The gender wars: Thatcher and Gillard as ‘women’

The sexism surrounding Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard is nothing new for women in power: Britain’s first female PM Margaret Thatcher suffered similar. AAP/Tony McDonough

The denigration of the first female Australian prime minister on the basis of her gender echoes that endured by the first female prime minister of Great Britain.

While Julia Gillard has suffered the juvenile attacks of men from the political right, Margaret Thatcher endured them from men and women on the political and academic left. Thatcher was ultimately toppled by men, exclusively, to the left of her. The point of origin of the attack on the spectrum was different in each case, but common to both was the use of gender to denigrate and delegitimize.

Left-wing journalist Polly Toynbee asked infamously: “is Margaret Thatcher a woman?” Right-wing DJs interrogate the sexuality of Julia Gillard’s partner and some (big-L) Liberals mock her body shape. The association of gender and sexual orientation with under-performance or absurdity is strikingly similar in both cases.

For those on the British left, Thatcher had “betrayed” her gender; for those on the Australian right Gillard has abused her gender. Neither woman was/is able to win this argument. How might Thatcher have been a “real” woman? What behaviour should Gillard adopt so that her gender not matter?

In the United States there is a similar pattern. The left dismiss conservative women as inauthentic: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice remains a war-mongering hate figure for “progressives” and Sarah Palin is possibly the most reviled female office holder in US history.

Being “the wrong kind of woman leader” is a crime that few on the left are prepared to forgive. The right, similarly, disdain Hillary Clinton largely on the basis of her gender, age, and, like Gillard, body shape. During the Lewinsky scandal, Hillary’s lack of sex appeal was cited as an explanation for her husband’s straying.

The subtext of much Liberal Party commentary on Gillard is her childlessness. In similar fashion, but with less subtext, Labour and Liberal Parties in Britain indicted Thatcher’s parenting skills. She had, variously, raised a mad, racist daughter and an idiot son.

Late British PM Margaret Thatcher was attacked for the so-called ‘betrayal’ of her gender. EPA/Chris Hargreaves

Motherhood was used to ridicule and hurt both women. It is unlikely that having children or raising her twins “better” would have changed the tenor of the charges against them. Their gender would always represent a primary point of weakness for their political opponents.

The irony in Thatcher’s case, of course, is that the gender betrayal charge was levelled by women against a woman because she was a woman. The depredations Gillard has suffered are less interesting; we might expect conservative men to dwell inappropriately on her looks and marital state. The tittering of male MPs here and in the UK when menstruation and birth control are mentioned in parliament is another example of it.

But for women to advance “the witch is dead” narrative, as many did when Thatcher died in April, suggests a far more deep-seated problem with gender on the political left.

Seemingly, only left-wing female leaders are worthy of appropriate academic analysis. Of the many excellent womens’ studies program here and in Europe and North America, not one affords Thatcher the seriousness her 11 years in power demands. She was pro-choice on abortion. She prioritised her career over her children. She was highly attuned to being a woman in a world dominated by men.

Thatcher’s credentials for entry into some sort of feminist sisterhood are strong but consistently denied, even disparaged. More British-expat academics emigrated here to escape Thatcher’s grip in the 1980s than will ever quit Australia if Tony Abbott is elected.

The news of Thatcher’s death was announced during a women-only panel on ABC TV’s Q&A program. Not one panellist could summon anything beyond contempt for a female leader who broke the gender mould of British politics and in so doing made Gillard’s prime ministership seem not just timely but logical and normal.

Julia Gillard could do a lot worse, in this time of Australian political sexism, to remember the disdain of men that motivated Thatcher to best them at their own game.