Originally posted at iPolitics.ca
Julia Gillard is probably best known for deposing a sitting Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in a Labor caucus coup three years ago today, only to find herself the subject of an almost comical series of counter-coup attempts by the selfsame Rudd.
All this has little significance beyond the narrow boundaries of Aussie politics.
But Gillard’s brief, turbulent career as prime minister may be remembered elsewhere for something different: testing the limits of feminism in modern politics.
I use “feminism” here in the very loose sense of the view that women need to directly confront many existing beliefs and institutions, as well as some individual men, in order to achieve full emancipation.
Since Margaret Thatcher’s election as British prime minister 34 years ago, we have become increasingly accustomed to women leaders in Western countries. In Canada today, half the provincial premiers are women.
But Thatcher was no feminist. And while some of the women who have competed for the highest offices have used their sex to political advantage — just as all politicians try to exploit certain of their personal characteristics — few have made explicitly feminist appeals.
When Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, there’s no doubt that many voters were attracted to the possibility of the first woman president. But during her brutal contest with Barack Obama she was mostly concerned with broadening her appeal rather than deepening her feminist credentials.
It was only at the end, when Clinton had conceded defeat, that she turned her swansong into a feminist anthem — thanking her supporters for making “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling.
Julia Gillard has been different.
It might not be fair to say that Australia is an especially sexist society. It may be just that Aussies, with their fondness for blunt speech, say what others only think. But the Australian opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has an impressive record of bone-headed remarks about women — suggesting, for example, that they may not have the natural attributes for leadership.
When Gillard found herself under attack during one particularly crude maneuvre to preserve her minority government last year, she rounded on Abbott in an epic speech in which she denounced his “repulsive double-standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”.
The video of the scene in which the reptilian Abbott looked on almost unblinking as she dissected his idiocies — including a speech in front of signs describing Gillard as a “witch” and a “bitch” — briefly became a YouTube sensation in North American feminist circles.
But that hardly ended the matter.
Gillard’s sex and sexuality is apparently an inexhaustible source of amusement for some men in the opposition parties. Recently a menu surfaced that had been prepared for a party fundraiser featuring “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
Through all this, Gillard’s personal popularity has been flagging — probably not primarily because of her sex but rather due to a series of poorly executed policy reversals, including a controversial carbon tax, as well as a flagging economy and, of course, the irrepressible Rudd.
Her appeal has remained strongest among women, less so among the working men who were once the Labor party’s most reliable stalwarts.
So recently she has attempted political ju jitsu. She has argued that under Abbott, the gains that have been made by Australian women will be rolled back.
“We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better,” she said in a recent speech. She warned that in the election scheduled for September, “we are going to make a big decision as a nation. It’s a decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life.”
She asked women whether they wanted to live in a country ruled by “men in blue ties” — a reference to the neckwear of choice among conservative Australian men.
Appeals of this kind have sometimes been made by liberal politicians in other countries with some success. Usually, however, these appeals have been made by men, like Paul Martin in the 2004 Canadian campaign — seldom by women leaders whose own sexuality has been as electric as Gillard’s.
The result of Gillard’s feminist gambit was the opposite of what she presumably hoped. Her support cratered among men without any concomitant boost among women.
Blue ties have become a political meme, worn not only by her opposition opponents, but slyly by Rudd and some of his supporters inside Labor.
You will not find an Australian political commentator today who thinks that Gillard will win the election coming in just a few weeks. Many think she may not last as Labor leader even till then.
Julia Gillard will no doubt have a future on the international speaking circuit. Her strength and intelligence, not to mention her experience of sexism in Australian politics and her frank feminism, will earn her a hearing among women everywhere.
But Gillard has probably defined the current political limits to overt feminism by a woman leader in a still male-dominated arena. Whether she will have advanced the cause of women in Australian politics, or caused it incidental damage in her struggle to retain power, it is not yet possible to say.