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Julia Gillard, Australia’s First Woman Prime Minister and Potential Feminist Leader

June 27, 2010
Julia Gillard, Australia's new PM

Julia Gillard / Daily Mail

“Julia Gillard is not just a woman, she’s an unmarried, childless, proudly undomesticated feminist agnostic –who also happens to be shacked up with a hairdresser.” This is how one writer for the Daily Mail describes Australia’s first female prime minister, who assumed office last week after ousting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Gillard had served as Deputy PM under Rudd, and challenged him when he began losing the support of their Labor party. A leadership election for the Labor party was called in parliament to choose between Rudd and Gillard, and Rudd resigned at the last minute when it was clear he wouldn’t get enough votes to win.

Reading up on this historic occasion has been like taking a crash course in Australian politics with a hefty dose of all-too-familiar history of sexist treatment of women in politics. Gillard’s many personal choices that deviate from the traditional idea of womanhood have been targeted by her political opponents and the public throughout her career. Gillard’s decision not to have children was lambasted a few years back by a fellow MP who called Gillard “deliberately barren” and said her lack of children made her unfit to govern, according to the Guardian. Gillard’s unmarried relationship with longtime partner Tim Mathieson and her empty kitchen have also come under fire. By all accounts Gillard has stoically shrugged off the criticism, responding that she’s a modern woman and those who judge her for deviating from tradition are simply stuck in the past.

Writers like the Kathy Lette for the Daily Mail and Paola Totaro for the Guardian have depicted Gillard’s rise to power as an almost miraculous development in a highly patriarchal country. Interestingly, many commenters on these articles are taking issue with the portrayal of Australia as a sexist society, arguing that the country has developed more progressive attitudes toward women in the past couple of decades. (I’m trying to remember if any articles about the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 US presidential election garnered responses that America is not really so sexist…mostly, I think the responses were that women just can’t take a joke.)

Perhaps a true test of how Australia responds to a woman politician like Gillard will arrive with general elections in a few months. Newsweek’s Julia Baird suggests, astutely I think, that the most dangerous sexist attacks launched at Gillard will likely be accusations that she’s simply being used by her party:

Her gender adds volume to her victory, but the novelty will wear off before long. She will have to ignore the silly comments about her hair and about the fact that she has no children and can’t cook. The most destructive sexism will be more subtle and insidious, and can be seen already in suggestions that she will be simply a puppet, or handmaiden of the boys of her party’s right wing who supposedly made her leader because they wanted to bump off a leader who never courted their affection. Can a woman not grasp power, and opportunities, in the way men do? How often are men called puppets? It is also unfair to suggest she has been placed there simply to clean up the mess men have made, despite the fact that this is often how opportunities present themselves to women. First, Rudd had not created a mess. Second, Gillard is capable of winning the election.

Without a doubt, it will be interesting to see how gender politics plays into Gillard’s rule, and whether or not she lives up to her feminist credentials during her governance.

Further Reading:

What You Need to Know About Julia Gillard from Jezebel

Julia Gillard: From Union Official to Australian Prime Minister from CNN

Julia Gillard: Australia’s First Female Prime Minister from the Huffington Post

One Comment
  1. Don permalink
    June 27, 2010 11:02 pm

    Nice article Erin. It is unbelievable how people can still think that every time a woman wins an election she will be a “puppet.” Look at what Michelle Bachelet had done in Chile. When she left her position as President of Chile in May her country was one of the top countries that weathered the econmic meltdown that occurred during the past few years. Well, she didn’t have a husband…and she appointed women to fill alot of her Cabinet positions. They say a woman can do a job just as good or better than a man…in my opinion, women do better the majority of the time. It’s nice to see Australia moving in the right direction by electing a woman.

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