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  • Writer's pictureHannah White

The Treatment of Gillard: Why We Haven't Seen More Female Prime Ministers

In 2010, the first female Prime Minister was elected. While Julia Gillard's ascension into leadership was inspiring and promising, it was soon dampened by the harsh reality of Australian Politics.

The most memorable moment about Julia Gillard's time in office is arguably her infamous 'Misogyny Speech'. Hailed as one of the most significant and impactful speeches of recent times, we often forget what prompted the speech in the first place. Between her election in 2010 and that fated day in parliament in 2012, Gillard was victim to a barrage of misogynistic and sexist abuse at the hands of her opponents, the media, and the public.

Now, one can argue that had this hate been from a place of political imposition, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Political 'banter' or parodying is expected for one's term in office. However, the treatment imposed on Gillard was something more than that. The tirades of hate were established in roots of disdain towards her, not just as a politician but as a woman.

Comments made by both media and fellow politicians were centred on Gillard's gender, often using sexist stereotypes to diminish her ability to lead the country. Both media and opponents often used her 'childless' status to question her ability to be Prime Minister. Former Senator Bill Heffernan, in 2007, described Gillard as "deliberately barren"; and Tony Abbott questioned her "lack of experience raising children" during a session of parliament. It seems that there is a preconceived notion that being a mother legitimises your humanity, that Gillard is cold and unempathetic as long as she is 'childless'. Their snide remarks suggested that a woman is only worthy of respect if she bears children, furthering the harmful stereotype that a woman's only purpose is to reproduce. No man in a position of power would have his qualifications questioned based on his offspring. 

"Our culture has always feared the childless woman; she's a destabilising and potentially radical figure." – Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia. 

The sexual objectification of women is overt within Australian politics and media, with many women being judged on their looks and their relationships (or lack thereof). It is clear to see why women are a rarity in the PM position; no one should ever be subject to constant attacks on their being. No man has ever been referred to as a cow, hag or witch. No male Prime Minister has ever been the target of having their sexuality scrutinised or used against them. Gillard was the subject of political cartoons which depicted her as overly sexualised with exaggerated features. In many, she has been pictured as a dominatrix, suggesting that she is excessively promiscuous, and somehow, that 'clouds her judgement', rendering her incapable of leading a country. There is no productive talk about the nature of her work or her achievements, not unless it is sprinkled with sexist name-calling.

It is evident from Gillard's experience alone why women wouldn't want to be Australia's Prime Minister. Following Gillard's leadership in 2014, the University of Adelaide and YWCA held a survey to see the effect Gillard's experience would have on the desire of other women to enter the political sphere. The results indicated that about two-thirds of participants were less likely to want a career in politics in the future. There is no winning. You are either a cold, calculated, 'childless' sociopath or a mother who can't possibly manage her priorities and should not or cannot effectively do your job. We are judged as women first, while men are considered politicians first.

The emphasis on Gillard's sexuality came to a boiling point with the "Ditch the Witch" campaign. Throughout history, women have been persecuted for having "sexuality"; most famously throughout the Witch Trials across Europe in the 15-1600s. By conflating Julia Gillard with the image of a 'witch', media and political opponents suggest that she is something that is threatening the fabric of society and must be removed. It also paints women with power (magic or political) as a danger to society and that we should be kept in our places for the greater good. Comparisons to Lady Macbeth were also made, suggesting that Gillard mirrored her power, lust, and ambition, but also her cold and sociopathic nature. Alan Jones, a once heralded radio presenter, suggested that Gillard's recently deceased father would be "ashamed" of her and that women in power were "destroying the joint". Women in power are feared, and so they are punished for it.

But not all hope is lost!

There has been evidence of an increase in gender equality within Australian Politics. For the first time ever, the Victorian Parliament has equal numbers of men and women, while the Federal government is seeing its highest percentage of women yet. There are more and more conversations about the treatment of women in politics happening every day.

But there is always more to do. Gender equality doesn't just focus on the numbers; we need real change in the attitudes towards women in politics. We need accountability and commitment from all sides of Australian politics to combat the awful sexism Julia Gillard and so many more women face. We must change the face of politics if we ever want to see another woman as prime minister.


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