Bill Heffernan is wrong: as some commentators have already said, Julia Gillard would make a fine leader of this country. But no one has lifted the lid on Julia Gillard’s comment that she couldn’t have done babies and politics simultaneously, and done justice to both. Certainly, Ms Gillard’s choice and circumstances should and must be accepted. But the underlying hypothesis that she couldn’t, should not.
Here we are, half a century past the feminist revolution, and we’re being sidetracked by quibbles over babies. Excuse us for stating the bleeding obvious, but no woman - either with children or without - has yet made it to the country’s head office. And that’s the rub.
Debates sparked by Bill Heffernan’s comments have explored everything from his stark rudeness, through to stereotyping of stay-at-home mothers with nappy buckets, bodily functions and banal vacuousness. Heffernan has upset women - regardless of their child status - and it is time those women stopped arguing among themselves.
Instead of drawing the battle lines over whose arms are in the nappy bucket, we’d do far better to reflect upon the overriding issue. Attitudes and preconceived ideas about what women “should” be doing give no justice to anyone. Women shouldn’t have to justify their decision to have or not have children. But still, women feel they should. And this is the sad truth of the problem.
Working mothers are castigated for putting their children in childcare. Mothers who stay at home are excluded from the world of paid work, influence and spending power. And women who don’t have children feel like outsiders in a political climate steeped in fertility and family values. If Julia Gillard did have children, Heffernan would likely be chastising her for being neglectful. If you are a woman, you still can’t win.
Our society is still structured to make life more difficult for women, whatever decision they make. Women continue to be hounded and harassed, the more significant the power they wield. And problematically, sometimes women themselves are harassing other women in defence of their own choices.
The real issue is that we choose not to structure society in a way that means a woman, childless or not, can pursue politics without being judged. The issue is that value-laden comments are still being made about the choices women make, when men make them everyday without question. The issue is that men don’t take up enough of the domestic workload, and their employers give them little choice on how they structure their working hours. And the outcome is that women are still finding themselves in situations where they can’t win.
Our culture reveres the individual’s ability to do whatever he or she wants if they only want it hard enough. So why should a mother be precluded from the top job? Is it fair - or in line with what we want for our society - that Julia Gillard felt she had to choose one or the other?
In recent years, researcher and writer Leslie Cannold has probed women’s choices over whether or not to have children. What she found is that very frequently this choice is forced by circumstance: either through the lack of commitment of a male partner, or through the lack of flexibility in working lives. She questions how much choice women have, and how much work we still have to do to make this society an equal one.
Yet, rather than railing at these social structures that hinder women from making truly life-affirming choices - which may or may not include children - the debate continues to be spurred on by stereotypical images.
Women are painted in the image of either the barren, selfish, unfulfilled childless type, the “want-the-best-of-both-worlds” working mothers, or the submissive legions of dutiful wives who have obediently stayed at home so their husbands can climb the corporate ladder. None of these pictures is accurate, and they obscure the real issues. We will do no justice to women while we refuse to accept that there are many choices and all of them valid and important.
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