On Monday, an Australian woman broke a political glass ceiling. Gladys Berejiklian, became the first ever female state premier from the Liberal Party (the conservative* major party — confusing, yes) after she was elected head of Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales.
Her achievement shouldn’t be overlooked. While there have been six female Australian state premiers before her, Berejiklian is the first one to be representing the conservative Liberal Party which, much like the Republican Party here, sees fewer women in positions of leadership. The party has had one female Chief Minister (head of a territory) and one female Deputy Prime Minister, but these women have had to fight hard because they make up a smaller percentage of its representatives- Berejiklian is one of only eight women out of 36 Liberal members in the NSW Legislative Assembly, from whence the leader is drawn.
But… (of course there is a but!)
When Berejiklian’s leadership was announced on Monday, it took only 15 MINUTES of press conference for her to be asked the stupidest question women in politics can be asked:
Why are you unmarried and childless, woman?
The journalist danced around the question (“are you prepared for such questions?”/”do you think it will be a disadvantage politically?”), but Berejiklian, who has served as state treasurer and deputy premier, hit it head on, as Buzzfeed reported.
Journalist: The obvious question is do you think this is a disadvantage politically, because people have kids and they have families and people identify with that like they did with Morris Iemma…
Berejiklian: Take me as you see me. [New deputy] Dominic Perrottet has made up for me, he has four kids. I am someone who has always been myself. Not all of us can plan how our life turns out. I am a very happy person. If you asked me 20 years ago, would my life look like this? It probably wouldn’t be how it looks like. But I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. I also want to say again, not because I have to but because I want to, the closest people in my life are my family. I am not going to judge anybody on their personal circumstances. I am here to govern for everybody and I hope that people judge me on my merits and what I can do.
It’s an incredibly frustrating double standard that plagues women in politics. You never see male politicians being probed about their lack of wife and kids, and yet women who choose a career over motherhood are treated like unnatural pariahs, failing to fulfill the traditional, antiquated idea of woman as carer and baby-machine.
This is an all too familiar conversation in Australia, which is why the questioning of Berejiklian has our eyes rolling out of our heads. Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister, was plagued by attacks over her childlessness and for her supposed choice to choose a career over motherhood. Her lack of children became one of her biggest political targets: she was referred to as a male senator as “deliberately barren” woman, whose childlessness put her out of touch with the electorate, while a former leader of her own party, Mark Latham, mused that without children, Gillard couldn’t conceivably know love or empathy (though surely thinking that people different to you can’t feel empathy is the very definition of ironic). Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced the same issue: In 2007 her ability to empathize with loss in the war in Iraq was thrown into question in the Senate, because it was families that would pay the price, and she didn’t have one.
This expectation that women give up years out of their career to bring forth children from their wombs is a double-bind that holds women back in many careers, but especially in politics. Either you have kids and are a bad, selfish working mother (criticism leveled at Hillary Clinton in the ’90s), or you don’t, and are cold, unnatural or “deliberately barren.” You can’t win; the double-bind keeps women out of the public sphere altogether by demanding they a) have kids, and then b) stay home with them.
In her article “The Motherhood Trap,” Helen Lewis explores how childless women in UK politics are vilified yet are statistically more likely to make it to the top. It’s that much harder to rise to the top if you’ve taken years out to birth babies. For Prime Minister Theresa May, the fact that she is childless is pointed to as a sign that she is unnaturally obsessed with politics. God forbid a woman should be passionate about her career. Premier Berejiklian is incredibly qualified for the NSW top job, in part because she has been able to give her career the focus most men can, childless or not.
Late last year I was dismayed to hear Louis C.K., in attempting to endorse Clinton, emphasize her motherhood over all else.
“It’s not about the first woman, it’s about the first mom,” he said. “Because a mother, she’s just got it, she just does it; she feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shi*t.”
Perpetuating this norm that a female leader like Clinton draws strength from her motherliness (rather than her intelligence, her values, her experience) is damaging to those completely qualified women who are not mothers, and holds us all back.
You go, Gladys.
All images via Twitter.
*Despite being a member of the conservative party, Berejiklian is actually from the left-wing of her right-wing party and is reportedly quite socially progressive, known for supporting marriage equality (which has still not been achieved in Australia) and compassion towards the plight of refugees.