Julia Gillard’s recent reappearance got me thinking. The louder conversation we women speak in 2016 started with her.
It was 2009. I was back home in Sydney after a three-year-stint in Old Blighty, trying to reacquaint myself with everything that had gone down in my absence. Facebook was barely a thing and wifi in my dismal London share house was non-existent so news from home had been relegated to family gossip on the phone from my mother and the odd story about someone on Neighbours in the free paper you got on the tube. I knew that Howard was out and Kevin 07 was in and that pleased me, but beyond that, I was out of the Aussie loop.
I remember flicking the channels one night and finding Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader on Channel Ten. I relish any opportunity to test the limits of my general knowledge so naturally I was intrigued. The guest that week?
Then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Julia Gillard. I knew who she was, of course, but beyond that, she was just “that politician with the red hair”. Within five minutes, I had a major girl crush. Funny, warm, super smart without being patronising…she was a star. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I like Kevin fine but God, wouldn’t it be great if she was PM!”
It didn’t take long. Within a year she had ousted K-Rudd and put herself front and centre as the first female leader of our country.
I remember that night so vividly…Wimbledon was on and Sam Stosur was playing the match of her life when the news started to trickle down on social media that there were midnight manoeuvrings afoot in Canberra. I remember going to work on the train the next morning thinking everyone looked a little bleary-eyed from staying up late watching both the literal and figurative tennis matches. And I remember feeling excited. I liked Kevin fine but I knew this woman had impressed me and was definitely smarter than a 5th grader (which really should be a pre-requisite of seeking political office), and I wanted her for my Prime Minister. I remember tweeting something to the effect of “Go, you good thing!”
Putting herself front and centre as the first female leader of the nation, she forced this country to confront the inherent sexism women had all just learned to live with…She made us all realise this bullshit isn’t just in the school yard or in boardrooms – it goes all the way to the top.
I didn’t care how she got there – I was just proud, as an Aussie woman who had always had a bit of trouble stamping my authority, that I had a relatable icon.
Years later, with hindsight, maturity and a bit more political awareness, I realise the way she got the job was flawed. In fact, it was probably her downfall. She would have still copped the same crap from Abbott and co – the same sexism, the same misogyny – but she wouldn’t have had to prove her legitimacy on top of it. I wish things had been different. I wish we’d had the chance to see what more she could have done if she’d not been behind the eight ball from the very beginning.
Because the fact is, we owe Julia Gillard an immeasurable debt.
At last Sunday’s Labor launch, three former leaders sat in attendance. There was applause for Paul Keating and cheers for Bob Hawke, who raised his walking stick mightily in the air. But the biggest reception was reserved for the lady, resplendent in white, beaming as she was touted by Bill Shorten as “a trailblazer for women and girls”.
It was a friendly crowd, no doubt, but still, a resounding welcome. It made me wonder, have we finally forgiven Julia? Have we accepted how impressive, and how important she actually was?
Shorten was right: she was a trailblazer because she started the conversation. Putting herself front and centre as the first female leader of the nation, she forced this country to confront the inherent sexism women had all just learned to live with. There’s a reason her misogyny speech went viral. The beauty was in her eloquence as much as her anger; she said everything every woman has thought at one point or another about the casual sexism they face every single day, at work and in their daily lives. She said it with poise, with conviction and without fear. She made us all realise this bullshit isn’t just in the school yard or in boardrooms – it goes all the way to the top.
The misogyny speech was the crowning glory, but in everything she did, Julia told us that the system had to change. She forced Australia to confront the notion that not every woman wanted to be a housewife. That not every woman was a mother. That not every woman was warm and cuddly and willing to sit back and listen, and that men – especially then-Opposition leader Tony Abbott – had to get used to that idea. She forced the men of Australia to acknowledge that ignoring sexism is just as criminal as participating in it.
She made Australia realise that we held our women to different standards than we did our men: with women, their capability for a job didn’t just come down to their skill, talent and charisma but the style of their hair, the length of their hem and how they conducted their personal life.
In the years since she was ousted, that conversation has become louder, more persistent. Australian women have become more vocal about challenging accepted ideas about how you can and can’t treat women. We’ve seen tougher stances taken on cyber bullying, rape culture and – with the naming of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year – exposed the domestic violence crisis facing the nation. A man is currently on trial for implying that a woman was a slut because of her Tinder profile. Women like Clementine Ford have challenged accepted rules for what constitutes abuse on social media and for some perpetrators, there have been real world consequences. Successful petitions have stopped people like rape advocate Daryush Valizadeh and US rapper Tyler, The Creator from coming to Australia because of their outdated, dangerous ideas about women.
The conversation has definitely changed, but there’s still more to do.
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There’s still Eddie McGuire mouthing off like a bombastic moron about drowning award-winning journalist Caroline Wilson. There’s still NSW transport minister Duncan Gay condescendingly implying that a younger, female politician equates building a road to buying a handbag. Everyday sexism isn’t going anywhere, unfortunately, but because of Julia Gillard, we hear it so much louder than we used to and we know we don’t have to be silent. We might have got there in due course, but perhaps not. I tend to think it took someone like Julia – with her flame red hair, her tailored blazers and her tendency to not give a fuck what people thought about either of them – to challenge Australia to think differently about what was really important in a leader and, what’s more, what wasn’t necessarily important in a woman.
There was a lot more I wish she’d done in her term. I wish she’d been stronger on LGBT issues and I wish she’d had a different, more human take on the ongoing asylum seeker situation. She wasn’t perfect. No-one is. But she was the first leader I was proud to vote for, the first leader that made me feel that politics could bring real change to my own life.
I think it’s time we re-write the script on Julia.