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Is a woman leader possible?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Friday, 11 May 2012

'This country is no matriarchy, nor are we in any danger of being governed by women,' wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1940 article published in the US magazine Good Housekeeping. 'Can a woman be President of the United States?' she asked, reiterating what she had 'so often said':

'At present the answer is emphatically "No". It will be a long time before a woman will have any chance of nomination or election.'

She concluded that even if 'an emotional wave swept a woman into [the presidency], her election would be valueless, as she could never hold her following long enough to put over her program':


'It is hard enough for a man to do that, with all the traditional schooling men have had; for a woman, it would be impossible because of the age-old prejudice. In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.'

In 1940s Australia, the possibility of a woman as a political leader – whether Premier or Prime Minister – was equally remote. Not until 1943 was any woman elected to federal Parliament. Dorothy Tangney sat in the Senate, Enid Lyon in the House of Representatives, each the first woman ever to do so. Electors had put Edith Cowan into the WA Parliament some twenty years before and, following that lead, elections in other states saw occasional elevation of a woman as MP. Yet it took one of the territories – the ACT – to elect the first woman leader of any Australian government: on 11 May 1989 Rosemary Follett became Chief Minister. Carmen Lawrence (February 1990) and Joan Kirner (August 1990) followed as WA and Victorian Premier respectively; neither won an election as leader. Then the territories again showed the strength of voter sentiment by electing Kate Carnell minority government leader following the ALP's 1995 election loss, whilst the NT elected Clare Martin in 2001 and again in 2005. In 2007 Anna Bligh became Queensland's first woman Premier upon Peter Beattie's retirement, then in 2009 was the first woman to win the Premiership of any state, serving until the 2012 Liberal National Party election win.

As for Prime Minister, names were bandied about over more than a decade before in June 2010 Julia Gillard took the post first by ALP parliamentary caucus vote, then through negotiations with independent members after the August 2010 election. This meant the ALP retained government, and she retained the top post.

Julia Gillard thus broke through the barrier recognised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet Roosevelt saw more than simply gaining office as the goal. For her, it was necessary to make something of it, through implementing a policy programme of the leader's own making. This, for Roosevelt, was a major barrier. 'Age-old prejudice' was the key.

How, then, does Australia's first woman Prime Minister measure-up? Policy gains of the Australian government since 2010 election contradict Roosevelt's contention that a woman leader 'could never hold her following long enough to put over her program'. Since coming to power the Gillard government has:

  • Passed the climate change policy on carbon pricing and emissions, incorporating supports for householders and ways business can implement it whilst retaining productivity, and awarding $1.9 mill. toward geothermal exploration advancing renewable energy potential;
  • Launched the National Broadband Network (NBN) aiming to ensure rural and remote access to contemporary communications along with urban dwellers and business;
  • Negotiated a Mental Health National Partnership Agreement (NP), providing states and territories mental health project funding, commencing with $57.6 mill. over 5 years to NSW for services for those often 'presenting at hospital emergency departments' or at risk of 'recycling' 'in and out of institutional settings';
  • Supported the Australian Service Worker (ASU)'s equal pay claim, endorsed by Fair Work Australia on 1 February 2012;
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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

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