What a gloriously surprising day it was when Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.
The trumpets sounded, journalists roared, and Australian women updated their Facebook status to, simply, “Julia.” The circumstances were not ideal—she ousted a once popular prime minister, and she had not won a general election—but the significance of the moment was enormous. Finally, after centuries of bowing to queens while women were locked out of the highest echelons of political office, Australians watched a straight-shooting, unaffected woman seize the real reins of power.
Gillard, 48, the daughter of a coal miner and a former industrial-relations lawyer, has a pragmatic approach to politics and a record of fighting for better conditions for workers, and for greater numbers of women in Parliament. She is well respected and hails from the left of her party.
While women now form almost a third of the federal Parliament in Australia, compared to the U.S., where women hold only 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress, we have a mottled history of hyping, then savaging, women who are touted as potential leaders of national parties. Historically, many women felt forced to play to stereotypes to prove they were real women (just as Hillary Clinton did with her chocolate-chip cookies). Gillard, significantly and triumphantly, has not. Her style is candid and unapologetic, and while she has played the political game carefully, she has remained defiantly herself. This is her greatest appeal. When a national discussion about her lack of cooking ability was sparked by a shot of an empty fruit bowl in her kitchen, she confessed she had never been a domestic creature. When a liberal senator who is affronted by the fact that she has no children called her “deliberately barren,” she shrugged him off as a “man of the past.”
And she, by inference, is a woman of the future. From the moment the former unionist and lawyer entered politics, she was described as a rising star. She was constantly asked about the reach of her ambitions—and once told a journalist, when her party was still in opposition, that if she were to lead the Labor Party, “that would be a different perception by the nation of what leadership is. I think people are over the kind of really highly managed, suited, white-bread-style politicians. I think people are looking for more than that and different to that, and you know I think I am different to that.”
Indeed she is. As one tweeter put it, it’s not just that she is a woman—it’s that she is “an unmarried female atheist redheaded migrant Prime Minister.” (She is the first unmarried Australian to be PM, but the second to have red hair.) Historically, most of the pioneering female politicians have been conservative: Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher. Gillard is a liberal. As a politician though, she is not strikingly different from her Labor colleagues. As a deputy prime minister who capably oversaw the portfolios of education and workplace relations, she has been viewed as hard-working, competent, and focused. She is a strong debater who relishes needling conservatives.
Gillard’s greatest challenge will now be to prove that she is different to the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who made her his deputy and included her in his four-person “kitchen cabinet.” She shared in his decisions, and says she will take her “fair share” of the responsibility for his government—but, curiously, benefited from the fallout when his popularity slumped. “I asked my colleagues to make a leadership change because I believed that a good government was losing its way,” she said.
The coup was startlingly swift, clean, and surprising. Gillard barely had to fight. The support for her in her party was overwhelming. Rudd, a former diplomat who became a Labor hero when he was elected in 2007, ousting a conservative Liberal government that had been in power for 11 years, fatally erred by neglecting his colleagues while concentrating on becoming, and being, prime minister. This left him vulnerable in any leadership vote. As one headline put it yesterday, he was a “bustling politician who mastered everything but people.” He was criticized as a demanding autocrat, and had few friends in his party; he disliked the politicking and rough fight of factions.
This approach meant that the persistent Rudd could become prime minister but could not stay prime minister. He won the election and was safe while he was polling as one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers, but his colleagues turned on him after he made some unpopular decisions—reneging on a trading scheme that would make polluters pay for their carbon emissions, and proposing a tax on resources, which was bitterly fought by mining companies. His popularity plummeted. Vitriol mounted as left and right debated his sincerity and efficacy. His enemies pounced. On his exit, as he thanked his staff and family, and recounted the moments he was most proud of as PM, his shock was as evident as his decency.
Now Gillard has to win an election—in just a few months’ time—by disassociating herself from a government she was a crucial part of. 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.
It would be a mistake to underestimate Gillard. But it will be unfortunate if she, as the first female PM, is forced to waste time battling the usual slew of sexist expectations. In the lead-up to the election, she will be encouraged to draw on her gender as a strength—implying she will be more honest, transparent, and compassionate—while fighting suggestions that it is a liability. She will be seen as a curiosity, an interloper, and a ball breaker. She will simultaneously be admired for her resolve and cast as a soft touch.
For years, Gillard has shown a desire to take on the men who oppose her. If she can show that she is truly more than one of the “highly managed, suited, white-bread-style politicians” who surround her, that may be triumph enough, for now.
Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Follow her on Twitter.