Comment: A tale of two Julia Gillards

Julia Gillard poses for a photograph with author Anne Summers prior to a televised interview

For many progressive feminists, Julia Gillard will always be a complex and conflicting political figure, writes Elly Michelle Clough.

It was an overwhelming moment when Julia Gillard walked onto the Concert Hall stage at the Sydney Opera House on Monday night. To the music of Aretha Franklin’s Respect, 2,600 people took their feet and applauded our first woman Prime Minister. I was very surprised to find myself in tears. I am no Gillard apologist, but it was a genuinely affecting moment.

My response speaks to the deeply torn feelings many progressive feminists feel about Gillard’s Prime Ministership. At an almost sub-conscious level, I find it impossible not to respond to Gillard as an archetype. The fearless female leader she represents stirs a great sense of pride and admiration in me. It’s a heart-felt response that is totally at odds with my head.

My head recognises the deeply damaging policies Gillard and her government enacted. She moved 80,000 single parents (the vast majority of them women) onto Newstart, costing some of the most vulnerable women in Australia around $50 a week. She bought into vile and racist dog-whistling on asylum seekers, sending vulnerable women and children (and men too, of course) into detention centres for committing no crime but attempting to escape persecution. Her government was responsible for many other policies which disproportionately affected disadvantaged women.

And yet, I cannot help but separate these policies that I fundamentally disagree with from the iconography of our first female Prime Minister. It is undeniably significant that Gillard held our highest elected position, and it is undeniable that her being a woman was in no small part the reason her Prime Ministership became untenable.

I cannot help but separate the policies I disagree with from Gillard’s treatment as a woman. In Monday's conversation she admitted that highly objectionable images of her circulating on the internet ‘filled her with murderous rage’. I quite agree. The rabid sexism that was directed at Gillard was deplorable. It came from all quarters; parliamentary colleagues, professional journalists and commentators to ne’er-do-wells on the Internet, and it is to our shame that this behaviour was permitted to proliferate.

As I sat in that auditorium with my mother I reflected on past half century of the woman’s movement in Australia. My mother was a feminist activist in the 1970s and has spent her entire career working in women’s health. I felt so proud of the work she and her contemporaries (Anne Summers among them) did to get us to a place where Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership was possible. At the same time I felt disappointed that Gillard wasn’t being challenged on her record, that the only tricky question was from a six year-old.

Many have commented on the idea that history will show Gillard’s legacy is a more favourable light. That may well be true. It would be unfair not to note the many positive reforms her government made in health, education and climate. It is a cognitive dissonance, but for me, Gillard will always be a fearless woman leader and a flawed politician who made deeply damaging decisions.

Elly Michelle Clough is a publicist and writer.

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