By MIA FREEDMAN
Dear Women Of The Election,
Dear Penny Wong and Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek and Jess Rudd and Therese Rein and the Abbott daughters, Frances and Bridget and even Margie who doesn’t say much but looked smashing at the Liberal campaign launch. I’ve loved hearing you all be interviewed and watching you interact with each other and humanise what’s been an otherwise dispiriting election.
Women have been the best part of this campaign. Highlights have included Penny Wong’s appearance on the SBS program Insight where she explained so powerfully why her relationship should be equal to any other married couple in Australia. Jess Rudd warmly greeting Margie Abbott before the Rooty Hill debate. Margie and Therese both resplendent in Thai Silk. Little Josephine Rudd, a permanent presence on her mother or grandmother’s hip. Julie Bishop’s guest programming Rage this weekend with a playlist that includes Madonna. Frances Abbott visibly cringing with disbelief when her dad said “sex appeal”.
I’ve found myself switching off from the men in this campaign and gravitating towards the women; the candidates and also the families.
I’m not the only one. The use of Frances and Bridget Abbott at the Liberal’s campaign launch was a clever one that generated a hugely positive reaction. As Fairfax journalist Paula Joye wrote:
“While I doubt any of the women in the Abbott or the Rudd household need counsel on what to wear – particularly from men in Canberra – I suspect that the outfits Bridget and Frances chose were as considered as their first formal dresses. The racer-back top, sleek white jacket and edgy orange pants screamed successful, independent and strong. This was the wardrobe of alpha women. Women who were raised to be great. Bridget and Frances managed to rewrite the public perception of their dad with one swish of those glossy ponytails. Surely a man who raised such luminous children must have done something right?”
This is kind of ironic because nobody is talking about gender anymore. Have you noticed? Nobody is being accused of playing the gender card – possibly because both leaders are men and both have equally capable, attractive and media-accessibly wives and daughters.
It’s been a sudden shift after a year spent debating misogyny and how women are perceived in politics and by society. The minute Julia Gillard left the political stage, it just…. stopped.
And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
I didn’t realise how much I’d grown used to seeing a woman in one of the top 2 jobs (JG was deputy PM before replacing Kevin Rudd in 2010), until we went back to it being two blokes again. Just like it’s always been.
Somehow it still feels odd. Disappointing. And a bit sad.
It’s almost like Julia’s widely lambasted remark about it being wall-to-wall-blue-ties has come true. I keep hearing people shrug and say “Rudd and Abbott…. they’re as bad as each other. I don’t know who to vote for anymore.”
They’ve even started to look the same.
Maybe that’s why the women in this campaign have stood out for me. They have cut-through and have generated very little negative comment. Perhaps we’re fine with women in politics – we react very positively to them in fact – but only when they’re on the periphery. None of the women I’ve mentioned in this post are the main game. Most of them are simply support crew.
So maybe it’s true. We don’t have a problem with women or women in politics. We just have a problem with women leaders. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in her must-read book Lean In, the success-likeability index has always worked against women. The more successful a woman is, the less she is liked by both men and women. For men, the reverse is true. More success means he’s more likeable. Is that why Julia Gillard was so immensely popular as deputy but so polarising as Prime Minister? (Personally, like Julia herself said in her departure speech two months ago, I think being a woman explained some of how we felt about her but not all of it.)
While Jessica, Therese and Margie are all highly accomplished in their own right (the Abbott girls are too young to have done much yet), these achievements aren’t why they’re in the public eye right now. During this campaign, they’re very much on the periphery.
Is this why people are so taken with the women around Rudd and Abbott? Because they’re not in positions of power?
As I heard one woman observe: “After Julia, it feels like there’s almost been a collective sigh of relief and a feeling of, ‘Well, that was an interesting experiment but we’re all back in our places now and we can talk about how terrific women are – as long as they aren’t in charge’.”
I really, really hope that isn’t true.
In the meantime, to end on a positive note, here’s my favourite bit of media from the campaign today. Veteran radio broadcaster John Laws’ interview with Therese Rein:
LAWS: A lot of people say – why isn’t she Therese Rudd?
REIN: Well, why isn’t Kevin, Kevin Rein?
LAWS: (Laughs). No, I can’t accept that. We’re talking about tradition. Why do you choose not to be Therese Rudd.
REIN: Kevin and I got married at the end – on the week that I finished doing my thesis, so I just completed my honours degree – my qualifications are in my name and I’m an independent person.
LAWS: But it’s kind of a traditional thing. I don’t want to make a meal of it, but it’s sort of a traditional thing, isn’t it? In English speaking countries that you take your husband’s name.
REIN: Well, Kevin and I had a conversation about it – and it was about a minute long. It went- so will I change my name to yours? Therese Rudd – it doesn’t feel like me and will you change your name to mine? No. Will we hyphenate? No. So we will keep our own names.
LAWS: Well, well done.
What do you think of the women in the spotlight this election? Do you think society has a problem with – not women in politics – but women leaders?