Sydney, Australia – Since the world’s first elected female political leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960, 63 countries have elected women to their highest office.
Yet only fourteen countries have a woman at the helm today. Many who have had one woman in charge have yet to be led by a woman again, such as Britain, where Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Israel, where Golda Meir was dubbed “the best man in government”, and Canada, once led – if only for a few months – by Kim Campbell.
Of the 193 members of the UN, only about 10 per cent have elected a female president or prime minister. Women hold just over 20 per cent of all parliamentary seats worldwide.
The recent experience of Australia’s ousted prime minister Julia Gillard has reignited debate about the challenges women face in politics, and whether sexism still thrives in the chambers of elected officials.
Video footage of a parliamentary retort by Gillard against opposition leader Tony Abbott became a viral sensation last year, reported around the world.
Misogyny definition change
“I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man,” Australia’s only female prime minister said
“Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”
|Clinton told a heckler during her presidential bid she wanted to “crack the toughest glass ceiling of all ” [Getty Images]|
Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has since updated its definition of the word “misogyny”, broadening it to “entrenched prejudice against women”.
Her words were well received internationally – but fell flat in Australia.
Gillard was accused of hypocrisy, as the speech came amid calls to sack an independent member aligned with her ruling Labor Party for using offensive sexual language. His sacking would have unbalanced Gillard’s minority government.
Cathy Jenkins, professor of media and politics at the Australian Catholic University, told Al Jazeera that many Australians shrugged it off.
“They thought: ‘No, we’re not being sexist, we are criticising your policies,'” Jenkins said.
In her report, The More Things Change: Women, Politics and the Press in Australia, Jenkins asserts that women politicians are still being described by their physical appearance and relationships, diminishing their stature as politicians.
In Gillard’s case, however, Jenkins believes the former leader exploited her gender for political advantage.
“She overplayed the gender card, in claiming that all of the criticism that was aimed at her was based on her gender – because quite clearly it wasn’t,” Jenkins said.
“She had a problem from day one when she unseated Kevin Rudd, a very popular prime minister.”
It doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things.
Gillard has compared her experience of sexual discrimination to the racism US President Barack Obama has encountered in office, arguing issues of gender are treated less seriously than those pertaining to race.
“I think that’s true for me,” Gillard told Australian magazine The Monthly.
“I think some of the stuff about me, because it is about gender, gets glossed over more easily.”
During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was labelled “too emotional”, and “a bitch”. Nutcrackers made in her image are still sold across the US.
When a heckler shouted: “Iron my shirt” at Clinton during a rally, she responded that his comments demonstrated why she wanted to “crack the toughest glass ceiling of all”.
Thatcher, Britain’s only female prime minister, was known as a highly divisive politician, overseeing a privatisation agenda and a national economic transition from an emphasis on heavily unionised manufacturing to a leadership role for the financial services sector. While her death prompted an outpouring of vitriol, feminist publisher Anne Summers described an online campaign to push the song Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to the top of Britain’s music charts as “shocking”.
“While they may not be sexual attitudes, it was definitely a genderised attitude,” Summers said
As she addressed reporters in Canberra before resigning from parliament on June 26, Gillard made it clear gender was a key factor in her demise.
“It doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things,” she said
“And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.”
During her leadership, Gillard was subjected to sexualised derision. A radio host asked her whether her partner, hairdesser Tim Matheson, was gay – while a menu for a Liberal Party fundraiser contained a reference to Gillard’s supposedly “small breasts, big thighs and big red box”.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott was labelled a misogynist when he was pictured in front of a sign calling Gillard a “bitch” at a protest rally against the unpopular carbon tax.
Amanda Vanstone, a former Howard government minister, told Al Jazeera while “coarse and reprehensible language shouldn’t be tolerated”, the now infamous image was not evidence of sexism.
“Those signs were just a not very elegant expression of the public’s opinion,” Vanstone said.
“It does depend on the context. I will say to a friend: ‘Oh you stupid bitch, what are you doing?’ When you take them out of context and blow them up and use them as big words, people imagine a sentiment that might not exist. It might just be a normal, admittedly rougher, Australian language.”
Summers asserts Gillard was subject to “the whole repertoire” of abuse, because she was an unmarried atheist with no children.
In 2007, Bill Heffernan, a conservative senator, called Gillard, then deputy-opposition leader, “deliberately barren” and questioned her leadership credentials because she chose not to have children.
Summers has collated “vile and misogynist” online content explicitly mocking Gillard’s body, content widely shared via email and on social media.
It was the kind of sexualised imagery that would not happen to a male leader, according to Summers.
“It’s everything, the fact she wasn’t treated seriously or with respect,” she told Al Jazeera.
“All politicians get mocked to a certain degree, but it’s pretty unusual for male politicians to be subject to sexual commentary.”
Summers said the accumulation of all of those aspects was very corrosive.
“There is still engrained in most of our institutions a belief by a lot of people that women don’t belong in Australian society outside the home after they’ve had children, so women should have no role in the public life of Australia,” she said.
Natasha Stott Despoja, a former senator from the now-largely defunct Australian Democrat Party, told Al Jazeera she was subjected to sexist commentary during her time in politics.
It genuinely drives me nuts when we debate 'can women have it all', because we don't even consider that phrase when we talk about men.
Stott Despoja believes the “novelty factor” of her gender was enhanced because of her age, 26, when she entered parliament.
“I did find it overwhelming the way the superficialities dominated. Some of the cartoons and profile pieces – if I had a dollar for every headline mentioning ‘blonde’,” Stott Despoja said
“That kind of superficial coverage wasn’t just irritating, it was also demeaning.
“We still debate a woman’s suitability for office in the context of: ‘Is she married? Does she have children? Issues of sexuality, either hers or that of her partner, how she dresses, what she wears, how she appears.’
“These issues should be immaterial, but somehow keep creeping back into the debate and discourse.”
Stott Despoja is proud of how she juggled family and a political career, but laments those questions were never asked of her male colleagues.
“It genuinely drives me nuts when we debate ‘can women have it all’, because we don’t even consider that phrase when we talk about men,” she said.
“Perhaps a better way of looking at it is ‘no-one can have it all, all the time’, and we all make trade-offs and decisions and choices, and I’m a big one for respecting those choices.”
Despite concerns that Gillard’s experience would be a disincentive to women entering politics, Australia’s first female prime minister remained positive in her concession speech.
“What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that,” she said. “And I’m proud of that.”
Follow Geraldine Nordfeldt on Twitter: @GeraldineNord