“I’m too much of a patriot to think [sexism in politics] is an issue about Australia,” said Julia Gillard, former Australian prime minister, at Fortune magazine’s summit for women on Monday night. “This issue about women and leadership is a global issue. Still, somewhere in our brains, is whispering a stereotype that says if a woman is leading, commanding, she has probably given up on ‘female’ traits of empathy, likeability; she’s probably a bit hard boiled.”
It’s a problem women in work face every day, and as Gillard passionately pointed out, “until we can shed that stereotype that women, leadership and likeability don’t go together, we will be putting the baggage of that on to the women who do emerge. We’ll see some of it in Hillary [Clinton]’s campaign.”
She isn’t wrong – Clinton has already faced a barrage of ageist and sexist criticism, particularly in recent months as speculation increased about her presidential bid. An inordinately crass tweet (hastily deleted) sent from Donald Trump’s Twitter account asked: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” When talking straight politics, Clinton has been accused of being cold and out of touch, but when she mentions her family, she faces accusations of being too “oestrogen” fuelled. During Clinton’s first run, one commentator famously asked: “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
In fact, the very same sexist “small breasts, huge thighs” line reportedly used to mock Gillard on a Liberal National party fundraiser menu has even resurfaced on anti-Hillary badges. It’s a depressing state of affairs – that even at this level of power and international prominence, women will be reduced to . It’s no surprise that Gillard describes politics as “too crowded, quarrelsome and contested” to give much time for internal meditation, and the need to have mentors in women’s lives.
Asked if she had any regrets about her famous 2012 speech on misogyny, Gillard had an unequivocal one-word answer: “No.” She didn’t realise how far-reaching the impact would be, but that “in a state of cool anger, that after all I’d put up with on gender, I was going to be lectured by Tony Abbott about sexism”.
It wasn’t until later that day, when she walked back from the chamber to her office and found it “alight with phone calls and emails”, that she began to realise the speech had gone viral. The moment “the penny really dropped”, Gillard said, was on a subsequent trip to India, where she was greeted by an Indian police officer who was part of her assigned security detail. “The first thing she said, when she greeted me and ushered me into the car was, ‘Great speech.’”
Asked whether she had any advice for Clinton, Gillard replied that Clinton was experienced enough not to need her advice, but did suggest calling out sexism early; Gillard had assumed that the most extreme “reaction about gender”, both supportive and negative, would peak at the beginning of her term in office. Instead, she said, it heightened when she spoke out about controversial political issues, when gender became a “convenient cudgel of criticism”and abuse – such as “ditch the witch” and “ditch the bitch” – was hurled at her.
But the advice might not be easy to follow – as Gillard herself discovered, the very act of standing up to sexism can see women in politics re-victimised. After her speech on misogyny was beamed around the globe, some commentators accused Gillard of “gratuitously” betraying her emotional sensitivity’ and suggested that she simply needed to “man up”. Opposition politicians described her pithy, intelligent responses to sexist behaviour as “playing the gender card”, attempting to portray her as the real threat to women in politics, with claims that she had “demeaned every woman in this parliament”.
Ultimately it is our stereotypes that need to shift, not the response of women in politics. Gillard admitted that when she was a girl, “if someone had suggested you could be prime minister it would have been as unreal as suggesting you could go with Neil Armstrong to the moon”. On encouraging our daughters to “pursue [their] passion”, she summed up the problem for everyone in the room: “I don’t think people are born with a blinkered gender construct about what they can achieve in the world. We stamp that onto them. And we’ve got to pull the stamp away.”