As serious politics had always been the pursuit of men, the assumptions around politics had always been defined around men’s not women’s lives. In particular, that a man brings to politics the perspective of a family man who has children, that seems a good thing. It’s never suggested he should be disqualified from the rigours of political life because he has caring responsibilities.
This definitely does not work the same way for women. Could you imagine to a male politician being subject to the same number of critiques of the makeup of their family as Theresa May, the UK prime minister has been. Or a male politician being described as deliberately barren as I was.
For a women politician it is impossible to win on the question of family. You do not have children you are characterised as out of touch with mainstream lives. If you do have children people want to know: ‘Heavens who’s looking after them while you run around in this business of politics?’
Before becoming prime minister I’d also found out that what you wear will draw disproportionate attention. It did when I become deputy leader of the Opposition. Pleading, ‘I like to wear suits, I’ve been on the road for days’ simply did not cut it.
Undoubtedly a male leader who does not meet the certain standard of appearance and dress will be marked down, but that standard is a pretty obvious one: regular weight, well-tailored suit, neat hair, television friendly glasses, trimmed eyebrows. I’ve often joked that nobody ever says at black tie events, ‘Gee he’s giving that tuxedo a flogging’ do they? Wearing it time after time doesn’t work for women.
Being the first female prime minister I had to navigate what this appearance standard was going to be for me. Allow me to illustrate this point:
When I first met NATO’s leader, predominantly to discuss our strategy for the war in Afghanistan, where our troops were fighting and dying, it was reported in the following terms:
“The Prime Minister Julia Gillard has made her first appearance on the international stage, meeting the head of NATO Anders Rasmussen in Brussels. Dressed in a white short jacket and she arrived at the security organisation’s headquarters just after 9am European time and was ushered in by Mr Rasmussen the former Danish prime minister and NATO secretary-general.”
This article was written by a female journalist. It apparently went without saying that Mr Rasmussen was wearing a suit.
On another occasion, in a bilateral meeting with the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the Earth Summit in Rio, another respected female journalist opened her article with the following phrase:
“As well as matters of state, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have had a chat about their hair styles.”
Six paragraphs then followed about the matter of our respective hair styles.
In the United Kingdom, Theresa May has coped plenty of criticism of her love of leopard print and in the US, Hillary has pantsuits and hairstyles received an absurd level of interest from the mainstream press.
‘There is always such a long way to fall’
The gender stereotyping I found on my family and clothing choices was at the very benign end of what I had to put up with. ‘Ditch the witch’ on placards. The ugly ravings of ‘women are destroying the joint’ from a conservative and cantankerous shock jock. The pornographic cartoons of an eccentric bankrupt. The vile words on social media. It would have been one thing if it had been confined to society’s margins, but it was mainstreamed by the Opposition, business identities and the media. During hard political fights, the gendered insult became a convenient cudgel.
As early as 1975 in her book Damned Whores and God’s Police, Australian author Anne Summers explained that during our nation’s history women were always categorised in one of these two roles. It felt to me that the binary stereotypes were still there, you could be a good woman or a bad woman.
As a woman wielding power, with all the complexities of modern politics, I was never going to be a good woman. So I must be the bad woman, a scheming shrew, or heartless harridan or a lying bitch. This binary world of good women and bad women, such a one-dimensional portrayal meant it was impossible to be received as a full human being with all the complexity of being neither perfect nor evil.
In the middle of all this name-calling and double standards, I did have to harden my heart. As a younger person in politics, I’d watched the trials and tribulations of women in parliament. I saw being viewed at the golden girl, the one on a pedestal was a dangerous business. There was always such a long way to fall.
From watching the experiences of these women and watching politics in general I realised the folly of feeling good about yourself on a day of good headlines and badly on the day of shocking ones. On both days you would be the same person. You needed a sense of self that was not reliant on media positioning.
I joined this learning to my natural sense of who I am. I’ve never defined myself through a sense of approval in the eyes of others. Everyone likes to be liked, and I’m no different, but I’ve always had an inner reserve, a sense of purpose, that drove me on, even when I did not feel liked. During my prime ministership, this grew stronger — it had to. I toughed it out. I refused to let the negativity get me down. I could watch or be briefed about the worst of these and respond relatively dispassionately. It’s not that the anger or despair was not there, I just didn’t let it rule me. I congratulated myself on how well I was coping.
But looking back on it, I can see, if you swallow hard, bite your tongue, check your emotions for too long, sometimes, somewhere those emotions will burst through. For me that moment was my now famed misogyny speech.
That speech brought me the reputation of being the one brave enough to name sexism and misogyny. And it brought me all of the baggage that stops women naming sexism and misogyny when they see it. I was accused of playing the gender card, of playing the victim. Dumb, trite arguments that entirely miss the point. Someone acts in a sexist manner who imposes sexist stereotypes is playing the gender card – it is that person who is misusing gender to dismiss, to confine, to humiliate, not the woman who calls it out for what it is.
Calling sexism out is not playing the victim, I’ve done it and I know how it made me feel: strong. I’m no one’s victim. It is the only strategy that will also enable change.
What’s the alternative, staying silent, so the sexism is never named, addressed and nothing ever changes.
Call sexism out
In my final speech as prime minister I said I’m absolutely confident it will be easier for the next woman and the one after that, and the one after that. I’m proud of that. I remain very confident in that point. But should women and men in Australia, or indeed anywhere else in the world sit back and assume it’s all going to get better by itself, my answer to that is that a resounding: no.
We have an obligation so that the next woman prime minister, business leader, union leader, military leader, factory manager, office manager, public sector leader, it will be easier than it has been before. This requires us to ensure there is an approach of common sense, it requires men and woman day by day to point out sexism when they see it and then act to change it.
Obviously anyone contending for high office ,or leadership positions in organisations like your own, have to be scrutinised and contested, and no gender analysis should be taken to me that female candidates should be immune from criticism. But gendered references are the antithesis of valid critiques. There is a responsibility that lies on everyone’s shoulders, men and women, that criticism is not gender based, that it is not about precluding woman for leading simply because she is a woman. Persistence, constancy and purpose is required by all of us and I think we will all be rewarded by the creation of better societies.
This article is an extract of an address by Julia Gillard to the South Australian public sector, hosted by IPAA South Australia and the Office for the Public Sector in March 2017, drawing in part on her memoir My Story published by Random House.
It was first published on The Mandarin.