In the midst of Kevin Rudd’s first dramatic attempt to re-take the Prime Ministership in May 2011, the then Minister for Women, and staunch Gillard supporter, Kate Ellis, broke onto the front pages with a startling accusation. She claimed that she had overheard the former Prime Minister describe Julia Gillard as a ‘childless, atheist ex-communist’ at a recent Party event, presumably in the course of some protracted sermon on his superior qualities of leadership. The accusation came amidst a spectacular deluge of public derision from Gillard’s cabinet against the man who, in their view, having nearly destroyed the government from the inside, was now trying to finish the job. While other cabinet members strained to express the chaos and antagonism that pervaded Rudd’s government behind the scenes, Ellis’ accusation went to the character of the man himself, alluding to the dark side of a man who, despite a certain disillusionment, had not yet exhausted the residual affection of the nation. Ellis’ attack never really stuck, however, and Rudd’s popularity persisted to his third, and finally successful challenge in July 2013. Ellis’ accusation had, however, hit upon a crucial factor in the political woes and ultimate fall of Julia Gillard: her lifestyle was deemed unsuitable for a woman in high office.
In the aftermath of Julia Gillard’s agonising fall from power at the hands of Kevin Rudd, the obituaries of her career and legacy have flown thick and fast. In print media and newsreel, Gillard’s career has been endlessly dissected, as the nation’s journalistic legions have sought to interpret the dramatic downfall of Australia’s 27th Prime Minister. Some have focused on her political blunders, others on her unique, excruciating rivalry with her predecessor and successor. Some have even sought to assess her policies (a sure sign of a dangerous eccentricity in modern journalism). Overwhelmingly, however, the commentary has focused on her gender: How did her gender impact her image with the electorate? Did she play the ‘gender card’? Can a woman really succeed in the top job?
A significant body of journalistic opinion, especially amongst the ABC and Fairfax press, has acknowledged that Gillard had been subjected to real, and persistent sexism, in both subtle and explicit forms. A dissenting view, propagated chiefly by Coalition frontbenchers, has maintained that any gendered prejudice faced by Gillard has been neglible. It was the Prime Minister herself who sought to make gender the issue, with talk of misogyny and the blue-tie brigade. Gillard’s woes can be traced entirely to the incompetence of her government.
Given the debate surrounding Gillard’s legacy, one might be forgiven for thinking that women in leadership was a new, untested phenomenon. A cursory google search, however, will quickly dispell this impression. Gillard is light-years away from being the world’s first female national leader (this honour belongs to the plucky subcontinental nation of Sri Lanka, who elected the modern world’s first woman to national leadership in 1960), and she follows such formidable, and successful, figures such as Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Nor is she even close to being Australia’s first head of government. Carmen Lawrence became Australia’s first female head of government as Premier of Western Australia in 1990, followed narrowly by Joan Kirner in Victoria later in that year. Even a disinterested observer must notice that we have undergone something of a surge of women in leadership of late, with women climbing to the pinnacle of their respective ladders in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, and finally Canberra itself.
It is difficult to assess the quality and success of any of these leaders, given the conspicuously Australian tendency to accept women in leadership only in circumstances of abject political crisis. To date, no Australian woman has come to political leadership by means of popular election. They have been invariably elevated by Labor Governments, not to win elections and seize mandates, but as a palliative ingested to ease the passing of exhausted and failing Governments. Women come to be leaders in Australia with virtually no prospect of re-election, and leading parties that have exhausted all their political capital. In a peculiarly Aztec strategy, Australian parties cast women into the political volcano, praying to appease the wrath of the electoral gods. Only when party brokers believe that a softer face and gentler voice might ease the fury of the electorate can they be persuaded to temporarily set aside their aversion to female leaders.
Indeed, in this context, Gillard seemed to have been given the best opportunity yet afforded to any woman in Australian political history. While she conformed to the Australian model by coming to the leadership only when her male successor was deemed to be past it, Gillard faced a positively sunny future compared to the diabolical prospects faced by others like Kirner and Keneally. Gillard had been well known and liked before her elevation, and faced the likelihood of a comfortable election win in the near future followed by a full term leading a Government with plenty of policy gas left in the tank. Gillard had the chance that no other woman in Australian political history had ever been given: the chance to forge a legacy. Why then, might we ask, did it all go so wrong? Surely this was merely down to the defects of the woman herself?
Certainly the minority Government was no help. Failing to win a majority was a disaster for Labor; the spectacle of negotiating its way into Government denied the party and its leader (quite wrongly in this case) a sense of legitimacy, and ownership of its achievements, thereby negating the chief advantages of incumbency. This impression was particularly damaging for Gillard as it gave impetus to claim that Gillard was wielding the knife and twisting the arm to hold her position, rather than earning a genuine mandate to govern. This charge gained easy purchase with a middle Australia all too ready to buy a Lady MacBeth caricature of female leaders.
However, it would be a mistake to assess the political impact of Gillard’s gender merely in terms of some generic sexism within the electorate. Gillard was not merely a woman. The hostility of the electorate went deeper than that. Gillard was a new kind woman in leadership. She had a lifestyle that was threatening to an electorate that expects its female leaders to have all the sex life of a mummified eunuch, and she wasn’t afraid to put her gender on the table and call out sexism for what it is.
Compare Gillard’s lifestyle to a Margaret Thatcher and you couldn’t find a starker contrast. Thatcher was a model of social orthodoxy. Married to an English gentleman and mother of two, Thatcher hailed to conservative politics, exhibited a sense of style to match, and upheld genteel British Protestantism. Thatcher clothed herself in the masculinity of realpolitik, and left the radicalism to her neoliberal policy agenda. By comparison, Gillard was an unmarried feminist atheist, living in sin with a middle aged hairdresser (a positively scandalous profession for a red blooded Aussie man). The Australian public, especially its men, saw not a national leader but a feminazi with no respect for social institutions, intent on hectoring them on gender equality. There was nothing comfortable and reassuring about Gillard, not the way she came to power, not the way she won re-election, not the way she lived her life. Gillard’s lifestyle sat uneasily with Labor’s socially conservative working families, and was positively alien to their generation’s parents.
Public discontent with Gillard’s character was a ceaseless undercurrent of the political conversation, from accusations of intentional ‘barrenness’, to public judgements of her body, and questions surrounding the genuineness of her relationship. Ultimately, unable to shake the dogged questions of her character, Gillard’s sense of legitimacy and command was ground down by dog whistles, insinuations and downright abuse. This is in turn alienated swathes of ordinary voters, bearing no particular ill-will to the Prime Minister, but who felt that Gillard’s gender was hijacking the national conversation, and were increasingly ready to do anything, including elect Tony Abbott, to move on.
The enduring lesson of Gillard’s premiership is that, at least for now, women who break through the glass ceiling will find another waiting for them. Equally real, but harder to smash.
Daniel Broadstock has an Honours Degree in History from La Trobe University and is studying a Masters of Philosophy at MCD University.