With her political foes standing in front of signs urging voters to “ditch the witch”, Australia’s first female prime minister endured a torrent of gender premised attacks during her leadership that a male opponent simply would not have faced. Julia Gillard’s infamous ‘sexism and misogyny’ speech in parliament in October 2012 helped to propel her to the status of global feminist icon, as journalists and politicians around the world lauded the directness of her words and bravery. In Australia, however, the speech was received very differently. Influential reporters in Canberra led the charge to denounce the speech as hysterical and/or instrumental. Gillard was accused of “playing the gender card” for political gain.
Gendered attacks, of course, began early, with photos of empty fruit-bowls in her apartment, accusations that she was “deliberately barren”, and claims her father “died of shame”. And they continued throughout the 2013 election campaign. In the past two weeks alone, Gillard has faced three separate gender-focused attacks. First came the incident now dubbed ‘menugate’, in which guests at a Liberal Party fundraiser were presented with a menu detailing the Julia Gillard themed chicken dish via crude references to large thighs and small breasts. Second, and hot on the heels of revelations about rampant misogyny in the Australian Defence Force, Gillard was asked live on the radio if her (male) partner was homosexual. It is not easy to imagine the same question being asked of a male prime minister. Third, an ill-advised photoshoot of Gillard knitting sparked furore and mockery on both sides of the political divide.
At the end of last year, Gillard was criticized for the disconnect between her newfound feminist rhetoric and lack of policy backbone (e.g. her support for Peter Slipper). But this summer she has been lambasted for taking action in initiating a review of gender discrimination in the workplace. Whatever Julia Gillard’s record and legacy, the view from abroad is not good. A political culture premised upon ideals of mateship and exclusivist (male) images of the national identity (ANZAC diggers, the Bushman, the Larrikin, the Ocker etc) seems to have created a fertile environment for denouncing and attacking female political leaders who would “pussy-whip” their male counterparts. It is not sufficient to brush this off through the use of metaphors of card playing, dirty political scraps, and soap operas. It is correct to fear that the attacks on Gillard will have put off very many women from attempting to enter the political arena, never mind lead in it. We can only hope that, in Gillard’s own departing words, her leadership might have made it easier for the next woman and the next woman after that.
Dr Jack Holland
@drjackholland, firstname.lastname@example.org, drjackholland.com
Jack Holland is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Surrey. He is author of “Howard’s War on Terror”, published in the Australian Journal of Political Science, and Selling the War on Terror, published by Routledge. He researches foreign, security and counter-terrorism policy, in the US, UK and Australia.