March 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Julia Gillard and the women in cabinet

By Anna Goldsworthy
L–R: Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Jenny Macklin, Julia Gillard, Kate Lundy, Kate Ellis, Julie Collins. © Tim Bauer
L–R: Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Jenny Macklin, Julia Gillard, Kate Lundy, Kate Ellis, Julie Collins. © Tim Bauer
Critical Mass

It is the first sitting week in parliament. Somewhere up north, a man draws lewd cartoons of the prime minister. It is compulsive, self-pleasuring behaviour. He simply cannot stop himself. Closer to home, a deposed leader accepts a role on breakfast television. No, he says with a tight smile, he is not planning another challenge to the leadership. Everyone should take a very long cold shower. The new prime-ministerial glasses open their own Twitter account. Countless column inches are dedicated to the fact that too many column inches have been dedicated to the new prime-ministerial glasses. The press brays from the gallery. It is chaos in there – chaos! – and they have the anonymous sources to prove it.

In an anteroom by the prime minister’s office, a group of seven women sits around a table. They appear to be enjoying each other’s company.

“I didn’t used to accept the critical mass theory,” says Senator Penny Wong.

“In terms of nuclear science?” jokes the prime minister.

“No, in terms of politics,” Wong continues, brushing away the laughter. “As a means of achieving change. And I don’t think it’s the be-all or the end-all. But it does change the dynamic. I’ve found it easier to speak because Tanya was there, Julia was there, Jenny was there.”

The other women around the table – Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, Families Minister Jenny Macklin, Employment Participation Minister Kate Ellis, Sports Minister Kate Lundy and Community Services Minister Julie Collins – agree. “One of the things that also exists is that we do actually support each other, and the younger ones coming in,” says Macklin.

Before Nicola Roxon’s resignation as attorney-general, there were a record eight women in the ministry, and five in cabinet. They all identify as feminist, though not loudly. (“Content is more important than the word,” Wong suggests, “and I worry a little that ‘That sounds feminist’ can be used as a silencing or a limiting phrase.”) We occasionally glimpse their solidarity, in the Opposition’s anxiety about the “handbag hit squad”, or in the tears shed by Roxon and the prime minister when they announced Roxon’s resignation. But as a group, these women have rarely sought the limelight, perhaps taking their cue from the prime minister.

Last year, after her widely reported “misogyny speech”, Gillard was accused of playing the “gender card”, but up to that point gender had not been a large part of her romance – as race has been for Barack Obama. “I never conceptualise my prime ministership around being the first woman to do this job,” she explained, in a 2011 speech to women’s political network Emily’s List. “I conceptualise my job as being about delivering the things that make a difference for the nation.”

It is an important distinction for Gillard, and one that underlies her public persona. Her prime ministership is about doing, about delivering, rather than about being – a woman or anything else. She has studied the failures of her female predecessors, and carefully avoids the pitfalls of celebrity. In Julia Baird’s 2004 book Media Tarts, Gillard describes the “Golden Girl vortex”: a phenomenon in which “the reporting quickly changes from what they do to who they are”.

That men should do and women should be remains a persistent bias of our culture, even as it bears no resemblance to actual division of labour. It is a distinction more useful for a Kardashian than a prime minister. Gillard’s strategy has been to deflect any speculation about who she is almost to the point of self-effacement. Despite having more to explain than the average prime minister – besides her gender, there are her professed atheism, her childlessness, her de facto living arrangements – she has not provided any reassuring narrative of self, any Dreams from My Father users’ manual. Instead, she just keeps on doing stuff, resilient as a Duracell bunny: forging alliances, making deals, retracting promises, passing legislation. She wears her action as a kind of armour; her survival strategy is to remain a moving target. “You’ve got a big arse, Julia,” Germaine Greer cried out, in a gleeful Tourette’s moment on Q&A last year. “Just get on with it!” It was advice that was patently unnecessary: getting on with it is Gillard’s creed.

Most of Gillard’s female ministers follow suit. In 2010, Kate Ellis was crucified for posing in a leather dress and Gucci heels for Grazia magazine, but you would be unlikely to catch the senior ministers anywhere near a fashion shoot. “I find it trivialising that people want to focus on what someone looks like rather than on an issue which is actually important,” Wong says. Plibersek remembers being insulted for having a “fat face” while campaigning: “I thought it was a really unusual criticism. I mean if he talked to me about letting down my electorate, if he talked to me about a policy issue I cared about, it would have had much greater impact on me than an insult about how I looked.”

In her speech to Emily’s List, Gillard described her female colleagues on both sides of politics as “tough women, resilient women. They are necessarily tough because politics is tough, and politics is tough because politics is important. It shouldn’t be easy, and it’s not. Not for the women – not for the blokes.”

