Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Review: Bewitched & Bedevilled: Women write the Gillard years, edited by Samantha Trenoweth

I was really looking forward to reading this book when I learnt of it, mostly because I was often baffled by the public's excessively critical treatment of Julia Gillard throughout her prime ministership. After all, Gillard was a highly intelligent and respectable woman; an ideal candidate for the leadership of the Labor party given its precarious position in 2010. In fact, Gillard was not the first person to have deposed another sitting Prime Minister (Hawke and Keating had done the same). Nor was she the first politician to go back on her word following her election win. Yet, Julia was treated differently, and at times quite viciously, compared to her previous male counterparts. This collection of essays, written by a range of Australia's prominent female voices, explores some of these reasons from a variety of perspectives.

The essays range from Chloe Hooper's firsthand impressions of Ms. Gillard after spending a number of days touring with her, to delving into what sexism looks like in 21st century Australia. Helen Pringle (p.79) provides an interesting perspective on this when she states that 'It is no longer acceptable, of course, to bar women from the political world, or to say outright that they do not belong in that world. The primary way to practise exclusion now is to laugh at the women who enter the political world.' Pringle goes on to explore the ways that women, such as Julia Gillard and Anna Bligh, have been laughed at, and at times humiliated, for entering worlds previously dominated by men.

Tanya Plibersek provides us with her insider's perspective of the Labor party, and how their failure to communicate effectively with the public - despite all of the bills they were passing - played a vital role in their eventual September 2013 demise. Jane Caro analyses the ways in which Gillard was morphed from a highly respected politician into a backstabbing witch by the media. Caro likens this shift in opinion to the subjugation of women into the female archetypes of the sacrificial Virgin Mary or damned Whore - a shift that Gillard herself experienced in her role-change. Hence, the contributions from these women, in addition to others included in this collection, cover a breadth of arguments and create a very compelling read.

However, it was the following points which really stood out for me within the essays. They were points which, once highlighted, seemed blatantly obvious and hypocritical. Yet for some reason they have remained largely unspoken

Firstly, Lette (p.34) points out the irony of Australia being the second country in the world to grant women the right to vote, yet it still remains an inherently blokey nation.

Secondly, although comparing racism to sexism can be tenuous, it is useful when considering which jokes are still acceptable in Australian culture. For example, people will often preface potentially racist jokes or slurs with 'I'm not racist, but.....', or 'No offence, but....' However, as Pringle (p.80) points out, this is not really the case with sexist jokes. You won't really hear people say 'I'm not a mysogynist, but...'. Thus, 'misogyny still falls within a framework of acceptability [in Australia] and this framework helps to convert the prejudices of individuals into discrimination' (Pringle, p.80). This needs to change.

Thirdly, the significance attached to the private lives of women is much greater than that attached to men. No one critiques men's hobbies, regardless of whether or not these fall into gender stereotypes; no one asks how men 'juggle it all' (instead, it's just accepted that they can); and no one pays attention to whether or not men are good homemakers, whether or not they have children, or how much quality time they have at home (Pringle, p.84, p.90; Ford p.107, p.108). Again, such attitudes only serve to reinforce gender stereotypes and sexism.

Fourthly, jokes or slurs made against male politicians (such as Tony Abbott's budgey smugglers or John Howard's eyebrows) are not used as evidence that they cannot do their jobs. Unfortunately this is not the case for women, where such attacks are used as evidence of their incompetence (Ford, p.111). 

I particularly enjoyed reading the perspective of Helen Razer, who asserts that Gillard was not as concerned about gender as we were led to believe. Instead Gillard was 'too busy being swept away in the love of numbers and of outcomes to ever really give much thought to her sex' (p.50). In fact, Razer blames Gillard's inability to talk about being a woman as the reason for the electorate turning on her. I'm not sure how far I'm able to support this assertion: I suspect Gillard would have been subject to as much (if not more) scrutiny had she mentioned her gender more. And Gillard did show she was concerned with women's rights when she delivered her now famous 'Mysogyny speech.' But again, Razer claims that this speech was given more significance than Julia ever intended, with it telling 'us more about the needs of its audience to be exhilarated than...about the politician who uttered it.' Razer (p.49) sums up Gillard well in the following way:
'If you were looking for her, this was Julia: a leader uncomfortable with the illusory work of smiling and playing to traditional and social media. A leader enamoured of detail, hard work and the hope the electorate was not too lazy and stupid to begin to understand Central Banking 101. A cheerful, hands-on liberal-Keynesian who believed that her constituents deserved an explanation.'  
Thus, essays such as Razer's offered a refreshing perspective on Julia's prime ministership which we were rarely privy to.

If you are not particularly fond of Gillard in any way, shape or form, I do still think this will be a valuable read. It may challenge your thoughts regarding why you disliked Gillard in the first place. After all, people who have interacted with Gillard, particularly in a professional capacity, speak very fondly of her and how likeable she is.

Alternatively, if you have no intention of changing your opinion of Gillard, it's still a stirring exploration of attitudes towards women, causing the reader to reflect on just how far Australia (and even they themselves) have come in accepting women in roles traditionally taken on by males. As Caro (p.19) suggests, exploring the issues which arose from Gillard's prime ministership allows us to explore 'what our reactions to Gillard say about us, not her.'

All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and well-balanced read - I couldn't put it down. I'll finish by borrowing Julia Gillard's own words, taken from her concession speech. In discussing how she thought her gender impacted on her prime ministership, Gillard stated that it 'doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing - it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.'

Bewitched and Bedeviled is a fantastic starting point for exploring those shades of grey.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Gillard at the 2012 Anzac Day ceremony
in Gallipoli - I couldn't help but throw this in. 

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