Popularity, Misogyny Oust Australia’s First Female Prime Minister

In the most dramatic political comeback in recent Australian history, Kevin Rudd regained his job as prime minister of Australia nearly three years to the day after losing it to Julia Gillard. Rudd is now the first Australian prime minister since the 1960s to lose his job and then regain it. He is also, notably, the first Australian prime minister to lose leadership to a woman.

In 2010, with Rudd’s popularity waning, Gillard took over the Australian Labor Party in a bid to secure the next election. Rudd has used this same justification for his takeover; making this one of the most surprising and anticipated political backstabbings in Australian politics. Many Australians, including myself, did not expect history to repeat itself so soon, despite the media coverage which eagerly foretold the demise of Gillard’s leadership from the very start.

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Gillard’s career as Prime Minister was nothing short of historical. At elections in 2010, Gillard faced the first hung parliament in Australia since the 1940s, and afterwards formed the first minority parliament since – yet again – the 1940s. She was the first female deputy prime minister of Australia,and then the first female prime minister of Australia. The unfortunate price for being the first female leader in a parliament dominated by “men in blue ties” was the constant belittling and mocking of her abilities, usually through thinly-veiled misogyny. The reaction of the Australian media to an atheist, unmarried, childless woman with ambition was ruthless.

From the beginning, Gillard was decried as lacking empathy and understanding by remaining “deliberately barren,” a personal choice her opponents felt kept her out of touch with Australian families. Her political background as Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations demonstrably gave her at a good amount understanding of what mattered to Australian parents; she spearheaded one of the largest reviews into the Australian educational system in recent years, suggested a A$16 billion program to combat the woeful underfunding of that system and used her industrial law background to replace the unpopular WorkChoices Act with the Fair Work Bill before even becoming prime minister. As prime minister she established a health funding deal with the states, lifted the tax-free threshold to A$18 000 and enacted a national disability care scheme in addition to reworking and passing the unsuccessful carbon and mining taxes from Rudd’s government.

Despite her obvious achievements, the loudest criticism was simply that she was incompetent and her government did nothing. In the words of Christopher Pyne, a member of the opposition, Gillard’s government was “…incapable of addressing the daily challenges facing the Australian people, and secondly, for the culture of evasion and deceit and sheer incompetence that characterises her prime ministership.” Despite these accusations, Gillard’s government passed over 500 acts of legislation and Gillard has been viewed by some to be Australia’s most productive prime minister. Looking much of her prime ministership from outside of Australia, I was always confused by Australian media coverage of Gillard. Without the constant vitriolic claims of her uselessness in my ears, it was quite clear to me that she was, in fact, doing quite a lot.

The media frequently criticised Gillard for playing “the gender card.” When she made the observation that “men in blue ties” dominated Australian politics, she was considered unnecessarily aggressive and potentially misandrist. Yet Rudd accessorised his first speech as prime minister with a blue tie. When Gillard observed, in the same speech, that only the Labor Party would keep women’s rights like abortion safe, she was criticised for making irrelevant statements. Yet opposition leader Tony Abbott – who has a long history of anti-abortion sentiments – was a vocal opponent of RU486 (abortion pill) and famously champions the virginity of his teenage daughters. The opposition is not currently running on an anti-abortion platform for the next election (preferring to stick with the “boat problem” and destroying the carbon tax), but it is highly probable that only with a Labor government would this right remain uncontested. In other words, Gillard noted the importance of women in parliament – from her position within parliament – and the impact this has long-term on policy making, and was criticised for playing the “gender card” in a desperate bid to keep female voters.

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All politicians are made fun of, but Gillard’s treatment typically exceeded the norm and often centred on her body or femininity rather than her policies. This year alone, Gillard was criticised for showing too much cleavage, asked if her long-term boyfriend was gay because he was a hairdresser and described quite literally as meat with “small breasts, huge thighs and a big, red box” in a leaked dinner menu from an opposition party function. In many ways, her treatment cast a light on the inherent sexism of Australian politics and media; her respect abroad only served to underscor the unreasonable hatred she suffered at home. You might remember how Gillard’s misogyny smackdown of the opposition leader in 2012 (previously covered on Autostraddle) was hailed by Jezebel as showing Gillard to be “one badass motherfucker.” Gillard’s debating skills and strength of character were, in the words of CNN “Admired Abroad, Vilified at Home,” and considered a hopeful example for women in political arenas.

