What the First Female PM Means for Australian Women

What does Australia’s first female PM mean for Australian women? Nothing. And Everything.

In the tense hours between 7pm on Wednesday until Labor’s caucus meeting on Thursday morning, women were emoting on Twitter: “My little boys may wake up to a female prime minister. I could burst into tears.”

When Julia Gillard emerged as the nation’s new leader, we had this: “Daughters of Australia: ring your mum and say thank you for the possibility of Julia.”

What does it really mean to have a female prime minister? What will change for Australian women, men and the country as a whole. Nothing. And everything.

Nothing because women in power are no different to men. As Julia Baird wrote in her book on the subject, Australia’s female politicians “backstab .., pursue … personal ambitions and openly criticise … each other” in the same manner as men.

Despite this, the anointing of a female prime minister – by a female governor-general no less – does have the power to rock our world.

The paltry representation, or absence, of women in roles that are visible, valued and influential has a cancerous effect on female self-esteem. Young girls can’t see it, so they don’t dream it. Women, who understand that there can only be two reasons for their invisibility – female inferiority of pervasive gender discrimination – feel angry or depressed.

By proving wrong those who said there would not be a female prime minister in our lifetimes, the likes of Gillard kindle hope and incite rebellion. Less than an hour after Gillard was sworn in, female journalists began tweeting about the absence of women in senior editorial positions. Overheard in the newsroom: “Yes, but where are the female newspaper editors?”

Gillard may also have particular interest, empathy and insight into gender-based discrimination. Certainly, she has experienced sexism. As a student at Unley High she protested demands that girls stay after class to tidy up while the boys had a good time. “Are you into women’s liberation, Julia?” the teacher asked, to which Gillard replied scornfully, “I don’t need women’s liberation, I was born free.”

My favourite aspect of Gillard’s ascendancy is how she made her move. Characterisations of the process as one in which she had to be dragged to the podium, or tapped by faction leaders to consider a challenge, are mistaken. Gillard made her own assessment of the terminal nature of Rudd’s leadership and began summoning key MPs on Wednesday afternoon to gauge support.

This may be Gillard’s greatest gift to Australian women: the forthright way she goes about her business as a powerful person in her own right. By doing this, she normalises women in power not as women but as people, with all the quirks and complexities of men. This makes her one of us and her path one we might stride, too.

Publication history

Gillard's first weekend on the job  crikey
Julia is one of us and all women are proud of her  The Sun Herald