Is Gillard’s rise a step forward for women?

From serious lifelong feminist activists to fashion magazines, there is a widely held assumption that having Julia Gillard in the “top job” is a step forward for women’s rights. Even those who condemned her early conservative policies still maintain that Gillard’s victory was one for women everywhere. But Gillard’s ascension will mean nothing for the vast majority of women. Gillard is not setting out to do anything about sexism.

Feminist credentials?
Gillard has appealed to feminism when she needed it. She co-founded Emily’s List in 1996, an organisation dedicated to advancing the preselection of female Labor candidates in “winnable” seats.
Frans Timmerman, from the Labor Left, says that, “[In the Pledge faction of the Socialist Left] even the women were against her… they felt she wasn’t a feminist. She never ran on feminist issues at all. She was clearly ambitious.”

The real proof of Gillard’s convictions about women’s rights lies in the policies that she has (and hasn’t) helped to implement. As Education Minister, Gillard let ABC Childcare collapse. At no point did the government move in to nationalise the centres or make any moves to provide affordable, public-owned childcare. Under Gillard’s watch, the government failed to build 222 of a promised 260 childcare centres. Childcare is a huge expense for working class people. Some centres in Sydney charge over $100 per day per child—almost equal to the average daily income of a single parent after tax. Those who can’t afford it have to juggle childcare and work.

Gillard also helped shape the government’s paid parental leave scheme. The union movement has long fought for a comprehensive scheme that gives women real options in taking leave from work, but this scheme is not that. Paid leave at the cost of living is still beyond the majority of working women.

Politics that matters
Gillard said in her acceptance speech that she “did not set out to crash [her] head against any glass ceiling.” While many were willing to claim her role a victory for women’s rights, Gillard herself shied away from it.

Greens leader Bob Brown responded to Gillard enthusiastically, saying, “Everybody with a progressive bone in their body raised a glass at the news of our first female prime minister, but that’s where that ends. Politically it doesn’t change the dynamic at all.”

Brown is half right. It is the politics of the Gillard government that matter. This is also why he is also half wrong—whether Australia’s first female Prime Minister means better or worse things for women has absolutely nothing to do with her gender. The presence of a small minority of women in top jobs or at the head of industry is perfectly compatible with the ongoing oppression of working women.

Margaret Thatcher, the hated Tory Prime Minister from the UK, is notorious for winding back the rights and conditions of the working class. She made life harder for most women.

Similarly, Gillard has followed in the direction that Rudd was heading—to the right. Gillard’s rush to water down the mining tax benefited one woman, Gina Rinehart, a mining magnate, but it will leave millions of working women short of billions worth of public services.

She is running the country by capitalism’s rules, and it is these rules that oppress women and keep sexism alive.

Sexism cuts people off from one another and sows division. When the working class is divided and passive, women will accept lower pay.

It is easier to accept a freeze on the minimum wage (which Gillard did in the first year of the Rudd government) and keep most of WorkChoices in tact. It is easier to get away with doing nothing substantial about the crisis in childcare. Sexist ideas about women’s inferiority make Gillard’s job easier.

Gillard has been attacked from the right on a sexist basis. Bettina Arndt wrote in the Fairfax press that Gillard was setting a bad example for young women by choosing a “risky” de facto relationship. An inordinate amount has been written about Gillard’s clothing choices. But don’t expect Gillard to challenge these ideas.

The ALP is too interested in running society in the interests of big business. Unless Gillard is forced to deliver dividends for the working class, most women’s lives will remain unchanged.

Unions are fighting an equal pay campaign, Pay Up, in Gillard’s Fair Work Australia for wage justice for  women.

In June thousands of unionists rallied across Australia demanding a 25 per cent wage increase in women-dominated industries. Organisers called the rallies “the biggest equal pay march since the 1970s.”
It is the struggles of the working class that we should be toasting—not a woman sitting in power in Canberra.

By Ernest Price


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