Balance of power
There’s been a groundswell of support for women in recent years, but in politics, females still struggle with gender bias. Tory Shepherd discovers how resilience has emerged as the key to survival.
If 2017 was the year of female empowerment led by celebrities and the #MeToo movement, then surely 2018 will go down as the year women in Australian politics were catapulted beyond the news pages and into the national spotlight. Whether embroiled in a coup for the top job (Julie Bishop), on the public receiving end of sexist remarks ( Sarah Hanson-Young), or scarred by bullying allegations ( Emma Husar), the women at the heart of our seat of power in Canberra have had a hell of a year.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who copped all sorts of sexist abuse, always talked about the need for resilience. For women to be tough in a way that lets them bounce back, get up the next day and do it again. She often described resilience as a muscle, something you can exercise and make stronger. Resilience is a theme that echoes through Parliament House, that light-filled building with hidden, dark grottoes.
How do you turn up to a combative question time, day after day? How do you wake to torrid tales in the papers and gird your loins to front the cameras? How do you manage to smile while walking out of a meeting room where you have just been stabbed in the back by your party colleagues? Almost every woman in that place that I have ever spoken to will admit to the same conundrum. They are anxious but hardened. Tough women with impostor syndrome. They have to put on a face and front the cameras when they just want to hide.
Parliament teems with secrets and backstabbers and schemes. When politicians move in for sitting weeks – 20-odd weeks a year – the pace is relentless. Most are up before the sun. Between then and the long nights there are plot twists and turns, with question time at the centre.
Julie Bishop knows this all too well. And she has resilience strategies. She famously runs every morning – “rain, hail, shine” – to blow away the cobwebs before confrontation. As a politician who has survived personal attacks from male colleagues she credits flexibility and, yes, resilience. This is a woman who says at the cabinet table she faced the usual female problem of coming up with a policy solution only to hear a male colleague imitate her, and get the accolades.
But now she is no longer at the cabinet table. In August, Bishop resigned as foreign minister after giving up her deputy leadership of the Liberal Party to run for leader amid the extraordinary
coup that ultimately resulted in Scott Morrison becoming Australia’s 30th Prime Minister. Bishop was by far the most popular of the contenders with the voting public. Described by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham as “the most significant woman in the history of the Liberal Party”, a Newspoll found her most-preferred Liberal leader over Morrison as well as former leaders Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbot and Dutton. Yet the Liberal Party still didn’t deem her worthy of being its leader. It was later revealed she was reportedly the victim of a voting plot via a WhatsApp group that planned to use her votes as a rouse to ultimately get Dutton voted in as leader. Bishop later said the events of the spill had been “personally devastating” for a number of people involved. When asked when the Liberal Party might ever elect a popular female leader, she replied with her classic quick wit: “Well, when we find one, I’m sure we will.”
Just weeks earlier, Vogue asked Bishop if she was born resilient or learnt it. She said it’s a combination. “In politics, to be resilient means you have to set your own standards and have the confidence to pass judgement on your own performance and not be distracted by those who set standards for you,” she said.
Labor’s Penny Wong says there’s no point commenting from the sidelines, so you learn to deal with the tough times. “If you want to change things, you have to be there and be a part of it,” she says. “Sometimes I’m more resilient than other times. Anything that’s personal is harder.” Senator Wong is renowned for her forensic cool, and for breaking down in tears when the same-sex marriage vote was resoundingly passed. Like many others, she talks about self-care: cups of tea, getting a good sleep, eating good food, the importance of chatting to her kids when she’s in the Canberra bubble. She also credits some rough times on her arrival in Australia with helping her become resilient. As a child arriving in 1970s Australia, she faced explicit as well as casual racism. Dealing with that helped her to face the tough times today.
As the #MeToo movement swelled more than a year ago, it started to feel like a real change. The start of a new sisterhood. But the idea of a sisterhood has always been a fleeting, ill-formed thing. The supportive tide of #MeToo did not lift all boats. We have not entered some brave new world where women always help other women. And nowhere is that more true than in politics.