But does politics remain tougher for women? The ministers are loath to complain, to subscribe to a self-perpetuating victimhood. But the scrutiny is constant, and perpetual busyness only affords partial protection; there must also be a wilful blindness. When Ellis confesses to reading emailed criticisms after a Q&A appearance, the other ministers howl in disbelief: “Why were you doing that?”, “Don’t do that!”

At any rate, other issues are more pressing than scrutiny. Five of the seven women at the table are mothers. Roxon’s resignation earlier in the week raised the vexed issue of work–life balance; Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the Opposition, promptly declared, “You can’t have it all.”

“Some of the recent commentary about Nicola has had this little edge to it,” Gillard says, “as if somehow this life has defeated her, and her ability to balance her family life, and I think that analysis is unfair about Nicola. And I wouldn’t want people to go, ‘Oh, if it’s too tough for her then maybe it’s too tough for me.’ There’s a personal element to it.”

It is easy to overlook, that personal element. In a representational governmental system, every politician stands for several things: a faction, a party, an electorate. But there is an extra level of representation demanded of women politicians, a pressure imposed by women as much as by men: to be proxies for an entire gender. Plibersek is disturbed by the popular rage directed towards Gillard, not only because she wants “to stick up for my friends”, but because “I never want a young woman to look at the treatment that the prime minister receives and think ‘I don’t want to do that job, because if I’m going to be a target like that I don’t want to let myself in for it.’”

Gillard might prefer simply to be prime minister, rather than female icon. Her hope is to “change the images in people’s heads”, so that one day prominent women are “not as intriguing any more, and so it’s not much remarked upon”. Meanwhile, the fact of her gender imposes its own type of being, quite separate from anything she might be doing. Taking a cue from Obama’s recent victory, in which female voters played such a large part, Labor strategists are targeting women. “Mummy bloggers” are invited to Kirribili House for Christmas drinks, to condescending reports from the mainstream press; Gillard is interviewed alongside her female ministers by Marie Claire, and talks gamely about shoes (although she always sounds more comfortable when talking footy).

There are those who will vote for Gillard because of the sheer fact of her anatomy, a qualification that trumps any policy. These are the most devout members of the sisterhood, the ones for whom, as Greer wrote in 1999, “to be feminist is to understand that before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party or family, you are a woman”. And there are those for whom Gillard’s gender is the only disqualification required. In a lecture last August at the University of Newcastle, Anne Summers documented the scale of misogyny in the community directed towards the prime minister. “I think the best way of dealing with it, and I can see the PM does it in her way, is to be incredibly positive,” says Macklin. “To just keep delivering and showing that you’re a great PM.”

Delivering. Doing. The ministers remain on message. And yet part of the power of the misogyny speech was that it was the moment when Gillard seemed to go off message, the moment when that relentless Duracell bunny came to a standstill. I was offended when… With that magnificent tremor in her voice, she stopped being a blur of action and became a person. The speech transcended its immediate context – the calculation behind it, the dubious ally she felt compelled to defend – and became a larger cultural critique. It was a repudiation of female stoicism, of being a good sport. It was a repudiation of turning the other cheek and getting on with it.

“I think it gave the words to a lot of women’s experiences,” Gillard says now. “That they had felt a moment in their own lives, in their own workplaces, when they wished they had said something and they let the moment go by.” It is ironic that Gillard’s celebrated moment was that in which she stepped (or was coaxed) out of type. Leadership is not only about doing, but sometimes requires being: a symbol, a catalyst, an inspiration.

When women first entered politics, there was hope that their gentle presence might lift the tone. But if Gillard’s female ministers offer a gender-inflected politics, it has less to do with feminine virtue than with pragmatism. Theirs is a politics that owes more to compromise than lofty sentiment, that is more interested in getting things done than in rhetoric. Content is more important than words.

It is possible that Labor currently requires something more – a grand vision, a resounding message – in order to unite its splintering constituencies. What exactly is the Labor Party today? In the absence of clear messages, Gillard’s inscrutability threatens to engulf the entire party. But Kevin ’07 was big on glamour – on slogans and summits and movie stars – and we all felt a bit foolish in the morning.

It seems likely that these women will be brought down by the misbehaviour of Labor men. Extrapolations will no doubt be made about female leadership.

Meanwhile, the prime minister chugs on, surrounded by her ministry of sisters. Perhaps any woman problem belongs less to Abbott than to Rudd. If the prime minister is rolled before the next election, a lot of women are going with her.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and pianist. She is director of the cultural policy program at the Stretton Institute and director of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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