Gillard’s win a loss for feminists

Article by Catherine Marshall /
Eureka Street /
June 25, 2010 /
Click here to view original /

Feminists the length and breadth of Australia are celebrating the ascension of Julia Gillard to the country’s highest state of office. The extraordinary recent events in the nation’s capital have produced a result that constitutes ‘the realisation of a feminist dream’, says Caroline Overington, a columnist at The Australian.

‘Plenty of women, married and single, with and without children, working or at home, sat in front of TV sets [on Thursday] morning, and watched this unfold with our daughters on our laps. We texted each other, saying: “Woo-Hoo!” and “Yee-ha!”‘ she writes.

The online feminist forum The Dawn Chorus said that, while it would be nice for Australia’s first female PM to have been voted in by the public rather than a secretive party ballot, it is nonetheless ‘thrilled and moved that our first female PM will be sworn in by our first female Governor General, no matter how it happened’.

And the new prime minister’s biographer, Christine Wallace, said on Radio National that Gillard’s willingness to unsheathe the sword and wrench the job into her own hands is a really positive development.

Indeed, there is an undeniably pleasant frisson that runs through the blood when one considers that Australia has finally caught up with countries like Pakistan, India, Chile, Liberia, New Zealand, Ireland and, of course, Britain, where Margaret Thatcher was elected to the top job more than 30 years ago.

But does Gillard’s succession represent a win for all Australian women, or are feminists hijacking a tired and outdated bandwagon in an era when women are already well-represented in politics? Would feminists be as congratulatory if Kevin Rudd’s public humiliation was caused by another man? If he was throttled at the polls by Tony Abbott?

In claiming the ousting of Kevin Rudd as a win for their cause, feminists have evinced an unfortunate kneejerk reaction, nailing their colours to a mast which smacks not of liberation and transparency — values beloved of feminists — but rather of intense faction fighting, union-led pressure and a whole lot of secrecy.
For those who had gone to bed early on Wednesday night, the news early on Thursday morning of Gillard’s prime ministerial challenge would have come as a shock, not least when they reflected on her apparent loyalty and sincere assertion in the preceding months that she would not be seeking the top job in the near future.

The flippantly joyous response implies that all feminists — indeed, all women — should blindly support the incumbent, not because they agree with her political ideologies or believe she brings valuable skills to the job, but because she is a woman.

It’s an attitude that is as mired in the past as the very notion that women can’t lead their countries. It singles women out as a group deserving of special rather than equal treatment; to whom the rules don’t apply because they haven’t yet been given the chance to play the game.

And, perhaps most damningly, it fails to acknowledge the gains that Rudd’s government brought about for women everywhere: the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme, the implementation of National Employment Standards which provide for flexible working arrangements for the parents of young children, the appointment of strong women to key positions.

Those same daughters who sat in their mothers’ laps on Thursday morning as they texted ‘whoo-hoo’ and ‘yee-haa’ to their friends will in all likelihood still be the beneficiaries of Rudd’s policies and actions way down the track, not least his swift arrest of the effect on Australia of the global economic meltdown. The daughters of Indigenous people will grow up with the word ‘sorry’ ringing in their ears, and little girls from war-torn countries will be grateful for the relatively compassionate treatment they received under Rudd’s asylum policies.

If feminism is the incidental beneficiary of Kevin Rudd’s downfall, then it is a hollow one indeed, besmirched by the ugly cut-and-thrust of politics and made all the more disheartening by the gaps that still remain. ‘It would be wonderful if we didn’t need to draw attention to the fact that Julia Gillard is a woman’, said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, an expert in feminist politics at the University of Melbourne. ‘The fact that we have to talk about her being the first female PM reminds us how far we have left to come.’

Rather than adding gloss to the cause of women, the sorry saga of Kevin Rudd’s eviction should strike fear into the hearts of feminists everywhere. For this is how the Labor Government operates, unsheathing the swords, wrenching power, cutting down a leader before he has had time to really prove himself. Imagine what it will do when that leader is a woman.