The most well-known images that people conjure to mind when they think of Australia are largely male-dominated: Steve Irwin, Crocodile Dundee, surf lifesavers at Bondi Beach, and so forth. Not merely products of the lucky country, but symbols of it. It is a country infamous for its sexism ““ an attitude that is largely outdated, but that did have a basis in reality in decades past. It is a country that did not elect a female state premier until 2009. Is it illuminating that it is a country that found itself with its first female prime minister via political machinations, rather than by election? Let’s investigate.
Julia Gillard was born in Wales; her family immigrated to Australia when she was a young girl. She got involved in student politics when she was at university, where she honed her now-famed debating skills, and became only the second female leader of the Australian Union of Students. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 for the Australian Labor Party, the more left-leaning of Australia’s two major political parties. While she was a cabinet minister, her major portfolios were Education and Health. She became Australia’s deputy prime minister in 2007 when Labor finally regained control after the eleven-year Coalition stranglehold on Australian politics.
Clearly, the deputy prime minister is not too far from being the prime minister, and indeed functions as the acting prime minister when the prime minister is out of the country. As a result, this was really the point where the media started to notice Julia Gillard. Note that, completely unintentionally but eminently suitably, I managed to write a short, relevant bio of her that did not include any details about her personal life. The media were, of course, not as circumspect. All of the usual non-issues that plague women in positions of power came to the fore. Her state of childlessness drew particular fire ““ a fellow sitting member of parliament called her “deliberately barren” and questioned her ability to “understand the community” because she did not have offspring. As an aside, this highlights the extent to which not having children has become something “abnormal” for adults, a way for people to “other” a group of individuals and make themselves more comfortably “normal.” She is *gasp* unmarried, living in a de facto relationship with her partner, Tim Mathieson, who has been mockingly referred to as the “First Bloke” since her ascension to prime minister in 2010.
Her promotion to head of the Australian Labor Party and, by default, prime minister, was swift and ruthless. Kevin Rudd, the incumbent prime minister, was a marvellous diplomat, but perhaps let his focus stray too far from the tensions at home. The most immediate cause of his deposition by his own party was his proposal and continued promotion of an unpopular (and largely misunderstood) carbon tax. Facing an election at the end of the year and plummeting poll numbers, in June 2010 Julia Gillard and the Labor party asked Kevin Rudd to call a party election, where a new leader (and therefore, new prime minister, given the Australian political model) could be chosen. Rudd, recognizing his lack of support, stepped aside rather than call the election. This all happened very suddenly, within about 24 hours, so people around the world awoke to the startling news that Australia had a new (female!) prime minister. The media, of course, went bananas. Was Australia ready? Were her roots too grey? Was she a bad role model to Australian girls because she was living in sin? (No, seriously, she was the first unmarried prime minister, and people were literally clamouring for someone to please, think of the children!). Did she wear too much beige? Was she qualified to run the country without children? All the normal bullshit that Hilary Clinton, Elena Kagan, even Sarah Palin had to endure in recent times.
There was a lot of commentary about how Australia’s first female prime minister was not elected to her position – it was hard to tell if it was a sign of progress or not. The consensus was that it was at least a step forwards, but that time would tell whether it would stick. The hope was that in the period before the next election, the Australian public would get comfortable with the idea of a woman in charge, realise that the world had not ended, and the majority of the resistance to the idea would fade. The nation held its breath as the election was called later in the year, and the result was Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years. In the end, Julia Gillard and Labor managed to scrape together another seats, making billion-dollar deals with smaller parties and independents, to form a minority government. Australia had (by a very, very slim margin) elected its first female prime minister. Clearly, it was ready”¦ but only just.