The Sexist Treatment of Julia Gillard, Australia’s First Woman PM

by | June 29, 2013
filed under Feminism, Politics

Julia Gillard speaks at a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony this past January

Julia Gillard speaks at a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony this past January

by Matilda Branson

Sitting in Nepal, where I live and work, I see what is happening at home in Australia and despair at national politics. As you may have heard, our first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was ousted by Kevin Rudd on Wednesday, who won a Labor party leadership ballot 57-45.

I’m not going to get into the particulars regarding the petty leadership struggles and lack of unity of the Labor party because, well, as a rule politics is never clean or courteous. So I write this as a definite political fence-sitter as I find both major parties – the vaguely “left” Labour Party and the conservative Liberals – equally uninspiring and often depressing. Hence I’m not going to contend with Gillard’s leadership, or Labor policies here.

What really distresses me – and a fair whack of the Australian population, both men and women – has been the downright rude, belittling, disrespectful and sexist treatment of Julia Gillard by political opponents, the media and the general Australian public throughout her time in power.

The first day Gillard came into power, one paper reported that the most Googled search in Australia for the day was, “Does Julia Gillard have a husband/boyfriend?” or “Is Julie Gillard married/have children?”

Sad. And this preoccupation with her gender has continued to plague her throughout her time in power.

In the past few months, the so-called “gender wars” between opposition leader Tony Abbot and Gillard have increased. The media has gone wild, the feminist movement is baffled and split, and the general population is a bit embarrassed and generally disgusted. Sadly, the pettiness of it all has served to put an already disinterested younger generation even further off Australian politics.

Living and working in Kathmandu, Nepal, people are asking me if it is normal how sexist and disrespectful Australia has been towards its PM. Recently the opposition Liberal party was publicly embarrassed about revelations of a fundraising dinner menu in March, featured a dish called “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box”.

In mid-June on a Perth radio program, talkback radio host Howard Sattler had the nerve to ask Gillard whether her live-in partner, Tim Mathieson, was gay. Why? Because Tim Mathieson is also a hairdresser (with three adult children grown), and god forbid a man could be a hairdresser and straight. Would this kind of question have been posed to a male PM as to the sexuality of his wife?  Are we suddenly asking Rudd, the new PM, if his wife Therese is a lesbian?

And I won’t even get onto the deplorable opposition leader Tony Abbot. His views on women and abortion… It’s just too painful and depressing. Look him up yourself. But at least Gillard gave him what-for when he was acting particularly misogynistic in the House of Representatives last year.

Anne Summer’s recent book The Misogyny Factor gives further insight into the sheer amount of offensive and often violent insults Gillard has faced during her time in power.

In Gillard’s resignation speech she mentioned how as Australia’s first female PM, she hopes she that women leaders who come after her will find the road a little easier to navigate. I really hope so, but I have some fears.

I am worried that a generation of young women leaders in Australia will see the treatment of our first woman PM, and think, “I never want to face that”, or even worse: “She had to face that kind of treatment, so I should just grin and bear it when I face insults or sexism at work/school, etc… Julia Gillard had it much worse than me.”

At the heart of all this, what I find intolerable is that the insults and degrading treatment of Gillard were neither tacit nor confined to the political arena – they were public and brazen, because people thought it was ok to speak that way to a woman. And it is that culture of public acceptance, which can begin on such a small scale but have such devastating ramifications over time, that in turn generates the million and one discriminations we see against women throughout the world.

Violence against women becomes normalised because it is publicly accepted by society at large, because at some point, a woman was hit, and everyone else stood by and watched, accepting it either through silence and doing nothing, or agreement. Women become second-class citizens because there is public acceptance – by politicians, the media, communities – that it is ok to treat a woman in a certain way because she is a woman, with the load of assumptions and belief systems that underlie such treatment.

I have always been relatively proud of Australia’s dedication towards a “fair go” for all and its treatment of women, but the ugly treatment of Gillard has been exactly that – ugly and shameful – and geez I hope we pick up our game soon.

(photo by Nick D., cc-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)


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  • Liz McLennan

    I like you! You think like me .. what is more you use correct spelling and that is a delightful difference from some of the idiocy and “dumbed-down” attitudes shown by a lot of correspondents lately! Well said!

  • Ben Langan

    On this issue I disagree. I think Julia failed and became a Target for those lowest scum of society and politics because she just didn’t have the charisma necessary to lead a country. She only had one moment, the one you linked where she presented herself as above reproach and as a hard leader who you don’t want to mess with. The rest of the time she presented herself as affable, light hearted and frankly, because of her speech and mannerisms, a bit bogan.

    It was this that made her a Target and some people just don’t have the mental capacity to argue past the surface and so they just attacked her for being a woman. This was terrible but I believe that if she had have presented herself better, been hardnosed, aristocratic maybe, she wouldn’t have been an easy Target for the scum.

  • Geno

    What you just said can be translated into: If she dressed differently should wouldn’t have been attacked/assaulted. Does Abbott talk better? Far from it. Does he dress better (especially when on the beach)?

  • Ben

    I didn’t mention dress at all. I don’t think how she dressed really had any bearing on how she presented herself. In fact I’d say she was dressed well and wore the attire someone in her position should.

    What I didn’t think helped her were her speeches, he responses to criticism and most of all her jokes. I don’t think a leader, or anyone for that matter, unless they have incredible charisma, can get away with joking or making light with people who attack you.

    She stood up and vented righteous anger one time and was applauded for it. That’s how she should have been all the time. Instead, on many other occasions she laughed off bad treatment. That doesn’t work. It’s like how you should always confront bullies, racists, sexists, etc, if you keep letting it slide or else joke about other things in your appearances then you just invite more of the same.

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  • Some point to colonial Australia’s origins as a frontier society settled by men grappling with a physically harsh environment. Women got the vote in 1902, yet only 29 per cent of federal politicians are women. Australia can claim in some ways to be more advanced than its former master, which granted voting parity 16 years later and where only 22 per cent of MPs are women. Yet in the gender equality stakes neither is a winner. While every state and territory apart from South Australia has had a woman at the helm, the antipathy that quickly developed towards Ms Gillard had a distinctly sexist tinge, although it was complicated by the fact that she was also unmarried, had no children, and was an atheist.

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