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'Gender Wars' fell Gillard

27 June 2013, 10:03

Sydney - Julia Gillard's ascension was hailed as an historic moment for women, but Australia's first female prime minister failed to survive a first term marred by sexist attacks and slights on her gender.

Gillard, a flame-haired, unmarried, atheist lawyer, was marked as a "backstabber" from the outset, snatching the premiership from Kevin Rudd in a 2010 coup drafted by Labour party heavies unnerved by his poor polling ahead of elections.

She enjoyed an immediate bounce in the polls as Australians celebrated the appointment of their first woman leader but, like all honeymoons, the giddiness soon came to an end.

Voters disgruntled at her knifing of the popularly-elected Rudd returned Gillard's Labour by the slenderest of margins in the subsequent elections and she slipped to record lows in the polls amid mounting criticism on trivialities from her hair colour to the tone of her voice.

"Gillard has been the victim of appalling levels of sexism not seen before in Australian public life," said Marian Sawer, politics professor from the Australian National University.

"[She has] been subjected to an unrelenting campaign of vilification by a loose coalition of shock jocks, bloggers and newspaper columnists [that has been] rhetorically violent in nature at times."

'Lack of respect'

Endless column inches were dedicated to her tripping over in high heels, prominent feminist Germaine Greer derided her "big arse" on national television and, in the days before Rudd moved against her, a furore raged about a photograph of Gillard knitting on the front page of a women's magazine.

One media commentator dubbed her Ju-liar, famously said she should be thrown into the ocean in a hessian sack and had to apologise for remarking that her late father "died of shame"; another was sacked for suggesting her partner Tim Mathieson was gay.

Conservative lawmakers also had a role: One MP spoke about slitting Gillard's throat, another held a fundraiser with a quail dish on the menu named after the prime minister because of its "Small Breasts and Huge Thighs and A Big Red Box".

Opposition leader Tony Abbott gave a speech in front of placards calling Gillard a "witch" and the "bitch" and she was labelled "deliberately barren" by one conservative senator who suggested her failure to have children made her unfit for high office.

Crude cartoons of her naked and wearing a sex aid were circulated among MPs.

"This lack of respect contrasts strongly with the treatment of Denmark's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt," said Sawer.

Gender card

"Thorning-Schmidt also headed a minority government and faced numerous accusations of broken election promises - but not of being a liar or someone's bitch."

Pushed to breaking point, Gillard let rip in a fiery speech accusing Abbott and his colleagues of misogyny and sexism last year which went viral and earned her global accolades, including from the Danish leader.

She was promptly accused of playing the "gender card" and politicising the fact that she was a woman, a charge she answered in Wednesday's concession speech after she was deposed by her party as it faced a crushing defeat in September elections.

"There's been a lot of analysis about the so-called gender wars, me playing the so-called gender card - because heavens knows no-one noticed I was a woman until I raised it," Gillard said.

"The reaction to me being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing."

"It is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey."

Unprecedented personal attacks

Penny Wong, newly-appointed Senate leader under Rudd, said the "remarkable" Gillard had been targeted for her gender.

"As our first female prime minister, she's changed the nation. And that's a position which made her the target of unprecedented personal attacks - both implicitly and explicitly supported by the opposition," said Wong.

In a major 2012 address renowned feminist and author Anne Summers said it "says something about our country and about us that we could subject our leader to such vile abuse".

"It is difficult not to conclude that we Australians are - so far, at least - simply incapable of accepting a woman in charge of our country," she said.



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