Senate Occasional Lecture Series -Women in Parliament

Senate Occasional Lecture Series – October 2013

Women in Parliament

When Bill Shorten’s election as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party was announced on Sunday afternoon, the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton, with tongue in cheek, tweeted:

“Mr Shorten looked radiant in a tailored charcoal suit, crisp white shirt and crushed mulberry tie”.

A younger female tweeter responded, also with just a touch of irony

“I thought his hips looked big”.

It’s true, isn’t it, that what male politicians are wearing, or weather it makes their bum look big, isn’t always the first port of call in the way they are portrayed in the media, though there are exceptions such as Bob Katter and his very large, very Queensland hat.

It is hard not to start a review of the way the media has portrayed female parliamentarians on the very sore point of the obsessions with what they look like, if for no other reason than we have just gone through a tumultuous period in federal politics where what the prime minister was wearing, what she looked like, became an essential part of the daily political discussion.

Images are so powerful and the media, both because it works in shorthand and because it reflects back on us the views in our community, is prone to stereotyping.

A UNESCO report in 2009 described the common images of women in the media: “the glamorous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hardfaced corporate and political climber.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the media has had such trouble over the years – not just here but around in the world – in finding a way to portray women in politics is because so many of those stereotypes don’t quite work. And of course, that may be partly because none of those stereotypes go to basic questions of competence and properly won authority.

I’m going to talk a lot about stereotypes today, and how the ones applied to women in federal parliament by the media have evolved over the years.

But if I was to only venture down that path in this talk, I would be doing a considerable disservice to the history of women in the federal parliament.

I sometimes think that the frustration with dealing with the stereotypes overlooks both what actually happens in the parliament, the considerable advances that have been made by women in becoming accepted in parliament, their enormous contribution to policy and politics and also the positive changes that have taken place in the way the media portrays women MPs certainly during the almost 30 years I’ve worked in the Canberra Press Gallery.

The thing that struck me when I started preparing this talk were how utterly shocking the numbers were – and had been – when I arrived in Canberra.

In 1987, it was not only unusual for their to be female ministers, it was still astonishingly unusual for there to be federal politicians.

There had only been 25 female Senators since Federation. But more extraordinarily from the perspective of 2013, just 11 female members of the House of Representatives elected in 86 years.

When I arrived in Canberra, there had been one Liberal cabinet minister – Margaret Guilfoyle – and one Labor cabinet minister – Susan Ryan.

I remember when Ryan was appointed education minister by Bob Hawke in 1983.

The cartoonist Patrick Cook drew Hawke saying something to the effect of “I have already made my biggest decision…… finding a job important enough for Susan Ryan”.

It was light hearted but the cartoon reflected the mood of the times. Women in parliament were a trend that male politicians knew they should ascribe to. We were still talking serious novelty value in the media. It was post Women’s Lib but a time when the media went out looking for stories about successful women in business and politics but found them quite thin on the ground. The issue of the role of women was, by 1983, part of the fabric of the new government. Anne Summers was poached to head the Office of the Status of Women in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Yet I remember very well from this time the conundrum faced by my good friend Jillian Broadbent, who went on to be a member of the Reserve Bank board, and the chair of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

In the early 1980s she was a director of one of Australia’s most successful merchant banks. Invariably, when journalists wanted to write a piece about women in business they went to her, because they had found earlier profiles in the clippings.

Broadbent got to the point where she declined, in her wonderfully gracious way, to be part of any more of these pieces.

“If people just keep seeing me and a couple of other women in all these pieces”, she said, “they’ll come to the view that we are the only ones who have actually made it”.

So the more sophisticated end of the media was a bit stuck: on the one hand you wanted to profile prominent women where you found them. On the other, there was always the risk that by writing ‘gee and she’s a woman’ pieces, you were continuing the idea that it was unusual for women to be in such roles. Which at the time it was!

And whether it was male politicians coming to terms with female arrivals, or the media, it was a little unclear how to proceed.

When I arrived in Canberra, the numbers of female senators was starting to grow but the number of MPs in the House of Representatives was still relatively small.

There were 15 senators but just five female MPs.

One of the first MPs to get a lot of media attention was Ros Kelly, the member for Canberra.

Ros got a lot of media attention. Not a lot of it was positive.

A 1995 profile of Kelly notes that “from the press has come allegations of using her children, her dog, her football team (the Canberra Raiders), a cooking book she wrote for constituents, her hair and more to further her political career.

Her trevails in dealing with the attitudes of her fellow MPs were also recorded.

