Tag Archives: julia gillard

Dismissals and True Believers

In one of those weird moments when the whole universe seems to come into alignment, I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975 marking undergraduate essays on the dismissal of Jack Lang.

I was a very junior tutor at the University of Queensland, with a phone-less office in an overflow building on the outskirts of campus.  There were neither mobile phones nor the Internet, so it wasn’t until I carried my pile of marked papers back to the History Department that I heard radios blaring from offices, and realised something extraordinary had happened. Continue reading

Gender Wars

During the 1990s, I spent a lot of time researching the world of ‘first wave feminism’ for a biography of a woman called Maria Rye.  Maria was one of a number of middle class women who come together to campaign for women’s issues in the 1850s.  They started a club at Langham Place in London, published the English Woman’s Journal, and lobbied for improvements in women’s conditions: better employment opportunities, property rights for married women, access to higher education, and the right to vote.

The Langham Place group were gradualists; they didn’t throw themselves in front of horses or go on hunger strike, but argued their case rationally through public forums, petitions and the press.  There’s an essay on them on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, for those with access to the site (outside the UK, it is only available to subscribers).

One of their leaders was Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925).  Bessie’s father, Joseph Parkes, was the editor of the London Morning Chronicle and an ‘election agent’ for the Liberal Party – essentially a political fixer.  Like most men, he loved his strong willed daughter – but he was not a feminist.  His letters to her, now in the Bessie Rayner Parkes collection in Girton College, Cambridge, are wonderful: juicy with political gossip, lively accounts of a happy father-daughter relationship.  He treated her as his intellectual equal, supported her in many of her campaigns – but he drew the line at political equality for women.

I can’t find my notes from nearly 20 years ago, so I can only summarise, but the gist of his concern was to warn Bessie not to go too far on the path to equality because, he said, ‘You don’t realise how much men hate women.’  Decent men protected and cherished women, he said, as long as they stayed outside the public sphere, but if they ventured into it, those constraints of decency would fall away, and men would make women the objects of their hatred.

In a week when the Taliban in Pakistan have shot a 14-year-old girl because she wanted an education, it’s important to calibrate levels of misogyny.  But in terms of civil and legal status, the position of women in 1850s Britain was not greatly different from that of women in the Swat Valley today.

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Does knitting have a future?

It was brave of the PM to say recently that she knits as a relaxation – even if it was a soft interview for the Australian Women’s Weekly.  Not just because powerful women tend to be wary of revealing a more girly side, but because it was such a gift to the cartoonists: a red-haired Madame Defarge, knitting in a blood-soaked Place, as the tumbrils roll by, loaded with the finest flower of carbon-emitting mining aristocrats.  If there was such a cartoon, I missed it.  Maybe nobody reads A Tale of Two Cities anymore.

Public figures tend to go for blokey hobbies, even the women, with a heavy emphasis on sport: jogging or cycling, following cricket or the AFL.  It’s not long ago that politicians would have run a mile (or in the case of Anna Bligh, a marathon) from such overt signs of domestic behaviour.  And not only women: a former Archbishop of Canterbury was regularly mocked in the British press because his hobby was tapestry.

Knitting is a soothing choice of hobby, and I imagine Julia Gillard could use some soothing these days.  Repetitive and largely mindless, it’s something to do with your hands while your brain is otherwise engaged – or disengaged – and you produce something useful.  I used to knit on long flights until knitting needles were banned as potential weapons.

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Images of Cinderella

Footage of Julia Gillard in Canberra being dragged by a security detachment to a waiting car went viral yesterday.  At one stage, she was running neck and neck for top viewing on the BBC website with George Clooney.

There will be an investigation, endless analysis and blame – but the image of the stumbling PM was probably more striking than anything that may follow.  And the image reminded me of another picture, in grainy black and white, of another woman dragged across the bitumen by solid men without necks, and losing a shoe in the process – Evdokia Petrova, nearly 60 years ago. Continue reading

The President and the Barmaid

And I spent my soul in kisses, crushed upon your scarlet mouth,
Oh! My red-lipped, sun-browned sweetheart, dark-eyed daughter of the south.

