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Australia's first female prime minister keeps her job, for now

Some analysts believe that sexism is at least partly to blame for the difficulties Australia's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, has had to battle while in office. 

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / February 27, 2012

Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, listens to a question during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra Feb. 27. Gillard won a leadership showdown with party rival Kevin Rudd with strong backing from her party Monday, but now faces a mammoth task to rebuild support for her divided and unpopular minority government.

Daniel Munoz/REUTERS


Sydney, Australia

Today Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, won a leadership challenge by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. The fight for the country's most senior political position has been one of Australia's most dramatic leadership battles Australia has known. Some analysts believe that sexism is at least partly to blame for Ms. Gillard's struggle.

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“Julia Gillard has not done a bad job with a very difficult set of cards,” says Norman Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU). “But the way she’s been treated raises the question of whether Australians are prepared to accept a female head of government, and from what we’ve seen, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Gillard came to power in mid-2010 after deposing Mr. Rudd, who was trailing in the opinion polls. But she has been even less popular than him, and Rudd, who expressed anger at being ousted, challenged her for the leadership of the ruling Labor Party and role as prime minister. A vote Monday by Labor MPs, who elect the leader, resulted in 71 votes to Gillard and 31 to Rudd.
Ever since Gillard came to prominence as Labor’s deputy leader in 2006, attention has focused on her female attributes, or perceived lack of them. One newspaper profile featured her sitting in a spotless kitchen with an empty fruit bowl. She was quoted as saying she was “bloody hopeless” at cooking anything other than toast.
Attention also focused on the fact that she was unmarried, with no children. A parliamentary opponent accused her of being “deliberately barren.” After she became prime minister, her partner, Tim Mathieson, moved into the official Canberra residence with her. Her personal appearance – hairstyle, dress sense, even the length of her earlobes – were scrutinized even more closely and commented upon.

John Wanna, another ANU political expert, says there was a “huge groundswell of support” for Gillard initially, with many Australians delighted to have a woman in the top job. But she soon plummeted in the polls. While some of her policies – such as introducing a tax on carbon emissions – have been unpopular, and commentators say she failed to communicate them effectively, some believe she has been given a harder time because of being a woman.

When floods devastated the state of Queensland last year, for instance, Gillard was criticized for not showing enough emotion. Protesters who staged a demonstration in Canberra against the carbon tax waved banners stating: “Ditch the witch.” She was vilified for reneging on a campaign promise not to introduce the tax, with some critics branding her “Juliar.”
Male politicians have abandoned campaign promises without being so bitterly condemned, notes Professor Wanna. “I think going back on her word, and maybe this is a gender thing, really played badly for her,” he says. “People thought they could trust her because she was a woman. People don’t like a woman, in particular, lying.”


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