I Don’t Know How to Draw You: media representations of our first female political leaders

So what’s the problem?

If we look back over our relatively short two centuries of national political history the vast bulk of the leadership was performed by men. That our parliaments and our political parties were built, occupied, and dominated by one sex for so long and could hold out against the tide of sexual equality is a testament to the lingering influence that old traditions have had. In my project about media representations of our first female political leaders this complex and shadowy relationship between gender and power intrudes into my investigation of how these women were represented in the media. How they are portrayed to us, the public, is critical and for a ‘first’ woman it frames how we comprehend seeing someone of the opposite sex in power.

All governments and their leaders must rise and fall and in doing so achieve and disappoint to varying degrees – it is undeniable. What drew me toward the study of Australian women in political power was the way in which anyone existing outside of the ‘normal’ mould of a masculine white man with a wife and family is framed in the media by that abnormality of not belonging to the mass. Of course it is always important to shout out to the nation that the ceiling has been smashed be it indigenous, gay, ethnically diverse or disabled parliamentarians, but at what point does that tag become tokenistic and no longer a beneficiary but instead a heavy weight. For these women, existing outside of the natural order of things both aided and abetted their ascendancy and assisted in some of their declines.

Viewed in isolation a cartoon that takes great lengths to detail a leaders thighs or an article which prioritises wardrobe over substance might appear to be the rare and harmless aberration of our political discourse. When lined up together against the experiences of our ‘first’ women and the statistical dearth between them and men in parliament, media representations shine out like a lighthouse in the fog, warning that there is a problem and that they are a symptom. Our inability to understand women in power without the role of mother, saint, feminist, iron lady, or beauty to frame an image is indicative of how our primary source of information, the media, continues to struggle to come to grips and throw off the novelties of the past.

But why does it matter? A leader is a leader, right? Whilst you may feel like you are perfectly fine with seeing a woman lead your council, state or country the situation looking back through history for the first female leaders provides lessons on why gender has mattered to the media and why it will continue to matter until the abnormal is normal.

Lesson 1 – Challenge misrepresentations
Joan Kirner was given the reigns to a government on its last limbs and set herself the hardest task to continue to move forward in economically challenging times. The recession of the early 90’s had ripped the heart from Victoria leaving many difficult and unpopular decisions for Kirner to take. In the background of this civic task was Jeff Hook, a cartoonist for the Murdoch-run Herald Sun who day after day depicted Kirner in a frumpy polka-dot dress. After asking him why and receiving a blunt “I don’t know how to draw you” spiel, Kirner reacted by throwing a “spot-on, Joan!” event. To this day, Kirner standing up against the polka dot dress has led the particular pattern to a tongue in cheek place, particularly in the Labor party, as a tribute to standing up for women.

Lesson 2 – You’re more likely to get elected in a Territory
The secret is out; the Territorians don’t seem to care a great deal about what gender are their leaders. The Northern Territory elected Clare Martin from opposition, the only woman to do so, who went on to win another election in her own right. The Australian Capital Territory elected Rosemary Follett, the first of the ‘firsts’, followed by the only conservative woman, Kate Carnell, and later the incumbent, Katy Gallagher – a total of 3 women. Every state has elected only one woman, except South Australia. One reason for this that territory media and parliaments do not have the extensive history of male networking that characterise the larger states, smaller populations of both allow for a farer distribution of power and opportunity.

Lesson 3 – You can ignore gender but others won’t
Anna Bligh noted that the Queensland parliament was designed to be a male environment with no initial allotments for women’s bathrooms during its construction. Kristina Keneally too would face the intricacies of entering a male world, the New South Wales parliament ‘bear pit’. She had been spat on in preselection, lifted to a mantle of a cheery ‘hometown’ American girl premier, and finally ending up being ridiculed for her hair extensions having been destroyed at the polls. Such a political ride encapsulates how the media often does not challenge old systems of how parliament is run, with gender receiving fringe analysis as it’s deemed not to be a factor in successes or failure.


We occasionally remark upon the outfits of women because men have a uniform; we remark upon juggling the family life because men have a wife (and she’s already doing that, right?); we engage in epithets about merit rather than eulogies of equality because we, the people, receive our cues from the media – we meet these women through our nightly news and our morning papers, this in turn is disseminated into blogs, posts and other quasi-informative sites that we digest and then think we know them.

