After the week we’ve just had, even the most ardent supporters of the view that Gillard has had it no worse than her male counterparts would probably have to concede: we weren’t ready for a female Prime Minister.
We’ll never know exactly how Gillard– or even a different female – would have faired under different circumstances. Without the whole “Rudd” thing. Without the minority government thing.
While Gilard’s Prime Ministership is no less legitimate than any other Prime Minister, we’ll never know whether she would have initially been elected as PM via more traditional means, or how she would have faired in the 2010 election without the benefit of incumbency.
Maybe it was the only way for a female to get the top job at the moment?
That the first female Prime Ministership failed is one thing; that it failed so spectacularly is another.
That it has probably convinced any number of capable, intelligent women from considering the already-thankless job of politician is probably worst of all.
That other countries have successfully crossed this barrier, some even decades ago, is bad.
Essentially, the true test of whether we were ready was equal treatment for male and female Prime Ministers. And we failed that test.
Just yesterday, Fairfax columnist Grace Collier criticised the Prime Minister showing too much cleavage. It’s a claim that might seem absurd to those familiar with Gillard’s reasonably conservative dress-sense, but seems even more absurd when her opposition leader is regularly photographed in small, tight speedos. There’s nothing wrong with small, tight speedos either. But that fact is we can’t hold our leaders up to different standards of proprietary depending on their gender.
Enough has been said of the Howard Sattler debacle of last week elsewhere, although I will point out that his defence – that some people might use information about her private life to decide whether to vote for her – is equally absurd. If true, then apart from the fact that it’s a standard that doesn’t apply to men, it’s also just generally a terrible proxy to use for her views. Gillard is a member of the conservative bloc of the ALP and is against gay marriage. While men return, women keep the home, and the home they keep is a reflection of their character.
Hindsight will probably be kinder to Gillard, but her legacy always be something of a disappointment. Regardless of how, or how badly, her reign ends, the biggest disappointment is that during her tenure, the office of the Prime Ministership was reduced to a confusing triviality. From the constant references to the Prime Minister as “Julia” in public debate through to prolonged discussions about whether her arse looks big in a jacket.
The first female Prime Minister was always going to be pegged with the label of “first female Prime Minister” and thus be subjected to extra scrutiny. Perhaps a good sign of equality will be when we stop referring to some future female leader as the third, or the fourth, or the fifth Prime Minister, and instead, just “the Prime Minister.” The same way Kevin Rudd was just the Prime Minister, and the same way that Abbott was just the Prime Minister.
But we’re not there yet. A disappointing male Prime Minister will not hurt the chances of the next male candidate the way Gillard has hurt the next woman – not through her own fault, but through our own inability to view her and her leadership as separate from her gender.