Why it’s OK for Our Female Leaders to be Just as Disappointing as Our Male Ones
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard experienced worldwide fame last year for her parliamentary “misogyny” speech, which finally called out the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and his cronies for the repeated sexist attacks made on her since her ascent to Australian politics’ top job.
That day, June 24, 2010, was a day of conflicted emotions for progressive Australian feminists such as myself. Gillard, our first female PM, was sworn in by our first female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce and the resulting photo op was a pleasing representation of the progress women had made in Australian politics. However, it was hard for observers to forget the circumstances that led up to it. For Gillard wasn’t elected to the position by the people – instead, she had come to power after months of publicly denying any leadership ambitions yet privately manoeuvring to realise them. She was the popular deputy to one-term PM Kevin Rudd, whose personal approval was plummeting due to his progressive proposals to introduce a super profits tax for mining companies and a carbon emissions trading scheme. After months of media speculation, the populace was constantly on the lookout for any change in the Labor leadership, yet June 23 still came as a shock to most.
That evening, it became clear that Gillard had the numbers in the governing centre-left Labor Party caucus to successfully challenge for the leadership. Rudd resigned rather than face overwhelming defeat, and Gillard was elected unopposed as the leader of the federal party, and consequently, the nation of Australia. Hours before the historic swearing-in, Rudd gave a tearful speech advising the people of the surprising events of the night before, and so it was bittersweet moment to see Gillard instated as PM that afternoon.
The slightly disappointing circumstances of her ascension have dogged her political career ever since. Despite the high hopes held for Gillard, her popularity dropped almost immediately, and after the snap election held less than 2 months after the leadership spill, the Gillard-led Labor party was forced to partner with independents and the leftist Greens party in order to cling to power. Barely hanging on now, the next election is scheduled for the 14th of September (and already the media is speculating on whether Gillard will in fact make it to then) and the accepted wisdom is her relatively poor performance as PM will see her lose… badly.
And from a feminist perspective, that’s okay.
Female leaders have always had it a little bit harder than their male counterparts. By taking on leadership positions, they are already rejecting society’s accepted roles for women and any criticism of their political performance is inevitably coloured by commentators’ views of their performance of their gender. The anointing of a female leader leads to chauvinist speculation that they will pander to women, or that wars will be declared under the influence of PMS, or that not enough attention will be paid to serious issues such as the economy. But even feminists are apt to make unfair assumptions due simply to a politician’s gender.
Gillard, for example, has been disowned by some feminist elements for opposing same-sex marriage and moving certain single mothers to lower welfare payments, instead of delivering the woman-positive policies she was apparently expected to (although these were never promised or even suggested by Gillard herself). Although she and and her ministry have made some impressive legislative strides, not least among them passing a carbon tax and a modified version of Rudd’s mining tax, Gillard’s apparent reluctance to move on broader social issues has drawn the ire of the women who initially felt such joy at her swearing-in.
Gillard’s stance on same-sex marriage is particularly baffling to them (us), given she is an unmarried atheist, who now happily cohabitates with her male partner and is rumoured to have enjoyed some same-sex dalliances during her time in university politics. It’s even more puzzling given a majority of Australians support it. Her stance plays as a political gesture, a nod to conservative elements of the party and the country, and one at odds with her thoroughly modern personal life. And it absolutely infuriates us.
Progressive feminist criticism of Gillard, then, has fallen into the same trap as her conservative, ‘misogynist’ opponents by focusing on her performance not as a politician, but as a female politician. We expected, purely by virtue of her sex, that she would somehow be better, nobler, than her male predecessors and institute all the social policies they were too sexist or afraid to. What we forgot was even a female politician has to operate within the usual parameters, and that they have no reason not to be as power-hungry as every other member.
As feminists, we spend a lot of time advocating for better treatment of women, better representation, and better conditions. Of course, what we are really striving for is equality with men, but sometimes to achieve that aim we portray women as selfless, perfect creatures who truly deserve it (as if we needed a reason to insist on our human rights). And while some women may fit that description, most of us don’t. And that goes double for anyone who gets into politics.
Ultimately, feminism is about the idea that women should be treated as equal people. That doesn’t mean women are worse than men, and it certainly doesn’t mean that are better than men either. Gillard may be Australia’s first female PM, but with any luck she won’t be last. More importantly, she is Australia’s 27th Prime Minister of either sex, and she’s proven to be just as self-interested as the rest of them. Gillard’s career is a valuable reminder that women are people too – with all the features and flaws that the word implies.
Written by Katherine Klaus
Katherine Klaus is the creator of can be bitter, a weekly blog dedicated to feminist analysis of ‘pop culture, the world in general and other stuff’. When not upsetting fans of various cultural touchstones, Katherine works full time in the seemingly-incongruous field of tax and buys too many comics. She is based in Melbourne, Australia and would love for you to send her an email or get in touch via Twitter.