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May 1, 2013

Julia Gillard’s uphill battle against sexism

Some 60 years after the first woman was elected to Victorian Parliament, our first female PM is still fighting those who hate her because of her gender, writes Mary Delahunty in the latest edition of GriffithREVIEW.

The first woman elected to Victorian Parliament was reluctant — in 1933, after the sudden death of her husband, the state’s premier, Lady Millie Peacock was persuaded to stand at the byelection for his seat. Still in mourning, she did not appear in public during the short campaign. Once elected, she made only one speech in her single term. She did not seek re-election and left Parliament full of disdain for the company. Six decades later, as a minister in a hung Victorian Parliament, I occasionally shared Peacock’s view as personal abuse was hurled across the despatch box.

As the colonies federated into a nation, Australia bolted out of the blocks with progressive legislation. The Franchise Act 1902 gave most Australian women (excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in some states) the right to vote in Commonwealth elections. Four women stood in 1903, the first federal election under that act. Not one succeeded, but they were the first female candidates for any national parliament in the British Commonwealth. It took another four decades to muster enough votes to propel women to Canberra: Labor’s Dorothy Tangney from sparse Western Australia became a senator, and Enid Lyons took over her husband’s Tasmanian seat. Both were elected in 1943, the year John Curtin was returned as prime minister, William Dobell controversially won the Archibald Prize and Dark Felt took the Melbourne Cup.

Seven years into the new century a high watermark was set. Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female deputy prime minister, Anna Bligh was the first elected female state premier and Julie Bishop the first female deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Five years later more women were at the top of the power pole — Gillard the first female PM, Nicola Roxon the first female Attorney-General, Penny Wong Finance Minister and four other women ministers. Tasmania has its first female premier, the ACT its third female chief minister, and women occupy ministerial roles in every state and territory.

But raw data tells only some of the story of power gained, challenged and diminished; there is something corrosive, undermining, a sustained visceral assault on legitimacy, a sneer at women in control. Women comprise less than a third of all parliamentarians and occupy fewer than one-quarter of all cabinet positions. The number of women in the Senate reached a high point after the 2010 election, while the number of women in the House of Representatives declined. Even more perplexing is Australia’s sharply declining international rank. Comparing the proportion of women in national parliaments around the, world Australia has slipped from 21st to 38th over the past decade, behind Rwanda, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, although ahead of Britain and the United States.

It’s as though Australians are comfortable with the principle of female political power, but discomforted by its practice.

Hillary Clinton concluded after her 2008 presidential nomination campaign that the country approved of female candidates when they appeared to be serving others, not when they were seen to be seeking power driven by personal ambition. Joan Kirner, Australia’s second female premier, agrees. “Women are accepted if serving but not if controlling. We might be accepted as a minister, even a deputy leader, but the leader controls, controls the government, influences the country.” Kirner, Victoria’s only female premier, was remorselessly depicted in cartoons as a housewife in a polka-dotted shift, appropriate in the kitchen but a disaster for the state. Kirner was anointed leader in 1990 when the Labor government was facing imminent and almost inevitable defeat, yet the conservative press’ view that her leadership was illegitimate was palpable. The people liked her — “Rock on Joan” — so the conservatives could not risk her getting traction in office. I often interviewed her on the ABC during this time. I think we both thought that women were taking their place in power. I hadn’t predicted the backlash.

Some 20 years later, in a salute to her friend and mentor, Julia Gillard wore a black dress with white polka dots when she gave her first press conference as Prime Minister. Soon though, and out of sight of most decent Australians, demeaning cartoons stole into more personal space: from the kitchen to bedroom, from pots’n’pans to dildos, from a ballooning dress to the vulnerability of nakedness. Same goal though: steal the legitimacy of a woman in power.

“Politics uses people as fuel, and Julia Gillard stoked up Australian politics in the House of Representatives on October 9 …”

On June 24, 2010, as a popular deputy, Julia Gillard won the leadership of the government in a political coup that shocked the nation. Leadership changes are hardly new in Australian politics — Paul Keating wrenched the prime ministership from the popular Bob Hawke 20 years before — but this was different. The victor was a woman, and the press gallery had missed the signs.

