Jules Rules?

On 24 June 2010, the Hon Julia Gillard MP was sworn in as Prime Minister by the Governor-General, succeeding the Hon Kevin Rudd MP.

I have been eager to blog about this, but rather than attempt an analysis of the politics that have gone down this week, or of Gillard’s capacity as a leader, I wanted to hear from other young women about how they felt about the event.  So, I sent out a message on Facebook to some of my ex-students asking them

as fine young women with the world at your feet, what are your thoughts on having a female Prime Minister?

What follows is a pastiche of my experiences, their thoughts, and my reaction to their thoughts on the promotion of a woman to the highest leadership post in the nation.

Where were you when…

The evening of Wednesday the 23rd was a fascinating time to be part of the Twittersphere as possible, then definite news of the leadership spill was tracked and commented on by everyone who happened to have their ear to the ground.  The #spill hashtag was promptly applied, and we all joined the ruckus in what felt like an impromptu election night party!

I was giddy with excitement.  A female Prime Minister!  And all the talk pointed in one direction – it wasn’t just a challenge for the sake of it, it was a fait accompli.

Having spent the past few weeks staying up into the wee hours to write my thesis, there was little chance I’d be able to wake up at 9am for the leadership spill.  So, an all-nighter was on the cards!  (On the upside this also meant that I got to watch the Socceroos play their last World Cup match against Serbia live, which normally I cbf doing at all…it was great fun!  It also meant that I felt a deep connection with journalists like Annabel Crabb who appeared on tele for news coverage in the morning after pulling all-nighters themselves…)

That’s what she said!

After sending out my Facebook message to the youngens, it became clear that their thoughts were of a certain, less excited flavour.  Here’s some extracts from what they said:

It’s great that we have now have a female prime minister but to be brutally honest the fact that she was elected in a back room of the labor party rather than by the people doesn’t sit well with me. It almost gives women in general a message that the only way to get to the top is by going behind others backs and in todays soceity where women are already fighting within their ranks this only reinforces that it’s ok.  This leadership doesn’t feel legitimate because we as the people didn’t have our say and in a democratic society thats kinda the main facet.

The belief that Gillard’s election was somehow undemocratic was a common theme:

My opinion is that it really doesn’t count, since she wasn’t democratically elected. Furthermore, I think it is a disgraceful way to become Prime Minister, that is, after backstabbing the former Prime Minister and taking his spot, despite being in the same party and undoubtedly having, if not encouraged, supported every decision he has made throughout his time as PM.

…along with the implications for how women are perceived as political operators:

The fact that she wasn’t elected by the public, I believe, reflects poorly on the fact that she is the FIRST female Prime Minister that wasn’t even elected democratically, which undermines the fact that a woman is finally Prime Minister of Australia; a position acheived through backstabbing and underhanded behaviour. A reflection of the ONLY way women can break through the glass ceiling? I personally don’t believe so.

…but this toughness in politics also received some admiration, and one made the point that the spill wasn’t all Gillard’s doing:

As a person, she has had the determination, dedication, and dare I say balls to get to where she is. She is definitely a strong woman who is going to get to where she is going. As [another respondent] said, she has done away with the societal expectation to be a mother before her career. I really respect that about her. As for the betrayal of Rudd, this wasn’t something that she came up with on her own. There were other people involved in the take-down of Rudd, but she just has to bear the brunt of it all because she is the one that took his job.

Some of the girls just weren’t that moved by Gillard’s election as being a powerful representation of change in gender stereotypes:

I really don’t believe that a female becoming Prime Minister is causing is as big of a deal as it could of been a few years ago. Personally, I’ve grown up surrounded by strong women and seeing women moving into top positions so from the perspective of someone not old enough to vote yet, it’s not that much of a stir.

…and some worried about the possible adverse effect on feminism:

I think that it is a great thing for women that we finally have a female PM, however, will this now mean that any feminist movements will be effectively told to ‘shut up’ because we now have a female leading our country?

…while one made an insightful observation about remaining cultural barriers:

I don’t think it really matters whether she is female or male. They’re all the same to me. Now, if we got a Muslim up there, THAT would be something ;)

But some of the girls did find powerful messages in what Gillard represents for women:

Firstly, ‘Scandal’ of the process of getting Gillard to be PM aside, I think she will do a decent job and wish her every success. It’s not an easy job for anyone to be successful in politics, let alone be PM. It is undeniably harder for a woman to be prime minister. That’s a big thing to say, I realise, as we all obviously believe in equality here. However, i’m making the point that it is harder for a woman to give up other responsibilities, and ‘expectations’ as a woman to become successful in such a career field. Women are ‘expected’ to become mothers and hold onto a career simultaneously. In fact, women are expected to be mothers overall. I’m not saying it’s like the ’50s again or anything drastic, but think about the societal expectation on women to reproduce, nurture, teach and care for children: it does exist !  Gillard has chosen not to have children in order to further her career- a move considered to be very bold and risky (for most). I admire her dedication to her work, and that she does not feel the need to define herself by children, or by expectation. I think by doing this she is breaking the gender expectations…of couse i’m not bashing mothers – I admire their job as well – but non-mothers/archetypal ‘career women’ get bashed about just as much. Good on her :)

Surprisingly not many of them had much to say about Gillard specifically, but those who did weren’t positive:

My thoughts are that, when a female prime minister happened, I wanted it to be a female that I could be proud of to represent my gender. However, Julia Gillard is definitely not that person. At all.

