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Earlobes, fashion, an election without gender

By Ruby Murray - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The 2010 election is turning out to be gender, gender everywhere, and not a drop of policy.

Day after day, you can’t open the paper without being overwhelmed by speculation on what it means to have a female in charge, whether it’s feminists congratulating us all on living in a country where a woman can become prime minister by default; PM Gillard posing with windswept hair on the cover of Women’s Weekly; or Tony Abbott telling us not to make the election about gender politics.

But through all the so-called gender politics, no new gender policies.


Kevin Rudd was happily vocal about his support for women’s rights, frequently condemning violence against women and encouraging other men to do the same; formulating the paid parental leave scheme; re-energising the Office for Women’s Policy; and establishing the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and its subsequent action plan.

Likewise, Tony Abbott likes to talk about his support for women’s rights a lot at the moment, even if he’s completely disinterested in the policy side. He speaks lovingly of his wife and daughters, has turned around on paid parental leave, and for the first time in his political career is remaining silent on kitchens and what should be done with women’s bodies.

But then it’s safe for male politicians to talk about advancing the status of women. When men talk about women’s rights, they’re seen as supporting about human rights. When female politicians do the same thing, they’re seen as supporting special interests. A woman’s concern for the rights of other women isn’t seen as a push towards a fairer society; it’s often painted as a direct attack on men.

Watching the male worm take a tumble dive every time PM Gillard spoke during the “Great Debate”, it was clear that the issue at hand wasn’t that women like Julia Gillard; it was that men don’t.

As a result, aside from the continuance of the government’s paid parental leave scheme and some notable mentions of what she will do to support men’s health initiatives, Gillard seems reluctant to use her gender in any way in the election to outline how she’ll push for new initiatives, and she’s done little to remind voters of what the Labor party has delivered for women over the last three years.

Likewise, the women in her cabinet. On a recent Q&A, Minister for Housing and the Status of Women Tanya Pilberseck, who called for a new discussion on gender equality as a member of the Rudd cabinet, was absolutely silent on gender issues for the duration of the hour-long panel. No one else brought them up either.


We look towards female politicians to advance progress on women and gender rights, not to stall them. But in the few weeks that we’ve had a female PM, the only time an important political gender issue outside of the general agreement on paid parental leave has been raised with any depth, it’s been to the detriment of debate.

Gay marriage strikes to the heart of gender politics, to the damage caused to real people living in a political world where only the binary opposites of gender expression are recognised, where our narrow gender identities have become prisons that we can’t escape.

Watching Minister Penny Wong tell Channel Ten news that on the issue of gay marriage, she thinks the reality is that there are “cultural, religious and historical” views that we have to respect was painful. Wong has long side-stepped open statements on her personal stance on gay marriage, and there was something sad about seeing the party force her into the open as a spokesperson for the right, even as Galaxy polls are finding that as many as three in five Australians support gay marriage.

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About the Author

Ruby is a writer and researcher recently returned to Melbourne from Jakarta, Indonesia, where she has been working in public information for 2009-2010. Ruby is co-founder of the gender advocacy organisation The Democracy Project, and a contributor to the on-line environmental news compilation service EcoMedia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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