The lack of agreement on the question of whether undue criticism of Julia Gillard is s-xist boils down to how we think about s-xism. Is s-xism something we view at an individual level or a wider social structural level? Is it still s-xism, 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 s-xism?

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 s-xism against Gillard, two days later Pyne was labelling her “worse than Lady MacBeth”. Way to single her out specifically on the basis of her gender characteristics, Christopher Pyne.

And then there’s 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 s-xist 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.

Pre-empting Pyne’s Lady MacBeth comparison, Kernot suggest “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 “s-xism 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 favourably. 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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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