In Mamamia’s first monthly column from The Greens, Christine Milne reflects on what it’s like to be a woman in politics – and how things have changed.
Later this year I will become a grandmother. I’m very excited – overjoyed to be thinking about a new life in the family, apprehensive about the world that my precious grandchild will inherit, and keen to read the latest in amazing children’s books.
But becoming a grandmother is not an easy thing for me to publicly discuss.
It is not my political modus operandi to talk about my personal life. I broke into politics at a time when you had to behave like a man to succeed, and the only time “real” men talked about their families was when they were resigning from politics. It was a time when people truly wanted to see women in the kitchen, not in the parliament.
I was married with two young boys when I entered the Tasmanian Parliament in 1989. I campaigned for – and got – more family-friendly sitting hours to replace the all-nighters, and a “spouse’s room” to facilitate family visits, but I did so in the face of retorts telling me to just resign and go home to my children, because that’s where I should be.
Last week, Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign. It didn’t take long for the misogynists to start on her age, appearance and pants suits, to the point that Donald Trump tweeted: if she couldn’t satisfy her husband, then how could she satisfy America? How great that he ended up having to delete it, when the comment was seen less as a criticism of her than a reflection on him. At last!
If you were to blame the victim, you’d say that Hillary has opened herself up to these vitriolic, misogynistic, ageist attacks. I would say what we see played out in the media is just an amplified version of what all women experience. Yes, all women.
It exists here in the Australian Parliament. When male senators yell about something, they are seen as impassioned and authoritative. When female senators raise our voices, we are “shrill,” “hysterical,” “school marms.” Julie’s too thin, I’m too fat and our first female PM just couldn’t make anyone happy with what she wore, her haircut or her marital status.
It’s the kind of cultural bias that plays out in the boardrooms of Australia, in workplaces, in the family home – and with it comes exclusion, belittling and sometimes violent or deadly outcomes.
But after 25 years in politics I can say I have seen a shift. It’s an important and exciting one: women don’t have to behave like men to succeed, nor do they have to keep their families out of the picture.
Women have begun to be seen as assets because of their differences, not in spite of them. Today, I can speak of my pain for the two Australians on death row in Indonesia “as a mother,” without being derided. Hillary Clinton can add a #grandmotherknowsbest hashtag to her own tweets without being dismissed. Women – and men – can talk openly, call out bias and inequity, demand better and keep enabling each other to live happy, safe, fulfilling and healthy lives. We must continue to do so.
Women now don’t need to stop ageing or stop being grandmothers, or stop having babies to be in politics. Next we need to make flexibility central to life for everyone so that work is part of life, not life subjugated to work. As legislators we need to create a framework to enable women to make the contributions we are all capable of, and as a society we need to support that change.
Christine Milne is an Australian Senator and leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Australian Greens.