On Julia Gillard and The Complexity of Female Politicians

This past summer, we were hit by some rather dreary political news: that Julia Gillard, who rocked Australia as the first female Prime Minister and Leader of the Labor Party, was ousted from her position.

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You know when esteemed poet Walt Whitman (not to mention devoted humanist and beard aficionado) uttered these eternal words: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” It’s kind of the 19th Century version of Sorry I’m not sorry!

I want to reclaim this quote and accompanying sentiment when discussing Julia Gillard, or for that matter, any female politician working today.

Gillard first came on our radar last year when she cut into opposition leader Tony Abbot with a fearless speech during parliamentary procedures, calling him out on his vile misogynistic comments (wearing a Clinton-esque blue pantsuit, no less!).

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His grievances include catcalling at the Prime Minister herself, hurling words like “bitch” and “witch” at her, and suggesting that women don’t have the same capabilities as men do in leadership roles, “physiologically” speaking.

Gillard’s response is deliciously quotable:

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever…If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”

Check out the video – it’s pretty hard to refrain from breaking out in joyous fist-pumps:

You would think that Gillard’s very public refusal to take shit from anyone would cause the sexism directed towards her to subside, but regrettably, no such thing happened.

Instead, the media criticized her, warning her not to return to “misogyny tactics,” claiming that she had “reopened the gender wars.” Do they mean that Gillard called attention to the very real fact that she is treated unfairly because of her gender?

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a prime minister to be showing her cleavage in parliament,” said reporter Grace Collier, expressing discomfort with the fact that … Gillard has boobs?

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Particularly onerous was when a liberal party supporter wrote up a menu for a fundraiser that apparently served “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Things, and a Big Red Box.” This guy is really lacking in subtlety – he literally turned the Prime Minister into a dish of meat for male politicians to gobble up over dinner. Seriously?!

In June, Gillard participated in a photoshoot showing her knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby as a gift – and came under a veritable maelstrom of criticism, as people called the stunt “contrived” since Gillard has previously rejected traditionally feminine presentations of her gender identity. Well if that’s not a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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How many times do we have to say this?

Enjoying knitting, and other such “domestic” activities ≠ not feminist

Attacking women for enjoying knitting, and other such “domestic” activities = not feminist

In my opinion, Gillard should be able to do all of the following: to love knitting, to not always want to be portrayed as femme, to orate super badass speeches against sexism, to wear pantsuits that might show a hint of cleavage. None of these activities “contradict” each other or show that her personality is “contrived.” She is a PERSON. She is not a monolithic public construct that we get to pick apart every time we think she is being hypocritical, just because she is a female leader, and we expect female leaders to be more than male leaders, simpler and easier to explain, yet superior, exemplary representations of their entire gender. The logic seems to go: if women haven’t shown themselves to be better at leading our countries than men, why wouldn’t we just stick with men?

Gillard’s case is just one in a string of the nigh impossible expectations that we set for female politicians. It’s as if we expect them all to be superhuman – to be able to stand like Wendy Davis and filibuster for 13 hours straight in hostile environments; they’re seemingly not worthy unless they can prove themselves – and of course, in a way that we can understand.

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It seems that Gillard was, in the eyes of the Australian public, not able to prove herself quite enough. The politics surrounding the overthrow of Gillard are intricate, complex, and worthy of much research and analysis – but I will sum it up in simple terms for the time being. She actually came to power when former (and current – I know, confusing) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suffered a decline in his personal ratings in 2010 due to some poor decisions involving taxing, carbon trading, and immigration policy. Gillard challenged him to hold a leadership ballot to determine public opinion on who should be leading the Labor Party. When Rudd saw that he didn’t have enough support to win against Gillard, as she had steadily become respected throughout the country as the “best parliamentary performer on the Labor side,” he simply resigned, leaving the coveted Prime Ministership to Gillard.

She lead her government with poise and strength, hitting high approval ratings and international recognition when critiquing the sexism inherent in politics, as well as Tony Abbott’s, but her ratings unfortunately continued to decline until they hit rock bottom in June 2013. Rudd re-challenged Gillard to a leadership ballot, and defeated her by a margin of 57 votes to 45.

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Gillard vs. Rudd

Gillard announced a few days ago that she is fully retiring from politics to enter academia. She has not uttered a single negative or even passive aggressive word towards her political peers or opponents, remaining graceful, wise, and supportive from the sidelines. I hope she gets to knit as many marsupials as her heart desires while wearing whatever she wants, and I’m sure she’ll teach one hell of a class. I hope she gets to explore the multiplicities of her personality.

One thing’s for sure, and Gillard says it best: “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I’m proud of that.”

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Photos via Canberra Times, The Australian, Mount Holyoke, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian

By: Amy LaCount, Managing Publication Editor

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