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Politics is still a manís game

By Jo Coghlan and Angelika Heurich - posted Tuesday, 17 January 2017

In 2016, the US presidential election and Australian federal election confirmed it was not the year for political women. Hillary Clinton was denied the presidency, even though she won the popular vote, and fewer women now sit in Australian federal parliament. The treatment of women in public life offers one insight to explain the declining number of women representatives in federal politics.

'The personal is political', a mantra of second wave feminists, may still endure for many women. Yet, for some women in politics, the political is increasingly personal. The treatment of women in politics in recent years may be one reason for the lack of women entering politics. This, rather than the absence of quota systems, may account for poor levels of female representation in federal parliament.

The 2016 federal election saw its lowest levels of women elected since 1993. The Liberal Coalition nominated 37 women to contest the House of Representatives, the lowest of the three main parties. After the election, women made up only 32 per cent of the current federal parliament: 29 per cent in the lower house and 39 per cent in the upper house. Only eight women sit in the current Turnbull Ministry: with six women in Cabinet and two in the Outer Cabinet.


Female politicians in the federal parliament have never achieved parity with their male counterparts. In Cabinet appointments, women have historically been allocated gendered portfolios, maintaining a sense of women's exclusion from the centre of legislative power. Between 1943 and 2011, women held the Status of Women portfolio eleven times and Community, Aged Care, Families and Housing seven times.

Australia has had only one female Special Minister of State, one female Justice Minister, one female Attorney-General and only three women in finance portfolios. The 2016 results again saw debate about the levels of female representation in the Australian parliament, noting the declining levels of female representatives in the Cabinet, and the low number of female candidates nominated for winnable seats.

Debates about quota systems to increase women's levels of political representation are important to party policy that acknowledges the existence of structural barriers to gendered representation. However, these debates are masking more profound insights into why women may not be seeking preselection. The recent experiences of Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, Penny Wong and Marise Payne, may suggest that there is a high price to pay for women interested in a political career.

Gillard was consistently attacked because of her gender, specifically her body image. In March 2012, Gillard was told by Germaine Greer that she had a "bigarse" and in August the same year, Greer said Gillard looked like an "organ grinder'smonkey". This followed the 2011 attacks on Gillard by Alan Jones, who referred to Gillard as "Ju-liar"and the appearance of Tony Abbott in front of placards declaring Gillard a "bitch".While Gillard responded with her misogyny speech, arguably how Australia's first female Prime Minister was treated, may have consolidated perceptions about the patriarchal and misogynistic nature of Australian politics.

This is not the only instance of poor treatment of a female politician. In 2010, Senator Penny Wong, a gay Member of Parliament and advocate of same-sex marriage, voted against a bill supporting same-sex marriage, because it was not ALP policy. Her character and values were attacked as a result. More recently, Marise Payne's body image was the subject of media and political scrutiny. While there is little new in the treatment of women in politics, the fact that this continues and appears increasingly personal, may suggest that women seeking to make a public contribution are finding other avenues to influence legislative or social change.

In 2004 Julia Baird reminded us of the demeaning stereotypes used to describe female politicians, among other things, as"sheilas", "housewives" and "covergirls". The recent examples of Gillard, Wong and Payne suggest such degrading treatment continues. This, rather than structural reasons, such as a lack of quotas for women to win safe seats, might explain why some women are avoiding a parliamentary career.


The gendered nature of Ministerial appointments, misogyny and evidence that principles are often forsaken for political, party or electoral needs, offer some reasons to explain why women are resisting entering politics. Ongoing instances of the patriarchal and misogynistic nature of politics may be feeding perceptions of other avenues for women to make effective public contributions.

Arguably, women such as Rosie Batty have made as much, if not more of a contribution to social policy without the constraints of party politics and the kind of personal attacks experienced by Gillard, Wong, Payne and others. Political office is likely seen by some women as an encumbrance. This being the case, changes to quota systems will do little to address the lack of women sitting in the federal parliament. The problem appears much broader than simply increasing the number of women in parliament.

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About the Authors

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

Angelika Heurich recently completed her honours degree at Southern Cross University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jo Coghlan
All articles by Angelika Heurich

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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