Winter of Women - Julia

July 15, 2013

Picture: Dan Himbrechts. Source: The Australian

We seem to be seeing a rise of discussion around misogyny in the press at present. It is almost as if the Zeitgeist has moved to re-ignite discussions of gender, and it pays to ask the question 'why'.

Over the coming weeks we will explore some of the issues and ideas that have been raised as part of our study into Women, culminating in our next Big Idea Event, later this year, in September.

So, where to start? Well, with Julia.

Julia Gillard’s treatment as a female Prime Minister raises many questions, and it is time we asked ourselves as a Nation. Her gender, undoubtedly, meant that she was attacked in different ways to how it might have been if she were a man. What is it about her that made this so evident? She was in a minority Government, and managed to pass difficult legislation against the odds, and for all the political critique we could make, she did ‘get things done’. But never without a mire of what is, quite blatantly, sexist critique hanging over her. At times, she shielded away from it, at times, she embraced it. In the end, neither strategy seemed to get rid of it. Is it, as some commentators suggest, that Australia is not ready for a woman in charge? Possibly. It has certainly revealed an undercurrent of 1970s machismo and sexism that had gone unquestioned before, however, this is a simplistic view of the story. I would argue it’s less about Julia being a woman, and more about her being a woman that doesn’t fit the norm.

Julia – a woman, or an unmarried woman?

It’s hard to believe Tony Abbott would be asked if his wife was ‘gay’ or if his marriage was a front. This in itself is interesting. Is it really the fact that Julia is a woman, or is it the fact that she is unmarried? Having recently read the coverage and editorial comments around Margaret Thatcher, similarly a first woman Prime Minister, but one who kept her place at the head of the table for 11 years, it is interesting to question how far Dennis Thatcher had a role, not only in her achieving power in the first place, but in keeping her there. She was a woman, but one who fit the traditional norms of society i.e. married, with children. Julia’s rise to power is perhaps all the more incredible when you realise her partner has nothing to do with politics - she was in it on her own, by herself (not withstanding the support of a loving relationship of course). Unlike Thatcher, or Hilary Clinton, Julia was doing it solo. Perhaps it is this that galled people so. The strength of character and ruthlessness a career politician needs to make it to the top, is at odds with societal expectations of women as the negotiators, the ‘peace makers’. This is made all the more stark when we look at how she assumed power, in effectively, ‘a coup’. This is an aggressive, and powerful move. It would be shocking for a male politician, but perhaps we find it even more shocking from a woman? Or finally, perhaps it is her lack of children that caused the issue. This in itself feels like one of the last taboos of our age.

Whatever way you look at it, perhaps it is not the men that caused the issue here, perhaps the issue lies with women? In theory Julia could, and potentially should, have had a significant level of support from the ‘women’s vote’, we are after all, 50% of the populous. I’m not for one minute suggesting you vote for someone merely because she is a woman, but there was, to some degree an advantage for her to play. There did not feel, at any time, to be a group who really identified with Julia. No group who had her back, who believed in her, with the exception of when she showed a bit of her fire, and made that excellent speech on misogyny. She was a woman candidate that women didn’t warm to or identify with. It was partly her legislative agenda, partly how she rose to power, and partly her demeanour. Although again, the fact that she was judged so viciously on her dress, hair and speech, in a way no man would be speaks volumes about the standards placed on women vs men. All in all, there was something that did not connect, and to me this feels more about the norms of femininity than her actual gender.

Women vs Women

In today’s culture, one of the shifts we have identified is that women judging women is intensifying – we are our own worst enemies. The removal of many traditional value systems, such as the church, state, gender roles, means that we have more choice than ever before. However with choice, for example, choosing not to get married, not to have children, comes judgement. By making these decisions about our lives as women we are opening ourselves up to the ultimate blame, or to celebration if they go well. Was Julia ultimately held to account? Not just for her politics, but for failing to follow the established path of womankind?

An 80s version of empowerment?

Arguably, this has the potential for more impact on her now than it would have had a few years ago. When the ‘progressive’ feminine mindset was all about career, about ‘having it all’. We might have respected Julia’s choices to sacrifice family for the ultimate job. Nowadays though, it feels as if things have shifted. We have watched how 4th Wave Feminism has paved the return to choosing the home, the domestic sphere, as an empowered choice; a choice made in full knowledge of other opportunities, a deliberate choice to celebrate the role of being a Mother, and a carer. These choices may look traditional or old-fashioned, but increasingly they are not. Women are opting to make their homes their place of production (through craft, home-making, blogging, and business) whilst caring for children. These are women who opt out of an increasingly tough, commoditised, and stressful workplace for a different way of life. The next article will tackle this shift in more depth, but for now, perhaps Julia’s lack of traditional values meant that she was hit from both sides. The older, more traditional camp viewed her as non-traditional for not having kids, whereas the most progressive viewed her as retrograde for having put career before kids. Stuck in the middle, she was judged from both sides.

Either way, I believe it was not just her gender, but the choices that she (quite within her rights) made about family that caused her the issues. Whatever way you look at it, we have a long way to go before we achieve the utopian ideal of women – for women to be genuinely free to choose whatever life they want without judgement or repercussion, primarily from other women.