Gillard was not perfect: she made public statements against gay marriage rights and continued Australia’s embarrassingly racist treatment of asylum seekers. For a Welsh immigrant who made it to the highest echelon of Australian politics, she seemed remarkably unsympathetic to asylum seekers and even immigrants. In some ways, Rudd – who was historically more humane towards asylum seekers and is now the self-proclaimed “first Prime Minister of Australia who is a full signed up member to gay marriage reform” – is more left-leaning than Gillard. Perhaps, as is his justification for ousting Gillard, this will charm voters and keep Labor in power.

Yet, it is sad to see the first female prime minister gone and it is even sadder to realise that her legacy will be tainted by the misogyny which simultaneously caused and decried her lack of respect. The failure of a female prime minister is seen to reflect the failure of women in positions of power. Gillard had to be better than any politician before, and even when she was just as problematic, divisive and changeable as her opponents and Rudd, she was attacked more viciously than they ever were. She passed some good policies and, admittedly, some bad ones. She did all of this with a minority government, vocal lack of support from within her own party and incredible vilification from the media. Gillard, in her graceful final speech claimed gender “…doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain nothing. It does explain some things. And it’s for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey. What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman… and I’m proud of that.”

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20 Comments

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    Thank you for this. Beautifully said.

    I wasn’t a great fan of Gillard, but the way she was forced out after the media baying for her blood in this incredibly sexist way depressed me for days. When you see what they did to Gillard, it is incredibly offputting, in a “guess I shouldn’t bother trying to make a difference or I’ll be torn to pieces” way.

    People couldn’t even handle that she had a partner but was not married to him – so much so that when Howard Sattler asked her whether her partner Tim Mathieson was gay, he also asked her whether she hated marriage and was against all married women because she herself had not married.

    If you google image “Julia Gillard 2013″ right now, the search categories google will produce are “2012”, “Sexy”, “Skirt”, “Breasts”, “Cleavage” and “Hot”. So disgusting.

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    I feel like this commentary is a bit one-sided.
    I’m a feminist, left-voting, queer Australian, and I think there are many women who feel differently about the Gillard debacle.

    For anyone who is interested, Radio National did a great segment on ‘The Gender Card’ the day after Gillard was ousted. Listen:
    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/gender-politics/4784312

    The article written by one of the guest speakers, on the difference between a Female PM and a PM (who is female). Read:
    http://theconversation.com/was-julia-gillard-a-real-female-prime-minister-or-a-leader-who-was-female-15566

    I am by no means arguing that she wasn’t treated badly because she’s a woman.
    I think her legacy will turn out to be that she brought ‘misogyny’ back into mainstream conversation, no longer allowing women’s issues to be dismissed by “Feminism isn’t necessary because “.
    But I think a lot of us feel that it was way too late to finally be spoken for by our PM, who happened to be a woman.

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      I don’t really understand your point. are you saying Gillard should have pushed the feminist agenda more, or should have had a more ‘female’ presentation or focus on issues?

      you say it’s way too late to be spoken for. however, given the vitriol she faced for dealing with things in a post-gendered way as the article you linked to says, or in other words mostly acting like a male politician, I fail to see how her reception and media vilification would have been any better if she had pushed the female card more?

      I think this whole saga shows how unready mainstream Australia was for a female leader and how necessary it was really. I think she did her best and achieved a staggering amount given the circumstances and that she did pretty well to pave the way for future female leaders.

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      I’m certainly not a fan of Gillard, and kind of think how she became PM was ridiculous, but I kind of look at it how I looked at Thatcher. Neither was really all that pro-woman, and did some damage, but still ended up fighting the food fight for women accidentally, by simply being female. They faced a lot of shit for being women, and that needs to be recognized.
      But yeah, it’s not like Gillard was a Wendy Davis-type saint. Nope nope nope.

      I will say, “The Gender Card” is ridiculous. It’s not like Australia is a post-sexist society. More so than it’s a post-racial society, but misogyny is alive and well in the land of Australia and its politics. Just listen to any anti-Gillard Australian man talk about her. It’s gross.

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    She was certainly a productive Prime Minister, her last legacy of her Prime Ministership was getting RU486 on the PBS, so that for concession holders it will only cost $12. This piece of legislation was fantastic and a real feat to pass with a liberal opposition swinging so hard to the right in the direction of the Nationals and the Australian Christian Lobby.

