‘This country is no matriarchy, nor are we in any danger of being governed by women,’ wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1940 article published in the US magazine Good Housekeeping. ‘Can a woman be President of the United States?’ she asked, reiterating what she had ‘so often said’:
‘At present the answer is emphatically “No”. It will be a long time before a woman will have any chance of nomination or election.’
She concluded that even if ‘an emotional wave swept a woman into [the presidency], her election would be valueless, as she could never hold her following long enough to put over her program’:
‘It is hard enough for a man to do that, with all the traditional schooling men have had; for a woman, it would be impossible because of the age-old prejudice. In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.’
In 1940s Australia, the possibility of a woman as a political leader – whether Premier or Prime Minister – was equally remote. Not until 1943 was any woman elected to federal Parliament. Dorothy Tangney sat in the Senate, Enid Lyon in the House of Representatives, each the first woman ever to do so. Electors had put Edith Cowan into the WA Parliament some twenty years before and, following that lead, elections in other states saw occasional elevation of a woman as MP. Yet it took one of the territories – the ACT – to elect the first woman leader of any Australian government: on 11 May 1989 Rosemary Follett became Chief Minister. Carmen Lawrence (February 1990) and Joan Kirner (August 1990) followed as WA and Victorian Premier respectively; neither won an election as leader. Then the territories again showed the strength of voter sentiment by electing Kate Carnell minority government leader following the ALP’s 1995 election loss, whilst the NT elected Clare Martin in 2001 and again in 2005. In 2007 Anna Bligh became Queensland’s first woman Premier upon Peter Beattie’s retirement, then in 2009 was the first woman to win the Premiership of any state, serving until the 2012 Liberal National Party election win – with a man at the helm.
As for Prime Minister, names were bandied about over more than a decade before in June 2010 Julia Gillard took the post first by ALP parliamentary caucus vote, then through negotiations with independent members after the August 2010 election.This meant the ALP retained government, and she retained the top post.
Julia Gillard thus broke through the barrier recognised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet Eleanor Roosevelt saw more than simply gaining office as the goal. For her, it was necessary to make something of it, through implementing a policy programme of the leader’s own making. This, forRoosevelt, was a major barrier. ‘Age-old prejudice’ was the key.
How, then, does Australia’s first woman Prime Minister measure-up? Policy gains of the Australian government since 2010 election contradict Eleanor Roosevelt’s contention that a woman leader ‘could never hold her following long enough to put over her program’. Since coming to power the Gillard government has:
- Passed the climate change policy on carbon pricing and emissions, incorporating supports for householders and ways business can implement it whilst retaining productivity, and awarding $1.9 mill. toward geothermal exploration advancing renewable energy potential;
- Launched the National Broadband Network (NBN) aiming to ensure rural and remote access to contemporary communications along with urban dwellers and business;
- Negotiated a Mental Health National Partnership Agreement (NP), providing states and territories mental health project funding, commencing with $57.6 mill. over 5 years to NSW for services for those often ‘presenting at hospital emergency departments’ or at risk of ‘recycling’ ‘in and out of institutional settings’;
- Supported the Australian Service Worker (ASU)’s equal pay claim, endorsed by Fair Work Australia on 1 February 2012;
- Introduced the R&D Tax Credit policy aimed at generating high-wage, high-skill jobs through a 45% refundable Tax Credit for firms under a $20mill turnover, and a 40%r refundable Tax Credit for all others, retrospective to 1 July 2011;
- Passed ‘plain packaging’ laws effective December 2012, to ‘reduce the number of deaths from smoking-related diseases’, ‘giving [Australia] the best chance of having the lowest smoking rates’;
- Announced a new cash-payment plan replacing the Education Tax Refund, so ‘a typical family will get more than $720 extra each year’ from 1 January 2013, ensuring payment is automatic, ‘upfront’ and prior to the end of the tax year;
- Implemented and expanded a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program to reduce bowel cancer, and announced a ‘blitz’ on dental treatment waiting lists to cover 400,000 patients, ‘benefiting low income Australians’;
- Introduced the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), from July 2013 operating from ‘up to four locations across the country’ ensuring ‘about 10,000 people … will receive support … rising to 20,000’ by July 2014 and meaning, in the government’s words: ‘For the first time in Australia’s history people with significant and permanent disability will receive lifetime care and support, regardless of how they acquired their disability’.
Far from exhaustive, the list omits policies coming under significant humanitarian fire: the NT intervention or ‘second invasion’ and asylum seekers and refugees policy – although recently modified. However, here the Gillard government has pursued policies supported by the Prime Minister.
For Australia, then, Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion that a woman will fail as political head through ‘not lasting’ sufficiently long to carry through a platform falls.
Yet despite substantial policy achievements, many of which have major community support, and despite their being gained whilst leading a minority government, a Sydney Morning Herald poll: ‘How do you rate Julia Gillard as prime minister?’ shows confounding results. Of 16,832 votes, 15% rate performance as ‘excellent’, 17% ‘good’, 7% ‘average’, with the remainder devoted to ‘poor’ – at 10%, and 51% ‘woeful’.
Limited to Fairfax newspaper readership, such polls can include multiple voting. Yet the figures prompt the question why, defying substantial policy outcomes and an undeniable capacity on the Prime Minister’s part to effect this, a not insubstantial number fail to acknowledge it?
Part II to come.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister & Human Rights Lawyer, and Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham. Her books include The Sexual Gerrymander – Women and the Economics of Power and Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society.