Politics, not just conservative political parties, has a “woman problem”

Politics, not just conservative political parties, has a “woman problem”

For quite some time, it has been obvious that the Australian Coalition Government and the Liberal Party in particular, has a pretty significant “woman problem”.

Late last year, the slow burn of Liberal women’s frustration tipped over into a full, red-hued conflagration as many previously loyal “good” Liberal women went rogue.

From the former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Julie Bishop’s choice of red shoes on the day she resigned after being denied a shot at the leadership, to the Liberal ladies of Parliament’s sudden fondness for wearing red (everyone knows women who work together coordinate their outfits to avoid the horrors of turning up in the same thing –coincidence, I think not), to Julia Banks decision to quit the party altogether and mount a challenge as an Independent, to the Minister for Women (yes the Minister for Women!) Kelly O’Dwyer’s decision to throw in the towel, the Liberal Party’s “woman problem” has been on full, mutinous display.

Given this series of events and the stubbornly slow or non-existent pace of change for women on this particular side of politics, I fully appreciate that it would difficult, if not impossible, for journalists and pundits not to pass comment. Much ink has been, deservedly, spilled.

Some highlights from the recent Liberal “woman problem” genre include the  excellent analysis in the ABC/ Drum last week by Julia Baird and Sam Bold looking at the Liberal party’s and other Conservative parties’ “woman problem” in depth.

Also, last week saw the publication of former Liberal media advisor Paula Mathewson’s excellent new book, On Merit, a fierce rebuke to the dinosaurs in the Liberal party who continue to argue that “merit” and “quotas” are mutually exclusive.

On Bishop’s red shoes and the growing insurgency within the Liberal Party, Mathewson writes, “Those crimson shoes will be a permanent reminder of the avowed blue-blood Liberal woman who put her foot down for gender equality.”

But as these events have played out in a highly ideologically divided political environment, I have started to worry that the debate may become too narrowly focused on the particular eco-system within conservative (or centre right) politics that hampers women’s progress. And if that happens, I am concerned it might become all too tempting for those on the left to engage in partisan Schadenfreude (I’ll admit, I’ve certainly been guilty of it), thereby pushing to the margins the bigger issue that hampers all women’s progress – one which requires continued, collective vigilance and action from those on all sides of the political divide.

In short, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, politics, not just the Liberal party, has a “woman problem” and there’s a fundamental issue at the heart of it.

A few months ago, as the “women’s wave” gathered pace ahead of the US elections, I was tempted to write an effusive column heralding the arrival of a group of female politicians who were irrefutably challenging our ingrained cultural assumptions about power, in particular who holds it and what they should look like (spoiler: cis white men).

Gone were the power suits. No thanks to the lowering of the “shrill” lady voice lest it offend the delicate ears of would be voters. In with everything from breastfeeding campaign videos to tattoos as a proliferation of what the Barbara Lee Foundation, which works to help elect women, called “360 degree candidates” arrived on the political scene determined to showcase their range of life experiences rather than conform to a narrow, male cultural norm.

In her book released around the same time, “Dear Madam President”, Jennifer Palmieri, the former Director of Communications for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, wrote that one of her greatest regrets was her mistaken belief that politics had evolved to a point that it “didn’t matter” that Hillary Clinton was a woman.

According to Palmieri, in setting out to prove that it “didn’t matter”, she “robbed Hillary of something very valuable. Some measure of her own humanity, some of the qualities that were unique to her. Qualities we may not find in male candidates. Qualities you may not find in a male president.” Seems Palmieri didn’t get the “360” memo.

Dare to dream. Had we really entered a brave new world, a new chapter in the political discourse where women were not only no longer penalised for being a woman and forced to downplay or camouflage that aspect of their identify, but encouraged and rewarded for proudly showcasing it?

Upon reflection, I realised I might have been a tad optimistic. This is partly true. We are inching towards that nirvana. But the reality is more complicated. It neither “doesn’t matter”, nor is it yet an asset.

Have a look at the events of the last few months. All too soon, this wave of “360 degree candidates” have been met with the same old “tedious and predictable” sexist double standards. For example, the focus on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s clothes, or the flotilla of think -pieces questioning the “likeability” of the various women who announced their candidacy for the US presidency.

Here in Australia, who can forget the slut shaming photograph of Sarah Hanson Young in The Spectator around the same time voters went to the polls in America (since removed),  which appeared just one day after Hanson Young gave a fiery speech in the House decrying the retrograde sexist culture in politics. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how the newly branded “Independent” women fair at the next election.

Reflecting on this, I turned to the broader  “women and power” genre for answers, revisiting Mary Beard’s aptly named foundational text, “Women and Power”. Beard, a Professor of Classics, takes us on a tour of history, drawing examples from ancient literature through to more recent times to argue that our “mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male”.

Progress, according to Beard, will require a fundamental re-appraisal of how we view power, and women must not just be “re-situated’ on the inside of power, but power redefined.

Reading Beard’s treatise again, which chronicles the 3,000 plus years over which this cultural norm has been so deeply embedded, would force anyone to abandon a perky, optimistic appraisal of the current state of affairs or how quickly it can be wound back.

This continues to lie at the heart of politics “woman problem”.

This fundamental impediment, as well as the variety of systemic barriers that flow from it (Parliament is simply not family friendly, women in public life whose very existence challenges the norm experience disproportionate gendered abuse, particularly online), continues to block the path of women on the right, left and centre.

Tackling it must remain a shared endeavour that transcends party politics.

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