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.
– 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.