Gender. Yes It Still Matters

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
June 28, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

Those nicotine merchants at Philip Morris said it best in the sixties, “You’ve come a long way, baby”. Sure, they were a tad presumptuous unfurling the “Mission Accomplished” banner in 1968 and indeed, the whole thing was just a novel way to peddle addiction, but the sentiments were bang-on: women have indeed come a long way.

And yet, while today women may puff their way to lung cancer as readily as any man, to pretend that we’re on equal footing – to dare pretend gender no longer matters – is delusion at best, insulting at worst.

Gender is one of those issues that never matters until it does. Politics has always been a man’s game and public life a man’s world and male equivalents for “lady president” don’t exist because nobody’s needed to concoct one. When a woman takes the helm of the highest office however, status quo is disrupted, tradition is disrupted: it’s not just a new prime minister, it’s a new prime minister without a Y-chromosome. And the game suddenly changes.

Over and over in newspapers and radio interviews, commentators – myself included – were asked whether it matters that our new prime minister is female. This question always came amidst a throng of others about the impact of her childlessness. Her unweddedness. Her hair colour. Her hairdresser boyfriend.

Flash back to 2007. No journalist asked me whether we had the stomach for another male PM. Nobody asked why I thought Kevin and Therese waited seven years to have their third child. Nobody cared to know if I thought Kevin’s plum-in-his-mouth might affect his electability. Why? Ah, because we never ask men such questions.

Ginger Rogers had a line about doing everything Fred Astaire did. Only backwards and in high heels. Female leaders have the very same burden. Julia has proven she has the intellect and skills and that clichéd ticker to get to the top job. And now she just has to keep it. And we’ll readily judge her ability to hold onto it just as we’d judge a man. We’ll laud her successes and poke fun at her failures. We’ll quote her and bait her and challenge her. And then we’ll hand her the second list. The extras. The unofficial list of criteria we’re also using to judge her. Oh and judge her we will.

Did she knife Kevin in the back? Bitch! What’s with the accent? Bogan! Who the hell styled her hair? Ranga! Because doing a good job won’t cut the proverbial mustard: our new PM will need to excel because she’s carrying the burden of all the many “firsts” that she’s tagged with. All the while moving in heels.

The 1980s will be long-mourned for a host of devil spawn like mullets and leg-warmers and the music of Kajagoogoo; one of the most regrettable offerings was postfeminism. Around about the time A Flock of Seagulls was on top of the charts in Australia, postfeminism – a variously defined word – entered our lexicon. In short, apparently women’s liberation was no longer necessary. Whether because of the bib-and-brace connotations of feminism or because a crotchety battleaxe was living at Number 10, somehow people got convinced that all of women’s wishes had come true. And interest in gender equality waned.

Julia Gillard’s ascension has spotlighted any number of preoccupations of Australians – cuts and colour, boyfriends and broad accents, offspring or lack thereof – of greatest interest is our communal obsession with wishful thinking. Australians are good at many things; we’re simply stellar at self-deception. Just as we fervently believe that a gum leaf mafia dominate Hollywood, that we’re good enough to play world-class soccer, that it was sound judgment to buy all those Ring Ring albums in 1973, equally are we ready to convince ourselves that gender equality exists.

Our tendency to cherry-pick examples of success – abortion rights and sexual harassment legislation and Susan McMahon’s risqué side split – somehow delude us into thinking it’s mission accomplished.

That it has taken over 100 years for Australia to get our first female prime minister has to be pause for thought. Also worth a ponder is every raped woman, every beaten woman, every skinny, white, air-brushed-within-an-inch-of-her-life woman, every botoxed woman, every woman whose body can be rented for sex. Just for starters, of course.

For our PM’s gender not to matter, history needs not to matter. Hair style needs not to matter. Unweddedness needs not to matter. Baby, we’ve got a long way to go.

© Lauren Rosewarne