While she was in her place as deputy the media had been quite taken by this fiery, smart and rapier-witted parliamentary performer. Gillard’s public approval ratings were strong. When she was sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia she added 14% to the ALP vote. More stunning, according to Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves (MUP, 2010) was the new leader’s approval rating. In June 2010, Kevin Rudd had an approval rating of -19, a week later Julia Gillard’s was +19, a breathtaking 38-point turnaround.

So what happened? Why was the honeymoon so short?

The conventional mantra is that Gillard rushed to the polls to legitimise her leadership and was rewarded with a hung Parliament and a compromised government, stumbling on both politics (elevating Peter Slipper, propping up Craig Thompson) and policy (asylum seekers, pokies reform).

It’s the shape of the “legitimacy question” that disturbs me; the higher, never-ending test that applies to this Prime Minister.

Seven months earlier, Tony Abbott wrested leadership of the opposition from Malcolm Turnbull by one vote. The legitimacy of his victory was not, and has never been, questioned. Yet Gillard, whose ascent in 2010 did not even require a caucus vote, as her support was so overwhelming, and who again in February 2012 held the leadership with a 40-vote margin, has had to battle the phantom of her right to power.

Outside Parliament something was stirring. In the swamps of offended opinion the question of legitimacy took on a dark and gendered blaze. Placards demanding “Ditch the Witch”, “Ju-Liar” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch” were held high, capturing the cameras and intruding into public consciousness, at rallies opposing the carbon tax. If decent Australians felt a line had been crossed in the vitriol of this political contest, most remained silent. Running through this and other campaigns — including the allegations that as a solicitor two decades prior she was involved in a union slush fund organised by a former lover — is the implication she is an illegitimate prime minister, that she has no morality and somehow this is linked to her gender.

The cohort of older white males fired up and most virulent against a female political leader seem to see in her power the mirror image of their declining influence and potency. The s-xual decline of the alpha male is a cruel burden, particularly if your self-image and brand is based on dominance and certitude. It is easy to build a constituency of those men in the marginal seats, beloved of focus groups of all parties, who bluster while their jobs disappear in industrial restructures, and whose personal authority in the family dissipates as wives and daughters soldier on in the services sector.

Pub talk masks the deep pain of diminishing self-belief. “That bitch” makes handy target practice. Julia Gillard’s power has become, under the incantations of the shock jocks and net trolls, sorceress to a declining demographic.If you want to put one face to this phenomenon, go no further than Alan Belford Jones, AO.  He has been at the forefront of the campaign with cruel jibes about chaff bags, saying her father died of shame, until the backlash forced an ungracious apology. Others at the forefront also have ideological agendas or old scores to settle, like the discredited Ralph Blewitt, who came from a steamy stint in Thailand to attack the Prime Minister’s memory and actions as a lawyer 20 years before. In one studio interview, Blewitt was asked why according to his Facebook page he spent so much time on the “Worst PM in History” website and Larry Pickering’s lewd cartoons of the PM. His answer: “I just look at them occasionally for a laugh.”

A laugh at the poisoning of a public figure, the worst form of degrading pornography yet directed at a woman in public life, most certainly the most virulent assault on any Australian prime minister.

“Women may be accepted as equal partners in politics but not yet equal partners in power.”

Anne Summers’ research for her Human Rights and Social Justice lecture at the University of Newcastle uncovered a “whole industry of vilification”, sexually crude and designed to undermine Gillard’s authority and legitimacy, and described it as the political persecution of Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

It is shocking that vile and sexually demeaning drawings were being regularly sent to every member of the federal parliament, and no one called it out. Is female power so mysterious to us and its consequences so threatening it cowers so many? It took the PM herself to name it. In one of her marathon press conferences over the AWU saga she asked and answered the question herself, “Will the nut jobs on the internet give up? No they won’t.”

Politics uses people as fuel, and Julia Gillard stoked up Australian politics in the House of Representatives on October 9, 2012 when she let rip at Tony Abbott:

“I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about s-xism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the government will not be lectured about s-xism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.”

On this day hers was a voice sharp with disdain. It faded and almost faltered when she referred to the death of her father whom she loved deeply.

“Can I indicate to the Leader of the Opposition the government is not dying of shame, my father did not die of shame, what the Leader of the Opposition should be ashamed of is his performance in this Parliament and the sexism he brings with it.”