    I have always had a problem with her much lauded Misogyny Speech however, because on the very same day it was given the Labour government passed legislation to take single parents with children over 8 off single parents payment and on to Newstart, which offered a $60 reduction in their payment. Last night’s 4 Corners report truly illustrated the precarious place that this has put mothers and children in who can’t find gainful employment.

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    So, I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

    First of all, I’m wary of Julia Gillard because my impression was that too much of her support base relied on the most conservative part of her party and on not alienating the ultra-conservative Christian parties. The strongest example that everyone knows was that as an athiest, she refused to even discuss the option of same-sex marriage, except for her pre-scripted line about being anti-gay-marriage because of ‘tradition’. Another example thats important to me would be that instead of getting trained councellors in schools to support students, she had untrained priests in the role, and instead of addressing the issues arising when it was found to be unconstitutional (and when the priests were overstepping their restrictions, btw), she instead has called a referendum to gain a loophole so government can do these kinds of things without first getting permission.

    Did she face misogyny? Yes. Did that affect a huge portion of voters? Definitely. In Australia, if you’re too passionate about something (like misogyny) then most people will just tune you out and ridicule you behind your back. She had to find the fine line where she could effectively talk about misogyny without alienating most people, and I think she did a good job in doing so, and yet it still got her voted out. Should we have to be reserved in talking about gender equality? No, we shouldn’t. But if you wanna be heard and make a difference then it certainly helps at least where I live in Australia (Not the case for everyone and if you can be especially outspoken and have people take you seriously than GO, YOU WONDERFUL PERSON!, but for myself and most of my feminist friends, even using the word feminist gets us ignored which makes anything else we say ineffective.)

    So yeah, misogyny made her political life hell and almost certainly was a key factor in the fact that she got ousted by Rudd. But some people are reserved about backing her for other reasons around her decisions and policies, and yet if I worry about how she’s handled some stuff that I think infringes on my rights, I’m lumped in with all the misogynists. I think that in itself is quite a negative way to foster discussion around her politics.

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      Try the UK, where people are amazed and creeped out if a PM starts talking about religion. Hell, Blair had to wait until after his time in office to reveal that religion was a motivating factor for him, and the press response was mostly that it was an irresponsible and subjective way of making important decisions.

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    I have so many feeling about this. From the minute Gillard took over I kind of assumed she was being placed there to take the fall once Labor had pushed through all the unpopular policies they had on their agenda. I still can’t shake this feeling.

    That aside, a discussion that was had on Q&A really opened my eyes to how incredibly NECESSARY it is to have a conversation about misogyny in Australia. Someone stated that the feminism movement had been set back some years by Ms Gillard, because the media portrayed her as useless. This bothered me on so many levels. It seems to me that the inherently discriminatory way of discussing politics here leads average (read – misinformed) Aussie voters to believe that particular groups of people haven’t succeeded in parliament because they are incapable of doing so. Also it is incredibly unfair to say that this one politician speaks with the voice of all Australian women and if she fails, we all fail.

    I’m not sure if it is just my little corner of the country that desperately needs a strong feminist to come and ass-kick the general population into thinking more clearly about equality (INCLUDING pervasive racism), but this massive under-representation in powerful positions and the media’s ongoing attempts to discredit minority groups are some of the main reasons I strive to encourage every single person I meet to challenge the oversimplified assumptions that have been bred into us through the “Aussie way of life”.

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    I got into a conversation about this with a young Aussie woman in, of all places, the celebrations outside the Stonewall in NYC when the DOMA ruling was released last week. As an American with barely a passing understanding of Australian politics, I was really confused and disheartened to hear about Gillard’s ousting. But my new Aussie friend seemed to have a positive outlook on Rudd’s reinstatement, particularly for marriage equality. Granted, you can’t judge a politician based on ONE policy, but it’s interesting to think about.

    Thank you so much for this! One thing I love about Autostraddle is the global reach it has, not only with the community but with the writers. So many smart human beings having discussions and learning new things on the regular! Thanks again!

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    Hello….LONG LONG LONGTERM reader, first time commenter. Sorry for the outpouring of word vomit that follows but I have a lot feelings about politics.

