By Madeleine Coorey
September 01, 2010
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Feminists rejoiced when Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female leader, but her failure to win national polls has raised questions about whether the country is ready to have a woman in charge.
Australians delivered a hung parliament in August 21 polls, with neither centre-left Labor Prime Minister Gillard nor her conservative opponent Tony Abbott galvanising enough support to form a government.
Leading feminist Eva Cox believes that while some voters have supported 48-year-old Gillard simply because she was a woman, others probably voted against her for the same reason.
“We are still not comfortable when we have a woman in a top position — even if it’s not a big issue,” she said.
During a campaign littered with references to Gillard’s hairstyles and childlessness, the former lawyer played down her sex, presenting herself as a leader who just happened to be a woman.
“All the stuff around the hair and the boyfriend… I just think there was a level of discomfort,” Cox said in reference to Gillard’s ever-changing red hair and her live-in partner, hairdresser Tim Mathieson.
“The fact that it was discussed so much suggests that we are not very good at dealing with the fact that we’ve got powerful women around.”
Melbourne University’s Lauren Rosewarne said the country’s worst political crisis in decades could not be blamed on Gillard’s gender because “voters had other things to worry about”.
But the Welsh-born Gillard’s lightning rise to power, in which she challenged her former boss Rudd for the leadership as he slumped in the polls, had left an impression on the electorate.
“Her whole coming-to-power was very much driven by a gendered narrative,” said public policy expert Rosewarne.
“I think people were very interested in the concept of the first female prime minister and that bitchy, potentially backstabbing, act,” she told AFP.
Rosewarne said Gillard had carefully managed her campaign to soften her image, at times being seen kissing babies, at others cutting a lone figure on a stage.
“I think she had a concerted effort not to bring her partner on stage because if she did that, that’s just setting the agenda to remind journalists and to remind the public, ‘Oh, she’s not married to him, and she doesn’t have kids with him’,” Rosewarne said.
Hutch Hussein, a leader of the Emily’s List group which supports Labor women in politics, said opinion polls throughout the campaign made it clear that Gillard rated much higher with women than Abbott.
But this boost could have been erased by the backlash over Gillard’s deposing of Rudd, the man who ended 11 years of conservative rule when he won November 2007 elections in a landslide, said women’s activist Claire Braund.
It would be a sorry state if Australia had a female prime minister for two months “and then we just couldn’t quite cope and we went back to somebody else who was quite conservative”, said Braund, who heads an organisation aimed at boosting the number of women on corporate boards.
The irony is if Gillard is successful in forming a minority government with the support of independent MPs, she will preside over a parliament with fewer women than the last one.
Forty-one women held seats in the House of Representatives when Gillard called the election, but this number will likely fall to 37 due to retirements and the rise of the Liberal National Party in Queensland, which overwhelmingly had male candidates.
“I think this idea that we are inevitably progressing towards equality is one of the casualties of this election,” Cox said.