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While many are disappointed that Tanya Plibersek declined to lead the ALP, I don’t blame her. Those women who have dared to lead are treated awfully. She doesn’t need to change. We do.
A lot of pundits are judging it to be “disappointing” that Tanya Plibersek has declined to stand for the leadership of the ALP. Some may even frame it as further proof that women just aren’t up to the rough and tumble of politics, they just can’t “roll with the punches” as LNP backbencher Craig Kelly spectacularly insensitively put it when Julia Banks resigned from the LNP citing sexist bullying and intimidation. I beg to differ. I see Plibersek’s refusal as completely understandable.
I don’t think it helps feminism or furthers the cause of gender equality to line talented women up to be sacrificial cows (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a system that is fundamentally hostile to them. We have had plenty of examples of how women—from all sides of the political fence—are treated when they dare to lead, and it isn’t pretty. From sotto voce belittling and sneering when they stand to speak in the parliament (Julia Gillard and Senator Sarah Hansen Young have both talked about this), outright bullying when they fail to fall into line on choice of leader (the afore-mentioned Julia Banks), fanciful sexualised accusations (Emma Husar, Sarah Hansen Young) to a humiliating 11 votes in a leadership ballot after being a loyal and effective Deputy and Foreign Minister for chaotic PM after chaotic PM (Julie Bishop), women can see the price they would have to pay for their ambitions. And, frankly, most of us judge it as too high.
Not only in Australia, either. As I have written before, almost 25% of the handful of women who have led countries in the last few decades have been accused of corruption (Clinton, Gillard, Yingluck Shinawatra), impeached for corruption (Park Geun-Hye, Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) or convicted of corruption (Yulia Tymoshenko—since exonerated). It’s not just political leaders, either. Christine Lagarde was convicted of negligence when she was head of the International Monetary Fund. It’s almost as if—as soon as a woman puts her hand up for the top job—we immediately start to see her as suspicious and illegitimate. Ancient archetypes of wicked Queens (Cersei, Snow White’s step-mother) and murderous spouses (Lady Macbeth, Livia) are triggered in our subconscious about how there must be something unnatural, evil even, about a woman who seeks to wield power.
More prosaically, those women who have stared down the blow-torch that confronts every female leader have tended to have no children or grown children. Angela Merkel, Helen Clark, Theresa May and Julia Gillard are examples of that route to power. Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton’s children were adults before they aspired to lead. Who will ever forget (if you are old enough to have been around at the time, like me) “We have become a grandmother!” from an almost tearful Iron Lady (even that epithet tells its own sexist story). Jacinda Ardern is the exception that proves the rule—she was the first ever world leader to bring her baby to the UN General Assembly—and when she ran for office, she was childless. Plibersek has school-aged children. She has stared reality in the face and put their welfare first. I simply can’t criticise her for that.
If we are serious about wanting more women in leadership (and, I suspect, despite the lip service, it remains only a minority of us who are) it’s us that have to do the changing.
Indeed, I won’t point the finger at Plibersek for any reason. There are more than enough people falling over themselves to do that, as there are with any prominent woman. One of the most damaging of all the double standards is the idea that before a woman can be taken seriously enough to be considered as a “leader”, she must be without flaw. I have forgotten the number of times a pro-Clinton tweet in the 2016 Presidential campaign began with the words “Clinton’s not perfect but…” Newsflash, no candidate for high office has ever been perfect nor ever will be, so why do we only feel compelled to apologise for the only (so far) viable female one? Because we hold ambitious women to a higher standard than we do men and will eviscerate them for demonstrating ordinary human foibles and stumbles. Remember the roasting Clinton received for her (mild, frankly) “basket of deplorables” remark about Trump supporters? Imagine if she’d had five kids by three different husbands, was accused of having an affair with a porn star and boasted about grabbing male genitals because she was such a star they’d let her do it—just for starters?
Women are not stupid. We see what happens to the women who dare, and we get the message and respond accordingly. It’s not cowardice to shrink from the degree of difficulty that women face when they aspire to lead, it’s self-preservation. It’s also about protecting your children who will inevitably suffer if their mother is in politics. Senator Sarah Hansen Young received a phone call threatening sexual violence to her young daughter. Even more terrifyingly, the call was allegedly made by a serving police officer. What mother would want to expose her children to that?
In fact, I wish fewer fathers were prepared to put up with the ridiculous sacrifices required from those who stand for high office. They have a considerably easier time than women at the top, but it’s still an utterly family unfriendly life. The sitting hours are absurd, the travel demands gruelling, campaigning is exhausting and relentless, and any slip up, mis-step, emotional outburst or failing will be pounced on wit glee by opponents. Glee that will be multiplied ten-fold if the stumbler is a female politician.
Plibersek isn’t letting anyone down by deciding to put her quality of life and her family ahead of her political ambitions. Rather, we have let her down and every other woman of talent who has tried or will try to contribute to public life. By not only refusing to level the political playing-field but, worse, refusing to even acknowledge it is more difficult, we effectively exclude half the population from full participation in democratic life.
I notice Plibersek has left her options open for a tilt at leadership at another time, when—like Merkel, Thatcher and Clinton—her children are grown. I hope she does and will admire her courage if she takes on the task. If she decides not to, however, I won’t judge her for a moment. If we are serious about wanting more women in leadership (and, I suspect, despite the lip service, it remains only a minority of us who are) it’s us that have to do the changing.