Is Malcolm Turnbull the Next Lady MacBeth?

Much has been said about the rise and fall of Australia’s first female prime minister. Particularly the fall. The consensus view was summed up by Labor senator and powerbroker Sam Dastyari on ABC-TV’s post-mortem on Labor’s six years in government, The Killing Season. “In one night, we took this amazing, talented politician in Julia Gillard and we took her from a lady in waiting and made her Lady Macbeth. And she never recovered from it.”

Malcolm Turnbull’s deposing of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader has many similarities with Gillard’s 2010 deposition of Kevin Rudd. Both ousted leaders were prime ministers in their first term and both were seen to have been elected by the Australian people. The leadership change came after months of leaks and speculation in the media, as well as plummeting polls. Then, within a matter of hours, Australians had a new prime minister.

Despite the similarities, Turnbull has escaped being tarred with the “Lady Macbeth” brush. I’m not expecting this to change, even after Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle, when those not selected in Turnbull’s ministry might vent their spleen by offering the media more details of how the challenge went down.

The reason is simple. The Lady Macbeth tag is a slur for women. It has no power when used against men.

Lady Macbeth is, of course, a fictional character in Shakespeare’s 17th century play, Macbeth. She is drawn unfavourably: an unnatural woman who rejects maternity, compassion and fragility in favour of the ruthless and single-minded pursuit of power. Her goading of her husband into killing King Duncan makes her Scotland’s queen. But the tale ends in tragedy when Macbeth himself becomes a victim of regicide and Lady Macbeth, filled with remorse, commits suicide.

Macbeth is a morality tale about the perils of ambition. For Shakespeare, such hazards were gendered. Macbeth’s ambition is troubling because it transgresses moral prohibitions against murder. Lady Macbeth’s ambition was monstrous because she was female – and a natural woman should have no ambition at all.

But while differences in the way ambition is viewed in men and women means the Lady Macbeth barb didn’t end Turnbull’s political reign before it began, it may have cruelled the chances of the woman who might have been Australia’s second female prime minister, Julie Bishop.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bishop is smart, fit and politically adept enough to have served as deputy under four Liberal leaders. Unlike Turnbull, she’s hasn’t yet led the Liberal Party, giving her a clean slate with the electorate and with colleagues. Despite this, she appeared never to have been considered for the top job when the spill was called.

The reasons for this may be the same ones that explain her extended tenure in the deputy’s spot. Her good friend and Future Fund board member John Poynton says Bishop enjoys enormous respect in the Liberal Party not just because she is “articulate and charming” but because she is not “blindingly ambitious” and so not seen “as a threat”.

Bishop was reported to have been offended and insulted when Abbott forced her to pledge her loyalty at a cabinet meeting back in February. Gillard responded to similar suspicions by challenging Rudd. In contrast, Bishop refused to campaign for the leadership, though she carefully reserved her right to contest any position if there was a spill. She told colleagues with complaints about the Prime Minister to go to his office to air their grievances – because, she said, she had no intention of being “Lady Macbeth”.

Despite this careful management and refusal to challenge for the top job, The Project’s Waleed Aly and Steve Price repeatedly accused Bishop of failing to inform Abbott quickly enough about the challenge. While she coolly rebutted their suggestions of treachery, the exchange highlighted the way in which gendered views of ambition, and the way they played out in Gillard’s tumultuous time as prime minister, continue to shape the political landscape. This potentially includes deterring capable women such as Bishop from throwing their hat into the leadership ring.

The only way to banish residual discrimination against ambitious women is for women to lead. Real female leaders displace stereotypes about the unnaturalness of ambition in women. Each woman who fronts for the challenge makes it easier for the next one to make her way. Gillard said the same on her last day on the public stage:

“[Gender] doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain nothing. It explains some things. And it is 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 the woman after that and the woman after that.”