Seen but not heard: Is that the standard we accept for young women? | Women's Agenda

Seen but not heard: Is that the standard we accept for young women?

A throwaway line from a barista tipped me over. “I like Tony Abbott because he has two beautiful daughters. He’s obviously doing something right.”

Without a doubt, that is exactly what the Liberal party strategists had in mind when it was decided that two of Abbott’s daughters would permanently flank the Opposition Leader throughout this campaign. Without a doubt, my barista was not alone in his summation which is why, as a campaign strategy, it’s been brilliantly effective. But, without a doubt, that’s a sad indictment on the gender roles our society easily accepts.

Naturally enough, editing a website that openly advocates for gender equality means my radar for inequity, or any inconsistency between the sexes, is on alert. I accept that. But I can assure you, sincerely, that I do not seek to create inconsistencies where they do not exist. As I see it there are still too many legitimate battles to win in the arena for equality (equal pay for instance) without creating any unnecessary ones.

But this is not unnecessary. For weeks I have resisted writing this; I have watched with unease but quietly concluded it might be best to ignore it. My barista unknowingly confirmed why this is necessary.

I have felt distinctly uncomfortable about the Abbott daughters’ involvement in this election campaign and the reason is simple. If Abbott had sons they wouldn’t be treated the same way. They just wouldn’t and if that sounds tiresome it’s because the truth is tired.

None of my discomfort is directed at the girls themselves and this shouldn’t be construed as personal criticism of them. I have no doubt they are supporting their father because that’s what they want to do and I don’t have any issue with families or children being involved in political campaigns.

But I do take issue with women being treated as window dressing which is precisely how the Abbott daughters have been treated. With the exception of the welcome speech the girls gave at the Liberal party’s campaign launch they haven’t been allowed to speak. They are fodder for photographers but off-limits to journalists, a rule that has been enforced strictly on the campaign trail. As far as I am aware they are not undertaking any substantive jobs in, or outside, the campaign. They are Abbott’s silent – but constant and highly-visible – supporters.

Plenty of jokes were made last year when the women in Abbott’s life were exhibited as proof he couldn’t possibly be a misogynist like the then PM Julia Gillard famously declared in parliament. The subtext was blatant. “Look I have a mother, a wife, a sister and three daughters all of whom love me! How could I have a problem with women?” The jokes, of course, flowed because that’s not a particularly arduous standard; if those women didn’t love him perhaps misogyny would be the least of his problems.

But simple or not that play struck a chord with voters so Abbott’s daughters have stayed visible. Two weeks ago this strategy was discussed in some detail on the ABC’s Gruen Nation program. One of the panellists suggested Abbott’s daughters were at a sweet spot in terms of their age: they’re old enough to be involved but not old enough that we’re asking what their jobs are.

But I am asking. We all should. What are their jobs? Before this campaign started what did they do? And why aren’t they doing it now? None of that has ever been explained and, worse, it hasn’t been asked. Why are we accepting of these university–educated young women being relegated to the role of human mannequins?

The situation would be entirely different if Abbott’s daughters were taking an active role in this election. If they were championing causes they care about or utilising their own skill sets to further their father’s fight in the campaign. If they’d been given a voice this would be different. But they haven’t. That’s the insidious point. They are silent and whether that is their own choice or not is irrelevant.

They are there and they are photographed; nothing more and nothing less. In the lead up to any election glossy magazine shoots and photo opportunities with politicians and their families are obligatory. It is the same the world over. But I cannot recall anything of this nature. Adult daughters posing as permanent but unspoken chaperones to their father, a prospective leader.

The presence of the Prime Minister’s daughter Jessica Rudd has been raised in the same context as the Abbott daughters but there is a major difference. Jessica Rudd isn’t silent. She is an author and columnist with a profile and a career of her own. In 2007 she chaperoned her father throughout the election campaign but she did so in the background. This time she is more visible but she’s equally vocal. And that’s a critical difference.

To my mind the fact the quiet role Abbott’s daughters have been consigned to hasn’t been ruthlessly questioned is indicative of a bigger problem. It is one thing for the Liberal party to treat Abbott’s daughters as window dressing but it’s another thing altogether for us to accept it so easily.

Limiting women to being polite, photogenic and quiet reminds me of an era gone by. At least I wish it did. There was a time when children were ideally seen but not heard. Imposing that caveat on young women in 2013 is a disgrace. When we give baristas a reason to cast their vote in favour of a candidate on the basis of their off-spring, it is a disgrace. Tony Abbott and his strategists have sold his daughters and the rest of us short. The fact it sells is breathtaking.

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