In 1981, she won an apology from Sir Billy Snedden for a sexist innuendo in parliamentary debate. Two years later, the Coalition MP Bruce Goodluck suggested neglect in her return to work within a week of the birth of her first child.

Mick Young was said to have commented when he was stood down as Special Minister of State during the Paddington Bear affair in 1984 that “Within half an hour, Ros was in my office taking measurements for curtains.”

In 1987, Woman’s Day ran a profile of Kelly when she was appointed a junior minister.

The heading ? Ros Kelly: “I’d quit politics for my family”.

Why have I spent so much time on Ros Kelly?

Partly because she was becoming a minister at the time I arrived in Canberra but importantly she was first Labor woman from the House of Representatives to become a minister.

As I mentioned earlier, there had always been more women in the Senate than the House and there is a very different atmospheric in the red chamber which I think was reflected in the way women in the parliament were portrayed.

The more civilized nature of the Senate, its less gladiatorial atmospherics, its focus on the details of policy, tended to filter down to the way women senators have been portrayed over the years.

If you think of the names that come to mind in terms of prominent federal female politicians in the last 30 years, so many of them are senators:

Guilfoyle, Ryan, Haines, Kernot, Crowley, Vanstone, Bronwyn Bishop, Sarah Hanson Young, Penny Wong.

It is not a question of ‘softer’ treatment in the media, just the likelihood that, earlier on, the substance of what they were saying was likely to be able to cut through, rather than the stereotypes about the fact they were women.

It has been different in the House.

I’ve always thought that there is no tougher test for a politician than standing at the Despatch Box in the House of Representatives.

My personal view is that few women over the years have actually been able to muster the sense of authority and control over the chamber that you need to really pass that test.

(Of course, not all blokes manage it either but it has been even harder for women and it has influenced the way they have been reported on in the media)

Ros Kelly for example, never quite conquered the House from the Despatch Box. The women who have managed it who immediately come to my mind are Carmen Lawrence, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard as deputy prime minister, and Tanya Plibersek

I’ve also talked about Kelly because I think the 1980s really started to see the long road proper travelled upwards by women in federal politics in Australia. We had moved on from militant feminism to a time when women were seeking to get into politics simply because they wanted to do it and had the qualifications for the job.

There is a fascinating Canadian study from the 1990s that reviewed the changing media portrayals of women. There are lots of similar studies conducted in Europe and the US more recently with very similar findings.

And it is a depressingly similar story to the Australian one, showing a certain lack of creativity in media stereotypes, and I think gives us some insights into the universal roots of the recent debate in Australia about the treatment of our first female Prime Minister.

The Canadian study argues that in the first two thirds of the century, two strategies were used to ‘normalize’ women in politics, for which the authors of the study mean a woman’s  ‘femaleness’ was neutered. The stereotypes were built around a female MP’s family relationships.

Various examples given were women elected to Parliament who were represented as the wife/widow, and thus as appendages of powerful husbands whose seats they had inherited.  “This implied that they held power not in their own right but in someone else’s name”, the study said.

“Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi, two powerful prime ministers, in contrast, were degendered in a different way: as “grandmother Golda” and “Nehru’s daughter” respectively. Their political status was lowered because their actions were viewed through a family lens.”

The other set of stereotypes focussed negatively on a female politician’s sexual capacities.  For example ‘spinster’ was a stereotype with a pedigree going back to the suffragette movement of the turn of the 20th century.

The study argues that one of things that changed the stereotypes was neither changes in the way female politicians operated nor the way the media operated but the fact that, in many democracies, a gender gap started to be observed between the voting intentions of men and women which forced both the political establishment and the media to rethink the way politics worked.

The result was a whole new set of stereotypes emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, the most spectacular and most visible being that of the ‘superwoman’, applied to a young, intelligent, active and ambitious woman who succeeds on “all levels” and “has it all.”  She combined a family with her career, and was seen as being “as groomed as she is competent” in her ministerial responsibilities.

The superwoman embodied both traditional characteristics (family and children) with the modern traits of the businesswoman (superior IQ, enormous capacities for work, an iron constitution as well as charm and generosity).

A second stereotype was that of ‘the champion’, which tended to be applied to women politicians “of a certain age” who had led a more traditional life.  Often a woman narrated in this way has come to politics after she has proved herself in another domain, perhaps business, sports or various charitable organizations.  Her children are usually older, and her family obligations more compatible with her public representation duties.  She, too, pays attention to her grooming, is open to the media and aware of her previous accomplishments.

