rudd in the back, betrayed Andrew Wilkie. But come on, really? Its politics, not dating.

Around the accusations of sexism its fair to say there has been some vagueness. Bob Brown mentioned the ‘relentless tone of attacks’ and Simon Benson describes a ‘misogynistic tone’.  Kernot and Chikarovski make references to society’s expectations of women but are not really willing to fully commit to idea that it is sexism.

This raises the question, ‘if there is sexism who is actually guilty of it?’ This is where the disagreement lies. Those that disagree with the idea that there is sexism want specific instances of individuals making statements that can be legally defined as sexual discrimination. Such explicit instances of sexism are for the most part not the case.

If, however, the question of sexism is framed instead as ‘is Gillard being judged according to criteria by which she is disadvantaged as a result of being a women?’ then the answer is a little less clear. This is where Bob Brown is coming from.

This is what can be referred to as a structural position. That is, are there social structures in place, as opposed to singular actions by individuals, that mitigate against women’s ability to act or alternatively oblige to act in a certain way. A good way of picking when the structural form of sexism is at play is when people say ‘that’s just the way it is’ or, worse, ‘it’s natural’.

The common refrain against the notion that the personal attacks are sexist is to refer to John Howard. On the face of it this is true, Howard did cop a lot of flack at times, particularly about his physical appearance. Think about the basis of these criticism; despite claiming to love cricket he couldn’t bowl, he was short, he didn’t have manly voice, he had his eyebrows trimmed. What is the common thread through these criticisms? They are emasculating. They are premised on the assumption that a masculine lack leaves him less qualified for the role of Prime Minister.

Despite these withering personal comments his skill as a politician always remained intact. When it came to his politics, not matter what he did, he was regarded as an extremely shrewd, smart politician and whether you agreed with his ethics or party line was a different matter. For Gillard, however, the personal and the political are linked. This is not to say there can’t be valid criticism of Gillard public policy performance but in doing so we should try to avoid drawing on limiting gender stereotypes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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