Jennifer Rayner: Was Julia Gillard a 'real' female prime minister?

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Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard smiles after arriving in chambers at parliament today. Photo / AP
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard smiles after arriving in chambers at parliament today. Photo / AP

By the time the sun set over Parliament House, and took Julia Gillard's prime ministership with it in a party room vote, the dissection of her legacy as Australia's first female prime minister had already begun.

The video of her speech to parliament against misogyny and sexism in politics will experience a renewed spike again on YouTube, while various feminist commentators will take to the airwaves and Twitter to laud or lament her contribution.

But although Gillard may have been the first woman to lead the nation and the federal parliament, there's a strong argument to be made that Australia is still awaiting its first "female prime minister".

Making a distinction between a leader who is female and a female leader might seem like splitting hairs, but for Gillard this distinction may well lie at the heart of her fall from the nation's highest office.

As good as any man, or better

As various commentators have observed during her Canberra career, Julia Gillard fits the profile of an ambitious and highly competent politician to a tee. A tough and well-regarded lawyer who earned impeccable Labor credentials through sticking it the bosses while at Slater & Gordon, she entered federal parliament after an apprenticeship as then-Victorian opposition leader John Brumby's chief of staff in the mid-1990s.

Her move to Canberra took place fairly early in the Howard decade, which allowed her to cut her teeth in the rough and tumble of opposition and experience the carnage of several Labor leadership coups.

Through the 2001 Tampa affair and later the 2006 WorkChoices kerfuffle, Gillard earned a reputation as one of federal Labor's most effective parliamentary performers. This reputation undoubtedly helped her secure the deputy leadership in Kevin Rudd's 2006 challenge to Kim Beazley.

Throughout her parliamentary rise Gillard retained a laser-like focus on developing and prosecuting ALP policy, so much so that she made a reportedly conscious decision not to pursue distractions such as marriage and children. All of this experience made her the ideal person to lead her party and the nation when the moment came in June 2010 - except for one small thing.

The 'right' kind of female PM?

From the outset of Gillard's term in office, it was clear that some sections of the Australian community were deeply uncomfortable with both the manner of her ascendency and her lack of appropriately feminine traits.

As Lauren Hall and Ngaire Donaghue document in a recent research paper, Gillard's "knifing" of Kevin Rudd was framed as an expression of unseemly ambition, one which revealed an inability to "wait her turn" at the leadership and dashed voters' hopes for a more "genteel transition" at the top of the government.

At the same time, Senator Bill Heffernan's 2007 comments about Gillard being "deliberately barren" were given fresh oxygen by those who fretted that the new prime minister's childlessness placed her out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Australians. The major newspaper in her hometown of Adelaide remarked that: "anyone expecting parliament to be a softer, gentler place because a woman is in charge is likely to be disappointed".

For Gillard's part, she seemed eager not to be venerated as a feminist pioneer, telling The Australian that she was more focused on delivering fairness for Australian workers than "smashing the glass ceiling". Whether consciously or unconsciously, Gillard's policy agenda also confounded stereotypes about warm and compassionate female leadership. She set about strengthening Australia's border controls, attempted to take a hard line on Palestine's at the UN, and more recently, moved tens of thousands of single mothers off some welfare benefits.

At the same time however, she refused to apologise for her personal life, telling Women's Day:

"I've made a set of choices and I'm not going to shy away from saying, 'Well, that's it, full stop."

In short, Gillard showed an unwillingness to conform to gendered expectations in either public or private life. By doing so, she appears to have confounded Australia's expectations about how a "real" female prime minister should behave.

Gillard tried to neutralise the issue of her gender and govern as her male predecessors did. However, she appears to have underestimated both the hopes of progressive people on the one hand, and the restraints of entrenched gender roles on the other.

For women in particular, and progressive people more generally, a "real" female prime minister would be one who takes power in her own right with the overwhelming support of the electorate, and openly celebrates this as a seismic shift in the status of Australian women. Gillard has failed to meet any of these criteria. She attained the prime ministership through the machinations of male factional leaders, maintained it with the support of male cross-bench MPs, and generally downplayed the historic nature of her achievement.

For people of a more conservative bent, a "real" female prime minister would be one who shares the everyday experiences of millions of Australian families - kids, grocery bills, the school run - and uses this understanding to make government more responsive and accommodating of their needs. Here again, Gillard has failed to meet the mark. Her policy choices have generally reflected a focus far beyond the domestic sphere.

This is not for a moment to suggest that either progressives or conservatives were right to expect these things from Gillard. By my observation, she possesses guts, intellect and experience in spades, and has made federal politics the sole focus of her life for more than 15 years.

The fact that the electorate demands more than this from Gillard simply because she is female - that she also be either an evangelist or an everywoman - shows just how skewed our perspectives on power and gender still are.

But skewed or not, the fact remains that Gillard has not been the first female prime minister that many hoped she would be. Her three years in office have instead been characterised by a post-gendered leadership style which sought to neutralise her "femaleness" by downplaying or ignoring it - except when there was political advantage to be had, as in recent days.

By pitching herself as a leader who is female rather than an explicitly female leader, Gillard tried to forge a different path for herself and the nation. But perhaps she was simply too far ahead of her time: maybe we need a female prime minister before we can have an un-gendered one.


Jennifer Rayner does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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