When former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright introduced presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016, she said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other.” That line invokes the sketchy sisterhood. In the end more than four in 10 women voted for now-ruler Donald Trump. Hell will end up a crowded place.
In Australian politics, women supporting other women is a shifty, shifting network of alliances. I’ve talked to and watched many female MPs over many years and you’d be naive to count on your parliamentary sisters. The House is a hectic, belligerent place and it’s still mostly a man’s world where women are often pitched against each other.
When Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young called out Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm for nonsensically suggesting she had to “stop shagging men” if she was going to condemn sexual assault, you’d think the world would be on her side.
But media outlets gave Senator Leyonhjelm copious airtime to repeat his claims. Behind the scenes, several women grumbled to me that Senator Hanson-Young’s outrage was a political stunt. Meanwhile, she revealed that people had hissed men’s names at her in the chamber. Senator Leyonhjelm was roundly condemned by many women, and men. But such support is always temporary, while the woman at the centre of the storm has to keep going after it has waned.
Senator Hanson-Young says calling Senator Leyonhjelm out was the start of a roller-coaster, as she started the process of taking him to court. She describes politics as “intensely passionate, and personal” and says she’s “used to the rough and tumble”. What changed for her was that she had thought being resilient meant putting up with it or seeming cold. But that was the weak option, she says, because it’s far harder to call it out and face the storm.
“Being attacked for my apparent sex life is not why I am in Parliament,” she says. “I used to worry that my ability to be resilient when there’s some massive political storm or I got a death threat from the public … that ‘resilience’ was code for ‘cold’ or ‘wooden’. Like how women when described as ‘ambitious’ are somehow ‘nasty’.” Senator Hanson-Young admits to wanting to crawl under the doona on some days, but she knows she can’t, because it’s her duty to argue for what she believes in. Like many women – and men – in public life, she is both resilient and vulnerable.
Take Emma Husar, the rising Labor star who crashed to Earth amid claims of bullying and worse. She is described as someone with “grit” – but she will step down at the next election. The family violence survivor and member for Lindsay faced sensational claims earlier this year that she not only allegedly abused staff, but flashed – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct- style – in a colleague’s office. The day before a review found she probably hadn’t flashed but probably had harassed her staffers, she told Fairfax how she was coping: “Sometimes … you’ve just gotta get up, dress up and show up,” she said.
Former deputy leader Barnaby Joyce has also been accused of harassment. He hopes to get back into cabinet. But women in public life have always faced harsher judgement. The inherent nature of politics is combative. Perhaps women, more than men, choose not to compete for preselection to safe seats, for frontbench spots, and for cabinet positions because they have to spend far more mental energy batting away sexism. This schism is critical, because young women are being put off politics. Plan International has found they worry about being treated unfairly. They don’t want a life in politics, because they see how women are treated. So only a tiny fraction of girls are thinking about a life in politics, and exactly zero per cent of those who have turned 18.
But maybe there are green shoots. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern gave birth in office and seems to be a model of female resilience and therefore a good role model for young women.
In the United States there has been a surge in women running in the primaries. The strong and eloquent Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been batting away trolls with such attitude that Monica Lewinsky described her as a “badass”. Every strong woman on the public stage sends a message to all women about what is possible.
The good news about resilience is that it can be taught; there are myriad resources helping people to create stronger connections and develop personal strategies like exercise, relaxation and finding the positive.
Just two days after the leadership coup in Canberra in August, Bishop showed up in Perth to run its City to Surf. Flanked by thousands of runners, she not only finished the course with a smile, but ran the 12 kilometres in a personal-best time. Asked afterwards if her run had helped exorcise some anger and frustrations from the week, Bishop replied with her trademark smile: “That is why I run every day.”
“Sometimes I’m more resilient than other times … anything that’s personal is harder”