Dear Australian media
As you will have noticed this week, something momentous, and potentially paradigm shifting has happened. We (finally) got ourselves a female Prime Minister. Now it was certainly important that we noted this fact, celebrated this and embraced the fact that it opens a new door of possibility for every small girl who is ambitious and smart. However, it will not become a paradigm shifting moment unless the way we think about it moves on from this celebration.
Firstly, our Prime Minister is a person. Let us not always think in gender binary terms. Just as every Prime Minister before her has not constantly had his gender mentioned and commented upon, neither should she. She does not bring a “women’s style” or a “woman’s touch” or a “woman’s perspective” because guess what? There really is no such thing. My perspective is different from that of Miranda Devine. It is also different from that of a refugee woman or a woman who grown up in a rural town. Just as every man has his own perspective on the world, so does every woman. There is no hive mind. Julia Gillard’s views and approach are coloured by many things: her education, her parents, her experiences, and, no doubt, by the fact that she has grown up in a society which was dominated by men and by sexist views about what girls and woman can and can’t do. But this does not mean that her view should be discussed as if it was solely coloured by her gender. Yes, she has the views of a woman, but not all women. And just as it never seemed important to mention that her predecessors had the views of a man, neither should it be important to mention that she is a woman all the time.
Secondly, let’s not be patronising. She may be “as intelligent as any man” but have you noticed what this implies? That men are more intelligent than women. She is as intelligent as anyone in politics is probably what was meant. Let us not be surprised that she is, or can be tough/uncompromising/intelligent/ruthless or any other characteristics which you in the media might have previously designated as being “men’s” characteristics. And if she is those things, let’s not say she is really like a man. You know, there were many things about Margaret Thatcher that I didn’t like or didn’t agree with. But her callous indifference to the plight of the working classes did not make her a man – she was and remains the first female PM of the UK. So let us not give our new PM monikers like “the Iron Lady” which imply that toughness is a contrast with what her gender requires.
Thirdly, can we get over the endless commentary on her clothes/hair/make up etc. Honestly, if she is wearing something hideous, but still talking sense, does it matter? I know that some commentary is inevitable, and that some commentary even does apply to men – John Howard’s eyebrows for instance – so we can cope with a teeny tiny bit of discussion of her appearance so as not to appear precious. But not every day. It is incredibly disappointing that we already had articles about the PM and the “style police” on day 2 of her being in office. Think about the rule: would I comment if she was a man? Would we care? Think how outraged you all got when the former Prime Minister commented on the clothing of one of you, rather than treating her words seriously, then reverse the situation. I think you get my drift.
Fourth, can we avoid feminising Tim? Can we avoid making jokes that imply that he is less of a man because it is his partner who is the PM? He’s not a handbag, he’s not somehow less masculine because he is a supportive partner who does his share and has helped the person he loves achieve her ambitions. These things are good, and they don’t make him un-manly. I know how tempting it is going to be, what with him being a hairdresser and all. But, similarly, being a hairdresser does not bring his sexuality or masculinity into question. So please, can you just not. Can we celebrate him and his role, not slyly deride him?
Fifth, not having children does not make you less of a woman. And career-versus-children is not a binary scenario. Let us not advance the idea that childlessness is a pre requisite for career success, or that the only reason you would not have children is because you want a career. There are many successful women with careers who have children, and there are plenty of unsuccessful ones who don’t. People chose to have or not to have children for many reasons, and sometimes it is not a choice. Let us not create another binary which limits women and men and their opportunities. Also, not having children does not make you hostile, unsympathetic or un-empathetic towards families. And let’s face it, many of the advisors, colleagues and public servants who will surround her and advise her and support her will have families. So let’s not jump on the she-is-being-anti-family-because-she-doesn’t-have-one line if the opportunity arises.
Finally, being female does not determine a policy position.
All this does not mean that I think that the fact of her gender will not impact the way she is Prime Minister. It will, but so will so many other things. It is not the only, and possibly not even the most influential, factor that will shape her approach to policy thinking. So let’s think about the diversity of things that impact, not isolate the one that is most obvious. And I don’t mean the red hair.
I’d like my sons to grow up understanding and believing that it is appropriate and right for anyone to be Prime Minister: that gender does not make it surprising or unusual, that it is a matter-of-fact. The presence of a female Prime Minister could do that, but not if we always treat the fact that she is female as a matter of constant comment. My biggest fear in this change is the misogyny that might follow it. That has followed a number of the other women who have made it to leadership positions in politics.
Please media, prove me wrong.
Update: If you want to keep an eye on how badly the media is failing this particular test, check out Julia Gillard Sexism Watch for a bit of a flavour. There is something pretty much every day. Sadly.