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On the Stalking of Julia

08 October 2013

Yassmin AbdelMagried (right) with Gail Kelly (centre)
and Felicity Briody. Yassmin and Felicity were Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence in 2012.


"Will life be easier for the next female Prime Minister?
How did we ever let her go?"  
Those were my first thoughts.
The Julia Gillard who graced the stage with Anne Summers in conversation early this month was charismatic, charming, engaging, articulate, wise (I could go on!) and pretty well looked like someone who would be a fantastic leader for our country.  
The woman on stage in the Sydney Opera House for the hour and a half special seemed miles away from the Julia Gillard that the Australian people had become accustomed to.  Was this really the same women that the country so desperately hated while she ran the Government for just over three years? Was this the same Julia Gillard that graced our television screens for such a brief period of time?
So what happened? Where did this lady go in all the hullabaloo... and how or why did it all go so wrong?
stalking of julia gillard
The book.
I recently finished an interesting book by Kerry-Anne Walsh, 'The Stalking of Julia Gillard'.
The Allen and Unwin published piece is an interesting blow-by-blow account of the years of Julia Gillard's reign.  It illustrates how relentless white anting from within her own party coupled with the obvious campaign against her in the predominantly Murdoch-owned media led to the misrepresentation of our first female leader and her eventual downfall - and for what?  It was an interesting read, and brought up feelings quite similar to guilt really.  How did we not see the good work that she was doing, the book seemed to ask.  We, the Australian public, were not allowed to, Walsh replies.
It is an angry read in parts; angry for the treatment of our first female Prime Minister, angry for Julia as a fellow human being, angry at the press gallery for failing in their role as the fourth estate. I felt like I was having a heated conversation with someone who really cared about Gillard - and in hindsight, wished more were done. What could have been done by us isn't really explained, but as they say, admitting there is a problem is half the battle.  
Naturally, Gillard is not blameless, and many Australians still hold deep resentment that she arrived on the scene in the way she did, through what was seen as the 'knifing' of a colleague.  Whether that is an accurate representation of the events we may never truly know, but that is how the picture was painted for the public.  Unfortunately, perceptions like that tend to stick around.  
Walshes writing had an obvious bias, but in the wake of the conversation with Anne Summers, I began to wonder - how will history remember Gillard, and what lessons do we as a community take from the last three years?  
That question: gender? 
As Julia herself admitted, the fact that she was a female in her role doesn't explain everything, but it doesn't explain nothing either.
My hope is that there is more 'nothing' than 'everything', and that the way that Julia was treated - not only by the media and colleagues but by the public in general - does not deter other young women from aspiring to a similar role.
There is evidence to suggest some women who strive for such leadership positions do not even consider their gender as an impediment or a factor until they get there and realise that it somehow plays a part. The 'ugly, violent sexism' that Gillard and her image were subjected to during her term however, were shocking for many - not least of all Gillard herself, as she fit nicely into the aforementioned category.  
The public discourse has been drenched in questions around the role gender played in Gillard's treatment.  Prominent feminists such as Anne Summers herself have admitted to being truly shocked at the capacity of our progressive society to produce such callous content.  
However all is not lost, and sometimes success is the best form of response.  Rather than focusing what hateful individuals propagate, or dwell on the fact that a TV show was made about a sitting PM, let's focus on the fact that we had a female PM who had a relatively successful parliament and use her example as incentive for other young women as proof that you can make it.  
Yes, it might be a rose tinted view accented by the optimism of youth but surely it is the way to go.  If people have a problem, they will find any flaw or weakness they can to exploit.  The fact that the female gender is seen as an exploitable weakness is unfortunate, but if someone's gender is the best insult thrown at them, well it isn't much of an insult at all! 
This is not to say that we should brush issues under the rug, or investigate why there remains a strong undercurrent of misogyny in our society.  By giving the detractors so much attention in the public discourse though, we are legitimising their actions and beliefs in a way that they don't deserve.    
My father always repeated a common arab saying to me while we were growing up: The camel walks while the dogs keep barking...
There will always be those who are vocal, violent and sexist.  The fact that we now have a history of females in the highest offices in the land though, is an indicator that gender isn't a unsurmountable obstacle.  It might not be easy, but hey - societal change never is.  
Let's just keep walking - after all, no camel deigns to even acknowledge the barking dogs...

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