Earlier this year, I posted a picture of Julia Gillard after she had just taken the job of Prime Minister — the first Australian woman to occupy the position. I had more to say about that, but since she took the leadership in rather acrimonious circumstances, I posted first about the man she took the leadership from. I didn’t want a post celebrating Australia’s first woman PM to be marred with my misgivings about how she arrived in the position. But because
I am an incorrigible sexist I didn’t get around to writing the post I wanted to write about the historic nature of the event, her triumph went unremarked upon at this blog. Apologies.
What I would have said was that although Gillard’s swearing in was a milestone important for Australian gender equality for symbolic reasons, it didn’t mean much practically. In the United States, the election of Barack Obama established something hitherto unknown: America would elect a black man as its leader. However, Gillard’s Prime Ministership was not a comparable milestone.
Gillard’s predecessor Rudd took frequent trips overseas, leaving Gillard, his deputy, as acting PM. Australians accepted her in the role without question. Since the day Rudd took the Labor Party leadership in 2006, she had been assumed to be his rightful political heir, and Australia had repeatedly shown itself to be entirely comfortable with that arrangement. Assuming Labor stayed in power, Gillard’s eventual Prime Ministership was seen as something of an inevitably.
Gillard took the leadership earlier than expected, but she did so through party machinations, not popular approval. I am not arguing that her breaking of the political glass ceiling was not a triumph for her, for women, or for Australia; I am arguing that for the most part, that triumph was already hers. A backroom coup just made it official.
(And, to be clear, there is nothing dishonorable about the way she gained power. I think it was a bad move politically — as the most recent election might have demonstrated — and that many Australians would have liked to have had the chance to judge Kevin Rudd themselves, but all politicians have a desire for power, and if a politician does not take the opportunities presented to her, she might end up like Peter Costello.)
Today, however, is an important milestone for Julia Gillard, and for gender equality in Australia. We already knew that Australians accepted a woman as our leader, but until now, we had never shown ourselves willing to vote for one at a federal level. And despite having to gain the title of the first elected woman Prime Minister of Australia in a rather ignominious way — that is, by holding on to power as the leader of a minority government, only managing to do so by corralling a handful of independents prevaricating for more than two weeks — she has nonetheless done so. That is to her credit and to the nation’s credit.