There were others as well including being ‘one of the boys’ who benefit from a kind of acceptance but are, at the same time, continually reminded that they are an anomaly and may be placed in the unenviable position of being used as an alibi against women’s interests.

The study noted that the important difference in the two eras of stereotypes was that, at least, the stereotypes had moved from women politicians being defined by what happened at home to being defined by their relationships in the public domain.

Built upon those stereotypes were narratives that applied only to women and which, amongst other things

* tended to ignore the substance of a female MP’s speeches in favour of her personal characteristics (like her looks, dress, hair);

* made women politicians responsible for women as a class; and

* used “feminism” to denote a negative personal characteristic

The study argued that women MPs were evaluated differently to men

* Women had to live up to a considerably higher standard of excellence than do men.

* The political performance of women was judged only by the extremes of the scale (good and bad), while men are evaluated across the whole scale, including the mediocre middle range.

* Women politicians had to live up to a moral code of sexual abstention not imposed on men.

I have to say that all these things sound exceptionally familiar to me.

Ros Kelly observed at the end of her career “The media either absolutely loves you or absolutely hates you. There’s no in between. Carmen Lawrence called it the Madonna-or- the-whore approach. I think it’s absolutely right”.

Cheryl Kernot was often written of as a ‘superwoman’ in the years when she was at her political peak as leader of the Australian Democrats because she had a young daughter.

But the number of female politicians in Canberra in the 1980s and 1990s who were younger and had small children was still reasonably limited.

The prominent women who received a lot of focus as personalities – rather than as ministers – in the 1980s and 1990s tended to be a little older.

Think Bronwyn Bishop and Carmen Lawrence. Bishop cut through in her early days by breaking the more polite habits of the stereotype and monstering public servants in estimates committees.

It was this aggression which helped cast her for some as a potential future prime minister. She brought this aggression to the House and has always applied it, along with her experience as an amateur thespian, at the despatch box.

Lawrence was a competent minister but she brought a politically lethal history of ugly controversy with her from her time as Premier in Western Australia.

When the relentless pursuit of her over those events by the Liberal Party led to a state Royal Commission, we saw one of the stranger episodes unfold involving the role of women in politics. Lawrence would attend the Royal Commission each day, surrounded by female supporters, bunches of flowers thrust at her like some feminist martyr. Female journalists in Canberra suddenly seemed under pressure to take Lawrence’s side because they were women, rather than report the unfolding controversy for what it was: another nasty political contretemps in which Lawrence’s hands were not entirely clean.

In 1996 and 1998, the surge of younger women coming in to the parliament really started to take off. Female MPs with little kids became less of a novelty, just something the posed even more challenges for hard working politicians.

The women MPs tended not to plaster their kids all over their politics and media profiles.

The number of female cabinet ministers increased and became less of a subject of controversy. They were written about for delivering, or not delivering, on their jobs.

But the real challenge came as women started to move into leadership positions.

Julie Bishop ascended to be deputy leader of the Liberal Party. This put her at the centre of tactics meetings and shadow cabinet deliberations. But she sometimes found herself not written into accounts of the machinations of these bodies. And her ability to survive a cavalcade of opposition leaders passing through the top office between 2007 and 2009 tended to be written in negative rather than positive terms.

Julia Gillard was well liked as a deputy leader and deputy prime minister and reported on positively in the media for her competence and hard work. She was a strong performer in parliament.

At the same time, it is hard to forget that an image that had a powerful effect on people’s view of Gillard was the one of her sitting in the empty kitchen with the empty fruit bowl.

But the events of 2010 and her rise to the prime ministership saw all the stereotypes come back screaming back, though Lady Macbeth seemed to be the dominant one.

It is worth noting that it was not in Australia where the media had trouble making the leap from the general proposition of women in politics to the idea of a female political leader.

In the US, the 2008 election campaign saw both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin drawn using different stereotypes.

One review of the campaign noted that it took a while for the media to really investigate the largely unknown Palin’s record as governor of Alaska, or her view on important, controversial issues.  Instead they focused on her unconventional family, beauty, and her intelligence or her lack of intelligence.

She was asked inappropriate questions about her breasts and wardrobe.  One spokesperson from CNBC stated, “Men want a sexy woman…Women want to be her; men want to mate with her”

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was already a well known figure in politics.  Newspapers often drew man-like features or Clinton as an army general, poking fun at her powerful presence.  In one extreme case displayed on the YouTube Internet website a KFC bucket read, “Hillary meal deal: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, and a bunch of left wings”.  (Sound familiar?)

The weird thing about all this to me is that while all these things happen here and overseas, the electronic media in particular has an insatiable demand for women, particularly women who speak with authority on any subject, either on television or the radio.