…and, like me, specific thoughts turned to Jules’ education policy:

As a politician, she lost my support long ago when she brought in the ‘myschools’ website. This is something that I strongly disagree with. I must admit, I don’t know a great deal else about her policy, but this effects my family and I most of all, and this was enough to turn me against her.

I had a couple of points of information to share in response to the comments I got back from my fantastic female students.

Firstly, the fact that in Australia we don’t vote for the Prime Minister. We vote for an MP in our electorate and the party with the majority of seats wins Government. So, when the Labor party decides they want to change who their leader is, the system is there to support this. Technically you didn’t vote for Rudd, you voted for Labor…and Labor have to do their best to be the best Government they can.

Secondly, having said that, you can’t ignore the fact that people DO cast their vote in their electorate in part (at least) based on their preferred Prime Minister. Up here in QLD, Anna Bligh was the first female Premier – she ‘inherited’ the job after Peter Beattie retired, but when it came around to the next election and she was chosen ‘by the people’ it made all the difference. She became much more credible, and her title as ‘first female Premier’ became more meaningful.

One for the history books?

Ultimately though…my thoughts?

So little of what happens in politics filters down to the public psyche.  But people do notice the big things, and the big things matter.

I was fortunate to be in the United States when Barrack Obama was sworn in as President, and the power of that event as a representation of a nation moving beyond the discrimination and segregation of its past was undeniable.

I do think that the intentional, informed election of our first Female Prime Minister at the polls later this year (I believe) will transform this historic occasion into something of equally undeniable significance.  But for me, for now, I am moved.  Truly moved.

Perhaps it is generational – was I perhaps among the last generation in Australia to feel that women were still being oppressed?  The comments from my students suggest this may be the case.  Perhaps I am just relieved to no longer carry the burden of my award at my Year 10 formal as “Most likely to become first female Prime Minster”!

But, I cannot help but want to remind everyone of a few milestones that are relatively recent when you consider how long ‘society’ has been doing business, and politics:

  • as many people know, women obtained voting rights in Australia in 1901 with the formation of the Commonwealth
  • (unless they were Aboriginal, in which case they had to wait until 1967)
  • women were not eligible for election to the State parliaments until the end of the First World War – Edith Cowan became the first woman parliamentarian in Australia in 1921
  • the first woman to be elected a world leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was elected PM of Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1960
  • we still do not have 50 per cent representation in any part of parliament or local government in Australia
  • before the introduction of The Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, women weren’t allowed to own property in their own right, or open a bank account of their own
  • women in the 1960s were routinely asked to have their husband or a male guarantor sign for a loan, even when they were the sole earner
  • as recently as 1989, the appointment of a woman general manager was so unusual, that Westpac issued a press release!

When you consider how recently women have been acknowledged, and how slowly women have been accepted as ‘equals’ in our society, the election of Julia Gillard by her Party to the position of Labor leader and Prime Minister is a momentous act.

Three days later I am still buzzing with pride for my country, and for ‘womyn’ everywhere.  And with that I’ll sign off with an extract from Ani DiFranco’s spoken word piece ‘Grand Canyon of Light‘:

People, we are standing at ground zero
Of the feminist revolution
Yeah, it was an inside job
Stoic and sly
One we’re supposed to forget
And downplay and deny
But I think the time is nothing
If not nigh
To let the truth out
Coolest f-word ever deserves a fucking shout!
I mean
Why can’t all decent men and women
Call themselves feminists?
Out of respect
For those who fought for this
I mean, look around
We have this.

  1. #1 by Troy on June 27, 2010 - 7:53 pm

    I love the idea of a female PM. I am a political tragic. I like talking about it, I love reading about it. I do think the HOW- how she got the job- will matter upon reflection, but it interesting that some of the young women who replied are thinking along the same lines. I often think of what the Queen of Australia thinks of the evolution of female political leaders, seeing she holds a position that is also not democratically elected. I know the Westminister system suggests we elect a local rep to represent our needs and they elect a leader, who becomes a PM. But we can not ignore the role the media and public had in making the last election a presidential style Howard v Rudd. A vote for the local Labour rep was a vote for Rudd, that was a clear and concise message.
    As I have stated: If Abbott becomes PM I am moving to New Zealand. Or maybe Canada! He could send us back to the ‘good old days’…

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