Modia Minotaur

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Mother = Politician?

Arguably, the coverage of Julia Gillard's comments that it would be difficult for a mother to become Prime Minister is another case of `Labor Chaos' journalism. Then again, Gillard was a sitting duck for this sort of coverage - famously childless, with a famously empty fruit bowl ... there must be something a little strange about her, right? I mean - no kids, not married ... red hair, of course ... it's just creepy, isn't it?

It's a terrible shame that this sort of sentiment still exists today, nearly four decades after feminism became mainstream. Childless people - and childless women in particular - are viewed with an extraordinary amount of suspicion. More power to them, I say. Not because I don't like children - but because I know too many people who should never have become parents.

In any case, it's another case of distortion to make a more sensational story. Gillard's comment was not that it would be somehow wrong for a mother to be Prime Minister. Her point was that it is so hard nowadays to balance work and family that it would be extremely difficult (nevertheless, The Australian still insisted on calling its article `Gillard Defends Childlessness'). Female politicians still do face an uphill battle compared to men, there's no question about it. I know several and, without exception, they wouldn't be able to do their jobs without extraordinarily supportive partners - some of whom have had to abandon some of their own ambitions - equally supportive extended families, and a great deal of childcare. The amount of time female politicians need to spend away from their children would alone make the job of Prime Minister emotionally difficult. Do male politicians still feel this anxiety in separation from their children? Of course they do. Morris Iemma is one politician who proclaimed his commitment to his young family would always come ahead of his job (I'm not sure to what extent he's kept this pledge, but it's an honourable one). Yet the direct burden of care - of keeping house and keeping children - still unarguably falls by default to the woman, in most cases.

Would it be possible for a woman with a young family to attain high office? There are some positive examples, such as newly enstated Democrats Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. There is the extraordinary example of Enid Lyons, the wife of former Prime Minister Joe Lyons, who reportedly personally answered all mail sent to her husband whilst bringing up eleven (!) children, and later becoming not only the first woman elected to the Federal House of Representatives in 1943, but the first female Cabinet Minister. Nevertheless, many female leaders, such as former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence and Meg Lees, admit to putting their careers on hold for their children. I can think of few male politicians - or high executives in business, for that matter - who would say the same thing.

But beyond all of this is a thread of misogyny that is genuinely disturbing. Recent reports from the US suggest that more people would prefer a black president to a woman president. I'm very heartened indeed to hear that America might finally accept a black president - it would truly be a realisation of one of the greatest struggles for human rights of the 20th century, and a wonderful thing. But the fact remains that so many people are nervous of naming a woman the leader of the free world, nearly a century since the world's first unrestricted female suffrage (in New Zealand in 1893 - a generation before America, in 1920) women are still so frequently viewed not as a person, first and foremeost, but in terms of being a mother or not being a mother; and also as people somehow overstepping their natural boundaries in seeking positions of real power.


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