Even after twenty years, I’m still shocked when I have to turn down a radio or TV producers request to appear on their program because of other commitments and they ask whether I know of another woman who could do it, even once another blonde woman.

This brings us to changes in the media that have in turn affected the way our federal politicians are portrayed.

Once again we are not just talking about Australian phenomena.

Media scholars refer to the ‘tabloidisation’ of the media. That is, a journalism that thrives on sensation and scandal, personalises, simplifies, ignores the public issues in favour of private ones, and favours striking visuals over serious analysis.

That process in Australia has been fuelled by the decline of the broadsheet papers and print media generally and in federal politics by the crossing of the Rubicon by Laurie Oakes in 2002 when he criticized Cheryl Kernot for failing to mention in her autobiography her extramarital affair while leader of the Democrats with Gareth Evans, then deputy Labor leader and a key figure in her move to Labor.

Some claim that this passed the legitimate public interest test since it cast a new light on Kernot’s decision to change parties.

I have never been completely sure about that. What it certainly did was make our politicians’ private lives fair game. This had not generally been the case before this. And going back to the Canadian study, I believe it has revealed a different media standard for the way the media expect women to conduct their personal lives to the way it treats men.

Extensive revelations of male MPs travel rorts in the late 1990s rarely explicitly mentioned, for example, that the wrongfully claimed expenses sometimes, but not always, involved the fact that the MPs were not sleeping in the beds they were supposed to be sleeping in.

More recently there have been cases of coy stories appearing suggesting federal ministers are having affairs with their staff with no names given, but rather threats that they will be exposed if they do not desist.

All this brings us to Julia Gillard.

Nobody quite put the role of Gillard’s gender in the nature of her prime ministership better than she did on the day she lost the leadership of the Labor Party.

“It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things”

Julia Gillard worked unbelievably hard and achieved a lot. She gave it her all. But my own assessment of her was that she was always a deeply flawed prime minister, even before she had to confront a wall of media and public hostility and craziness.

Certainly the circumstances of her rise created a new hostility to Gillard and awoke what turns out to be an element of appalling misogyny in Australian society to which I can attest from the emails and letters I have received about the former prime minister over the past few years which have been truly shocking in their nastiness. And I am not easily shocked.

But beyond the really crazy level of abuse, I think the former prime minister’s portrayal in the media suffered because it affronted almost all of those too easy stereotypes I spoke of early.

She wasn’t married. She didn’t have kids. She could neither be cast as some bloke’s female relative or as superwoman.

When the media did discuss her relationships with men it was either to use them to ascribe sexually transmitted criminality to her, or to implicitly question her own sexuality.

And of course most noticeably, there were no limits put on either the comments or the aspersions cast on Gillard, even if she held the most powerful job in the country.

So it was okay to suggest she be drowned in a sack, stand in front of signs saying ‘ditch the witch’, or ask her with her whether her partner was gay.

It didn’t even stop after she left public life.

I’m ashamed to say the Financial Review ran a gossip item just last month, on the back of a piece in Woman’s Day, for God’s sake, which asked whether Gillard and her partner Tim Mathieson had split up.

The former prime minister was furious about the piece.

I found it objectionable for other reasons. On Friday, our Rear Window gossip column sanctimoniously thundered: “why the hell haven’t any other media organisations chased this huge story? Surely, the immediate breakdown after losing office of the former prime minister’s seven year de facto relationship is news of national significance? This is a bloke who lived in the Lodge, stayed at Kirribilli House and did the First Bloke thing with enthusiasm”.

Four days later, after Gillard had angrily denied the story and demanded, unsuccessfully, that it be removed from our website, Rear Window wrote this piece as it noted Gillard’s appearance at the Opera House with Anne Summers.

“We wondered a few weeks ago whether Gillard might use the venue to unleash. We just hadn’t thought it would be on us. It was a piece in Bauer Media rag Woman’s Day that did that damage.”

How utterly gutless and pathetic. All that brave journalism demanding someone chase this ‘huge story’ of ‘national significance’ had simply become an innocent report of what a woman’s magazine had said.

What is certainly true is that if you inserted “John and Janette Howard” into that copy it would not have got into the paper.

I will conclude on that career enhancing note but simply observe that one of the changes that is taking place with social media and the internet is that our politicians – both male and female – have more ability to portray themselves as they wish to the public.

It is worth looking at the websites of our MPs and Senators and see how they are choosing to do so and whether, even there, they are able to escape the steretypes.

References and Further reading

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