But do we really?  
Gender, power and its portrayal has, had and will continue to matter.

Further Reading

– ABS statistics on women in leadership (Updated April 2013)


– Baird, Julia. Media Tarts – how the Australian press frames female politicians. Melbourne: Sribe, 2004.

– Summers, Anne. The end of equality – work, babies and women’s choices in 21st century Australia. Sydney:Random House, 2003.


7 comments on “I Don’t Know How to Draw You: media representations of our first female political leaders

  1. seanlynch161 says:

    Hey Arthur,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, my Grandma recently gave me a copy of “The Stalking Of Julia Gillard” by Kerry-Anne Walsh and its been a subject I’ve had an interest in since then. The language of your post makes it easy to read and I especially enjoyed the three lessons you provided. In Australia there is unfortunately a belief that female politicians receive the same treatment as their male counterparts but as you’ve pointed out, experience has shown that this is simply not the case. I was hoping that after our first female PM we would see a decline in the media’s use of gender to undermine an individual’s political credibility but again, I’m not sure it has had much of an impact.

    • arthurtonkin says:

      Hey Sean,
      Thanks for the feedback. I think despite any persons individual political leaning we can all agree that women should be given a fair go. On Gillard, I can’t recall who said it but it’s realistically grim, “breaking a glass ceiling rains shards”. I think it’s natural for some to push back against social change, and the contentious political situation of a hung parliament is a big factor, but I think it’s fair to say that media representations can at least account for some elements of the negative sentiment. It’s hard to say it’s intentionally done, though. That’s something I grappled with!


  2. fraserbrowne says:

    Great article, you make some very interesting an insightful points. It is fascinating that still in 2013 we as a nation consider gender to be a factor determining ones credibility. Your conclusion that the media is responsible for this, I feel is spot on. As a nation I believe that we are not overtly sexist, however, as a result of the media and its portrayal of woman in power I think we have been driven to be a subliminally sexist nation by the “cues” offered to us from the media. Unfortunately we are a long way away from overcoming the influence the media has upon peoples views and perceptions.

    • arthurtonkin says:

      Hey Fraser,
      Although it was tempting to land the blame squarely on the media it’s really all our faults. Those stories are easy to generate and the pubic reward them by our page visits and comments. Equally so, the line blurs with media teams becoming a staple of a politicians tool belt. But I do think it’s easier to understand a complex relationship as one where there is no primary driver of the negative and unnecessary flak women cop. I struggled to decide who was driving this undercurrent. Is it the editor who chooses to put an ‘ugly’ photo of a woman with a story emphasising hairstyles? Is it the loser who starts an anti-woman Facebook page and makes the news? Is it the politician who cat calls to a female politician? It’s all of them – and it matters, maybe not to the average punter but it matters to the women themselves. I think that’s enough.


  3. Arthur, you know how excited I was to read your piece because I felt like it was an important study. I think you’ve hit the nail upon the head in your final observations, especially noting that women don’t have a uniform. In translation from essay to blog your lessons are strong though your introduction could have been even punchier to leave room for the case studies which are arguably the better read. Having said that, you’ve captured beautifully some of the great (yet underplayed) achievements of these women especially when faced with a torturous media. I think that the recent treatment of Julia Gillard brings into sharp focus just how dreadful the women in parliament have been treated (in the media and by their male-counter parts). I hope that people like yourself continue to work on righting the wrongs inherent in our system – women in power needs to become normal. I’m so deeply offended that it still isn’t. Thank you (as a male) for taking notice!

    • ^^ This is Sydney by the way!

    • arthurtonkin says:

      Hey Sydney,
      Thanks for the feedback. It’s so hard wrapping my head around sexual oppression. I think it’s hard for us to comprehend and leap into the old world conflicts of gender and the terms that inhabit the conversation which to me feel outdated and clunky. We obsess over family or a lack thereof because I think we run with a tradition that that is what we, pubic and media, should do. Anna bligh once remarked that when Gillard’s name was floated as prime minister material as early as 2003 in the ALP opposition she was overlooked because they thought the media would measure her lack of motherhood skills as detrimental despite, bligh says, “Gillard being more capable a leader without children to care for”.

      It’s hard to see a circuit breaker but I think that the growing visibility of the public will force change. Either that or the collapse of the two party system!


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