Aussie Women Leaders Seek Equality, not a Place on Pedestal

Australia once led the way for women's participation in politics.

In 1894, the state of South Australia became the first place in the world where women ran for office and exercised the right to vote. Those rights were extended to the rest of the country by 1902.

But since then, Australian women politicians, while making some strides, have struggled to gain respect in a system that was made, by and large, by men and for men.

Women say they are dissuaded from entering Australian politics because of the macho - they call it "blokey" - culture. Franca Arena, the first woman from a non-English-speaking background elected to her state's parliament, recalls her discomfort after becoming a politician. Her colleagues socialized by drinking alcohol and playing billiards in the parliament bar.

"It is completely alien to me," she says. "I'd rather sit down at a table and have a cappuccino. [But] a lot of plotting in politics is done at the bar. In a way, you're excluded from it all."

A growing political force

Presently, Australia ranks 29th in the world in terms of female political representation, according the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. (The United States ranks 41st.) Since the election in 1996, women have represented 20 percent of the federal parliament, a 6 percent jump from the election of 1994.

Liberal Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed that the increase was based on merit without resorting to affirmative action. Mr. Howard's remarks were aimed at the rival Labor Party, which announced affirmative-action policies in 1994 that would allow women to hold 35 percent of all contested national seats by 2002.

Feminist critics have taken aim at both parties. They say that Labor is not on track to reach its quota target, and dismiss it as a cynical gesture to appeal to women voters. They also say that the women in Mr. Howard's party were swept into office on a tide of anti-Labor sentiment, and expect the tide to turn against many of them during elections expected to be held later this year.

Regardless of what party gains power, women are still fighting 19th-century stereotypes of being "the fragile little thing ... the drover's [cattle-driver's] wife," says Sydney-based social historian Anne Henderson. She says literature romanticizing women has contributed to the stereotype, as well as religious teachings that cast women as being either "Madonna or Mary Magdalene."

Set up for a fall

Many of the country's prominent female politicians blame their male colleagues, the media, and the public for placing them on a saintly pedestal. They say with such unrealistically high expectations, any slip-up can be devastating to their career.

"You have an obligation to 'save the party,' " says Natasha Stott Despoja, who was subject to intense media scrutiny late last year when it was speculated that she would take over the leadership of her party, the Australian Democrats. The youngest woman to ever be elected to the Federal Parliament, Ms. Stott Despoja opted to be the party's deputy leader instead.

"I was so terrified by the pressure," she says. "People who had criticized me the week before were promoting me as the next big thing in politics. There was a feeling of 'we're going to make you.' But in six months, they could destroy you."

Perils of Pauline

Last year, right-wing politician Pauline Hanson was placed on a pedestal by supporters as being the "slip of a girl" who was speaking up for those forgotten Australians who were disillusioned with political correctness.

Australia's most talked-about politician attracted admiration and contempt from different quarters for her anti-Asian immigration, anti-Aboriginal welfare stance.

But her support diminished late last year after national politicians heightened their attack against her views, calling them racist. Ms. Hanson's star plummeted further when she predicted her own assassination on national television last November. Hanson allowed a current-affairs program to broadcast part of a video she had recorded, which was to be played in full after her assassination. Saying she had received a flood of death threats because of her views, she announces to her audience that "if you are seeing this now, it means I have been murdered."

The publicity stunt backfired, with many colleagues saying it was bizarre and unwise. She has since faded from the media spotlight, consigned to the "Bermuda Triangle," as one commentator remarked.

The 'Great White Hope'

This year's media star is Cheryl Kernot. Amid enormous publicity, Ms. Kernot resigned as leader of the Australian Democrats and joined the Labor Party last October. She has since been dubbed Labor's "Great White Hope," pitching herself as a compassionate alternative to the Howard government's conservative economic policies.

She also became the target of a smear campaign last December when details emerged of an affair she had 25 years ago. Despite the publicity, Kernot remains popular among voters.

Ms. Henderson says the attempt to knock Kernot from the pedestal is symptomatic of Australian politics in which the highly successful are looked upon with suspicion and resentment. "There was a feeling that Cheryl was getting too big for her boots," she notes.

Some analysts say support for female politicians can wane if they appear to be overtly ambitious and aggressive in the mold of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "People don't like an adversarial woman," Henderson says. "Women have to be very careful about not looking too tough."

Stott Despoja agrees: "When I get angry in Parliament, I get people saying 'Ooh, doesn't she get aggressive' when I think I'm being assertive. You're picked on for being too aggressive. But if you're too nice ... you're [called] wishy-washy."

Stott Despoja says she wants women to form alliances across party lines to support each other and change the culture. "Women will be truly successful when no one is surprised that they are successful," she says.

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