by Beverley Kingston,
Professor Beverley Kingston is a Visiting Research Fellow, School of History and Philosophy, UNSW
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With the election of Julia Gillard as leader of the ALP (which means that she automatically becomes prime minister), another chapter has been added to Australia’s deeply ambivalent story of women in politics. Since 1894, when South Australia followed some states in the American west and New Zealand in granting women the vote, we have been proud of the fact that we have been world leaders in giving women equal status. All along, however, we have been reluctant to admit them to positions of real power.

Women stood for election to the federal parliament as soon as they were entitled, viz. in the election of 1903. But it was not until 1943 that the first women took their seats in Canberra, Dorothy Tangney as a senator for Western Australia and Enid Lyons following her husband as the member for Braddon in Tasmania. Thereafter until the 1980s, the handful of women elected to the federal parliament went mainly into the Senate. Between 1951 and 1980 only two women were elected, each for a single term to the House of Representatives. Kay Brownbill was Liberal from South Australia. The other, Joan Child from Victoria, represented the ALP.

Mainly because of party structures it was almost impossible for women to win pre-selection. On the non-labor side there was greater willingness to allow a talented party worker a spot on the Senate ticket, but in the ALP, jobs for the boys always have been an important consideration. Dorothy Tangney was the only Labor woman in either house before 1974. Then, only the most determined efforts of women party members backed up by the knowledge that half the electorate is female and must vote, has eventually produced a kind of shame-faced acceptance of some kind of equal opportunity in politics for ALP women.

Julia Gillard’s election will be seen as a significant step for women in Australian politics. Yet it already has been pointed out that women only get these jobs when they are needed as ’cleaning ladies’ to quote Eva Cox in the SMH (24 June 2010). Of the three women who have served as state premiers in recent years, only one, Anna Bligh in Queensland, has succeeded in winning an election. And in her case it must be said also that she was not sent to clean up a mess, but became premier initially as part of Peter Beattie’s bold succession plan.

It also has been pointed out that Julia Gillard did not win the election in 2007 so her position does not yet have the endorsement of the people. But it might also be added that she did come close to winning the leadership in 2006. At that time the fact that she was a member of the Left faction certainly went against her within the ALP where left-leaning members are regarded with suspicion and women who have real political skills or a feminist spark are almost invariably seen as raging lefties and probably dangerous revolutionaries. The story of women who have succeeded in Australian politics outside the mainstream parties – think Janine Haines, Cheryl Kernot or Clover Moore – is an interesting comment on the position of really capable women within the larger parties.

An earlier argument against Julia Gillard’s elevation was that she was not married, did not have children, and was not famous for her housekeeping or other domestic skills. These things undoubtedly will be held against her once more during the forthcoming election campaign. And the question of how Australian women, not to mention men, will react to all the long held and quite misogynist values of Australian society will be played for all they are worth, especially given the known misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition.

There can be no doubt, however, Julia Gillard has grown as Deputy Leader. She has become more human and less didactic. Her capacity for a light hearted, even humorous response has been in marked contrast to Kevin Rudd’s increasingly dour lectures. She is in many ways much closer than Rudd to the traditions of the Labor movement with her experience in student politics, public advocacy and as the representative of a Victorian electorate once held by Jim Cairns. In retrospect already it seems possible that, whereas the Australian people needed someone who looked very safely similar to John Howard before they would accept a change of government, they may now be willing to accept a more authentic ‘Labor’ prime minister, even though she is a woman with all the baggage that comes with it. After all it has worked elsewhere.

Citation: Beverley Kingston, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. Australian Policy and History. June 2010.


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