    The media didn’t respect Julia Gillard right from the start. When she made the deal with the 3/4 independents who have basically held the country to ransom she partially dug her own grave. A minority government was never going to produce an abundance of legislative reform. She has been relentlessly crucified by the media. She didn’t mention gender for AGES and just dealt with the crap that was thrown at her. She has more resilience than any other PM that has come before her. Although I have mixed feelings about THAT speech because she just did it when trying to defend Peter Slipper. IMO it was the easy way out….change the context of the argument. In isolation however, that speech was sooooo overdue and the media hounded her for it. She managed to achieve some amazing things during her short time as PM and I hope her legacy reflects that.

    I think a lot of the population have suffered a severe bout of amnesia and have completely forgotten about some of the criticism of Rudd…very elitist, perfectionist to the point of cracking the sh**s when he doesn’t get his way (not unlike a child who didn’t get the desired xmas present), doesn’t hire anyone without a uni degree, out of touch with constituents etc. Basically what I am saying is there was a reason he was booted out by his own party.

    If the Labor Party spent half the time they do trying to destroy themselves and redirect it into running the country then maybe they would have a chance at the next election.

    Also, I may be wrong…but I remember hearing that part of the deal (between JG and the factional leaders aka faceless men) of becoming the leader following the ousting of Rudd in 2010 was being opposed to marriage equality. Something to do with the right-leaning factions of the Labor Party. Again, maybe it was just Canberra gossip (there is a lot of that here).

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      >>I think a lot of the population have suffered a severe bout of amnesia and have completely forgotten about some of the criticism of Rudd…very elitist, perfectionist to the point of cracking the sh**s when he doesn’t get his way (not unlike a child who didn’t get the desired xmas present), doesn’t hire anyone without a uni degree, out of touch with constituents etc. Basically what I am saying is there was a reason he was booted out by his own party.>>

      This is really my main feeling about this whole thing.

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      Yes! The amnesia about it really pissed me off. Like, as somebody who wanted Australia to be proactive about environmental issues, I was thrilled to hear Rudd talk about them so much when he was first elected. Fast-forward to now, when Gillard’s carbon tax has “betrayed the people” and now he’s immediately planning to get rid of the tax that he himself kind of said we should get in the first place. I mean, what in the actual fuck that Gillard lies more than Rudd?! It was originally his fucking idea!

      I didn’t know about the gay-marriage stuff though. I’m from Canberra too and I never heard that rumour, but I was away in 2010 so maybe I missed it? That video is horrifying.

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    Thank you, everyone, for the eye-opening coverage and commentary. I have been following the story as much as possible but, admittedly, no little of Australian politics. As often seems the case with high profile female political leaders, there are two very different strains of criticism/critique: 1. criticism/critique as political leader, and 2. criticism /critique as woman in politics. I am all for offering valid critique on female politicians and their work because I think it is important to recognize that even groundbreaking female politicians don’t always stand in support of certain issues or may have records that are undesirable (Christine Quinn, I am looking at you). The problem is conflating that with the mere fact of femaleness that leads to denigration or erasure of power and substance.

    At the end of the day, I don’t agree with everything JG did or stood for, but the reaction to her was sexist and misogynistic.

    It is a reminder of the tightrope women in politics have to walk that their make counterparts do not. I read Game Change years ago (I am almost embarrassed to admit that, but it was one big People Magazine of politics and a quick read) and I remember thinking how awful it was for Hillary Clinton to have to check and double check everything she said or did in a way the male candidates did not have to because the microscope on her was actually a telescope.

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    All I can think of is the cover of the Telegraph the day before she was ousted – it was of the infamous knitting picture with some awful captions that made me yell a lot of loud words (problematic because I saw this cover on the table in the middle of my office, hah). Even my boss the Liberal Party supporter (note – Liberal Party = Republican Party, roughly) took one look at it and said, “Never would we ever see a male Prime Minister being portrayed like that on the cover of the Telegraph.”

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    Also (sorry but I have soo many feelings about this) But I also have to say that it is incredibly fucked up that Tony Abbot is using his daughters virginity as some kind of character reference (for lack of a better term) of himself. Nobody cares and if I was one of his daughters I would be incredibly pissed off that something so personal was being used to hold over others as some sort of ethical fucking highground!!! Gah.

    Rant End.

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      If I was one of his daughters, I’d probably daydream about announcing that actually I wasn’t a virgin to shock him… And not actually do it because of the consequences.

      (They, however, might be more conservative that I am.)

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