This was a stunning political persona: fierce, feminist, barely restrained. The speech was an electric shock, firing a charge into a population who had never heard a woman in power speak of sexism. Gillard named it for all women.

Though the nation still divides between those who applaud her and those who are appalled by her, something changed with the “misogyny speech”. “I will not be lectured by this man … I will not” echoed around tearooms and boardrooms. Women and girls watched it whooping and punching the air as they heard the Prime Minister put into words a truth they all knew from their own lives. Something shifted. Millions watched on YouTube, American feminists lauded her as a “badass woman”. Something shifted in Australian civic sensitivity.

Yet the press gallery missed it. The mainly older men and women of the old media were busily, myopically dissecting political tactics, while over their heads around the nation the cri de coeur was causing an emotional tsunami.

In this country, power has a male face. Women may be accepted as equal partners in politics but not yet equal partners in power. With this speech, the ground began to shift. Win or lose, Julia Eileen Gillard has made a difference to her adopted country. The cultural adjustment is being hard fought. The old media of the press gallery are trying to catch the reverberations and the trolls of the new media are flailing with fury. Gillard is even trying to turn this to advantage. Like US President Barack Obama, she is taking the political conversation directly to women in open media and chat rooms. She has found her own voice and legitimised theirs.

*This is an edited extract from “Liars, witches and trolls: On the political battlefield” in Griffith REVIEW: WOMEN & POWER, published last week

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30 thoughts on “Julia Gillard’s uphill battle against sexism

  1. Mike Flanagan

    So bloody true Mary. Certainly one of the better reads I have encountered, of late!
    We are very poorly served by the incestuous and puerile debate that is lead and fostered by the Canberra Press Gallery
    However I would suggest the “Gillard named it for women” should include a growing number of males.

  2. mikehilliard

    Well put Mary. I’ve long been of the opinion that much of the dislike for PMJG is her gender fanned by the appalling rhetoric of the LNP. From my observation it is largely the 60+ group who adhere to this sexist position which just goes to show how deep rooted the prejudice is in Australian society & that it will remain for many years to come.

  3. Axcellence

    hmm.. some radio commentators, I wonder, why? :p

  4. Buddy

    Here Here…How many times must her ‘legitamcy’ be questioned yet the same issues ont he opposition side raise nary a thought. I am so entirely sickended by the MSM and the misogynist who hold the airwaves.. over an over she ahs demonstrated WHY she is the leader of the government in the house.. I have never voted labor but i can tell you all now i will be this time.. And as Mike has elpoquently said Gillard named for women and for a growing number of men..

  5. Buddy

    Shame i didnt spell check…

  6. gofark urself

    this article is absolute crap.
    gender has no bearing on ones ability to do the job.
    Julia has failed as a dishonest leader and incompetent visionary. end of story.

  7. mikehilliard

    @6 hahaha great display name your hiding behind there, what a wit.

  8. Simon Mansfield

    Somewhat ironic that the first DLP PM was a woman – only to followed in all likelihood by another DLP PM.

    Both offer a weird mix of socially conservative views that every Bob and Mary interprets in whatever way suits their argument.

    My favorite quote of Mary on JG was that Fraser was never treated the same way given his own lack of legitimacy.

    Mary of course was there in Melbourne in the 1970s railing against Fraser at all the demos like all of us did from the radical left at the time.

    But nowadays history is for fools and knaves. And Mary would today cuddle up to Big Mal as her favorite reconstructed conservative who came in from the cold and all is now forgiven for his own acts of political bastardy.

    I just can’t wait to hear the spin at around 7pm on September 14.

  9. Savonrepus

    For goodness sake she is Prime Minister of the country she does not need to be fighting those that hate her – the fight has already been won. Her job is to fight battles for the nation not to fight for legitimacy. You would not see Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher to name a few pleading the gender card their legitimacy is a given. I would humbly suggest that Gillard forever comming up with excuses as to why she can not lead including playing the gender card is a major contributor to her unpopularity (as a leader).

  10. Patriot

    “the allegations that as a solicitor two decades prior she was involved in a union slush fund organised by a former lover”

    It was more of an admission than an allegation. She actually got very angry and demanded a retraction when members of the press deigned to call it a trust fund, rather than a slush fund.

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