Gillard’s triumph is a profound moment for women and feminism, but are there dangers ahead?

Even if Julia Gillard never gets to move into The Lodge, Australia’s first female prime minister will have a profound effect on the standing, expectations and limitations that have long held and often shackled women.

Gillard announced on Thursday, after taking over the Labor leadership, that she would not move into the PM’s official residence unless she won the election. Practical and politically smart – who’s got time to move when you have just become PM and are months out from a tough election battle? – and typical of Gillard.

But while the euphoria around her triumph is intoxicating, will her supporters wake up with a nasty hangover? If Gillard fails to win the election, will she be seen to have set back the cause of feminism?

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick doesn’t doubt that Gillard’s achievement will raise the expectations and ambitions of young women.

”Her elevation sends a message that there is no public office that is out of reach of women. As my daughter [12] said to me yesterday after breathlessly telling me we had a female PM. ‘Mum that could be me!”’

The Melbourne headquarters of Emily’s List, the group that Gillard, Joan Kirner and others founded to get Labor women elected, has almost sold out of its ”Future PM” T-shirts for girls. Hutch Hussein, the group’s national co-convener, says Gillard’s winning the highest political office of the land ”speaks volumes about the position of women in society”.

”There is probably no other vocation with as many barriers for women. More so, to have a woman from a working-class background with power to make decisions over the shape of our society,” Hussein says.

Broderick says Gillard’s rise is more of a game-changer than other female pioneers, including Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Australia’s first elected woman premier, Queensland’s Anna Bligh. ”[This is] because it is arguably the most powerful position in our country and power is a trait often attributed to men, not women.”

Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner says she and former WA Labor premier Carmen Lawrence were ”one-offs”. Gillard’s rise is fundamentally different in that there is now something approaching a critical mass of women in Australian parliaments, says Kirner – almost 30 per cent federally.

Kirner says Thursday’s triumph was underpinned by groups such as Emily’s List and women including herself and Gillard pushing the ALP to adopt affirmative action. ”It was clear that unless we had affirmative action, women like Jenny Macklin and Julia Gillard were going to be frustrated in their attempts to be elected – so she was both a gate-opener and she walked through the gate,” Kirner says.

Kirner also notes that the scrutiny on Gillard’s hair, reproductive and marital status has lessened from three years ago. ”Comments like, ‘well she’s childless’, that offends not only many women but also many men. That’s ’70s talk,” Kirner says.

”Women are now seen as making their own choices … Julia Gillard’s not only made it, she breaks the mould. She doesn’t have a marriage partner, children … That would have caused a revolution 20 years ago!”

Lawyer Moira Rayner, a former equal opportunity commissioner, says Gillard has managed to get to the top without becoming ”one of the boys” or needing a patron. ”Julia’s her own woman and has learned a heck of a lot from the women who have gone before,” Rayner says.

Gillard herself has been at pains to not play up her feminist credentials, a smart political tactic, couching policies on principles of fairness, inclusion, hard work, opportunity and productivity. She has said repeatedly that she got into politics to make a difference, not to be the first.

Political scientist Lindy Edwards says Gillard has persuaded the Labor Party that gender doesn’t matter. ”But the question is whether she can convince the general public”.

Lauren Rosewarne, a social and media researcher who lectures in public policy at the University of Melbourne, says acclaim for Gillard – even among young women – is not universal. ”On social media like Facebook and Twitter there’s a mix. Some young women are criticising her appearance,” Rosewarne says with exasperation. ”We can be our own worst enemy, but there are also positive posts from women my age [20s] and younger who are seeing it as a huge victory.”

Edwards says that in 2006 Gillard had more support than Rudd but ceded him the top job because of Labor’s reservations about a woman in the role. (Joan Kirner disagrees on that point, saying Gillard and Rudd needed each others’ numbers.)

”It’s worth remembering all the nastiness that came out from inside the Labor Party in the 2006 contests, about a childless woman being unelectable,” says Edwards. ”What they did [Thursday] was a very high-risk strategy, but there was overwhelming confidence that if anyone could pull it off it would be Julia.

”After 2½ years in the job they are seeing her competence not her gender.”

Broderick says the only risk she can foresee in Gillard’s rise, apart from the inevitable extra scrutiny given to her personal appearance because she is a female, is that some might take the view that because we now have a female PM, gender equality is ”finished business”. ”We need to keep the debates and messaging around pay equity and other areas of inequality very much alive,” Broderick says.

Catherine Marshall, a Sydney-based journalist for Jesuit Communications, doesn’t doubt that Gillard is the best qualified for the job, but is uneasy at how all this feminist ”backslapping” has obscured the ”brutality” of Rudd’s political assassination, and how feminists are being asked to overlook that.

”If the knives were out for Julia Gillard, would we then be saying ‘this is happening because she is a woman’ or will we be man enough (pun intended) to act as equals and take it – because Julia Gillard will not be exempt from that kind of treatment,” Marshall says.

Commentator and writer Helen Razer shares that uneasiness, saying it is dangerous to celebrate this as a ”victory” for women and feminism.

”First, this diminishes the real victory which, in my view, is of a civic-minded pragmatist over a cultural conservative. Second, it reduces the aims of feminism to that of amassing trophies,” she says.

Razer says that many battle fronts – equal pay, equal representation, and domestic violence to name a few – remain. ”I couldn’t, in this moment, be happier that the ALP has a leader that may take real action on industrial reform and indigenous rights … And, I’m hoping that she will demonstrate some feminist mettle. This will only be observed in her policy; not in her appointment. So, I’m reserving my ‘You Go Girl’ sentiments for a future date.”

All the women interviewed emphasise that regardless of the symbolism of Gillard’s appointment, Gillard stands or falls on her policies and politics.

”It’s not her gender that will determine whether she is a good PM, although it may help,” says Kirner, who believes Gillard is ”normalising” women in power.

Rosewarne warns, however, that she’ll have to do that while still batting ”idiotic” questions about her appearance and womb, and carefully calibrating how she projects power and aggression.

The concept of being a ”backstabbing bitch” doesn’t affect men in the same manner, Rosewarne says. ”For a man to backstab, it’s a game men are meant to play in politics because politics always seen as a men’s game. For a woman to do that it’s seen as sly and underhanded.”


See also:
* From Greer to Gillard
* Australia’s new prime minister takes her place beside 18 other elected female leaders. But does a woman at the top make any difference to the lives of ordinary women?

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