So Julie Bishop doesn’t identify as a feminist. Does it matter? Yes and no. On an individual level, our foreign minister, is, of course, entitled to identify with whichever labels she chooses. She is entitled to view the world however she chooses and she chooses not to see it through the prism of gender.
So what’s the big deal? Why don’t we just accept she’s a female foreign minister and get over it? Why do we need to subject Julie Bishop – and ourselves – to a lengthy debate about whether or not she calls herself a feminist?
The answer is because there is a much bigger picture at play. Dismissing feminism as less useful, even on an individual level, presupposes that its work is done. That it’s no longer needed. Choosing not to view life through the prism of gender implies that life itself does not present different worlds for men and women.
These assumptions are not simply worrying because they’re inaccurate but because they effectively perpetuate the status quo. Failing to acknowledge inequality between men and women justifies taking no action. If there’s no problem, why do anything?
Just yesterday, less than 24 hours before Julie Bishop addressed the National Press Club, the World Economic Forum released research that shows once again Australian women are substantially lagging the rest of the world in terms of participating in the economy and the workforce. It also showed that at the current rate women are likely to attain equal status in the workplace in 2095.
It is impossible not to recognise there is something hugely contradictory in Julie Bishop denying an affiliation with feminism, or at the very least, the movement’s ambitions. Because if it weren’t for feminism Julie Bishop would not have been able to vote in an election, let alone stand for election. She is – like all of us – a beneficiary of feminism so it is disappointing that she doesn’t identify with the term.
Having said that, though, there is a question, in my mind at least, more pertinent than whether or not she calls herself a feminist and it’s this. Does she believe gender inequality is a real problem in Australia?
If the answer to that question is yes, whether or not she describes herself as a feminist is less instructive. The far bigger problem would be if her answer to the question of inequality is no. And that’s what I fear.
Listening to Julie Bishop speak yesterday I was struck by the fact she appeared to equate raising gender as an issue with being a victim. On an individual level I absolutely accept her position but that connection between victimhood and raising gender denies the reality.
Australian women are not on equal footing in society as men; they remain vastly underrepresented in power, in government, in leadership, in economic terms. Unless you believe that 80 to 90% of merit – at work, in earning potential, in leadership capability – really does sit with men, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that women remain structurally disadvantaged in Australia.
Is recognising that being a victim? Or is it just being realistic?
In some ways I am reluctant to saddle Julie Bishop with any further responsibility; to be a champion for all Australian women and gender equality in addition to being the foreign minister and the single female representative in Cabinet.
Tony Abbott isn’t expected or required to act on behalf of all men; he can share that responsibility with 17 other men. And therein lies the problem with being in a minority. Julie Bishop is already paddling as fast as she can by virtue of being in a minority; why does she need to actively and effectively champion the cause of her entire gender at the same time? Strictly speaking, she doesn’t need to. It is her choice.
But the question I have is this. If the only female in Cabinet doesn’t choose to view the world through the prism of gender who will?