With all the kissing and cuddling that’s been going on lately between Barack Obama and Julia Gillard, maybe it’s time to quote the words of another American President with a thing for Australian women.

I have heard several times in the last week that until LBJ came to Harold Holt’s funeral in 1967, no American President had visited Australia.  The truth is, Australia is a long way from the rest of the world.  Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said (though I can’t find hard evidence) that he had never visited Australia, because he had never been on the way to Antarctica.  So it is not surprising that world leaders didn’t visit Australia before the era of fast air travel.  Nowadays, of course, they all find an excuse to come, especially during the northern winter.

But in fact, one American President spent a considerable time in Australia and left his mark on it.

President Hoover stamp 1965

Hoover stamp, 1965, from Wikimedia

Herbert Hoover arrived in Kalgoorlie as a young geologist straight out of Stanford University, in 1897. Continue reading

That Missing Curtsey

In Love in a Cold Climate (1949) Nancy Mitford wrote a hilarious account of life in the British aristocracy between the wars.  One of her characters is Lady Montdore, a dedicated royalist.  Before her daughter’s coming-out ball, Lady Montdore held a dinner party for 40, inviting various royals and ex-royals.

Lady Montdore loved anybody royal.  It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtsying was the consummation of this love.  Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind.  She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought.  Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.

Curtsies, outside the ballet, are always a bit like this, so I’m quite relieved that Julia Gillard decided again one, when meeting the Queen in Canberra this week.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson, The Duchess of Devonshire and the Countess of Bessborough, in Yale Digital Commons

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) women used to curtsey by placing their feet at an angle to each other (second-position in ballet) and bending their knees in a plie, the back remaining straight.  This looked elegant when all the action took place behind a long and voluminous skirt, but those widespread knees became unacceptable when hemlines rose in the early 20th century, and physically impossible in the narrow skirts of the 1920s.

So a new method had to be developed.

I learned to curtsey at school in preparation for meeting Lady May Abel-Smith, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who presented the prizes at our school in the late 1950s as the wife of the Queensland Governor.

Place one leg behind the other, lock knees together (always important for blossoming schoolgirls), and bend.  It is impossible to descend evenly, since everything tends to bend, not just the knees, so the result is an awkward waddling movement, the shoulders at an angle, and the back and neck jutting forward.

It probably looked quite cute when I did it for Lady May at the age of 12 – but as you get older, Nancy Mitford’s description becomes increasingly accurate.  Maybe earlier generations of older women had knees that cracked like revolver shots, but if so, the noise, like the action, was smothered in their skirts.

No doubt it’s a coincidence, but women’s skirts began to rise at about the same time that the House of Lords lost its ability to veto money bills from the House of Commons, in the 1911 Parliament Act (1&2 Geo. 5. C. 13).  The power and privileges of the House of Lords were by no means over, but in 1911 Prime Minister Lloyd George – and that other George, the new king George V – collaborated to bring the British aristocracy to heel.  Australia rejected the idea of an aristocracy in the 1850s. (See Bunyips)

It’s also striking that most of Lady Montdore’s guests were ex-royals.  Love in a Cold Climate is set between the wars, when various post-World War I revolutions had cut a swathe through the European monarchies.  One of her guests was the cousin of a King who ‘was daily expecting the crown to be blown off his head by a puff of east wind.’

A hundred years on, the curtsey seems entirely obsolete – although there’s a rather similar move in Tai Chi, which is good for the knees, hips and lower back.  Like most things, it is equally good for men and women, and like most things, you may be at a disadvantage in a skirt.

The Monstrous Regiment of Women

Next Tuesday is the one hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day.  As the old cigarette ads had it, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!’ and yes, it’s true.  Thanks to Virginia Slims and their like, rates of lung cancer amongst women are now reaching parity with those of men.

In other areas, however, we’ve still got a way to go.  No other Prime Minister, I think, has been berated by talk show host Alan Jones in quite the way that Julia Gillard was, a few days ago, and I can’t help wondering whether the ex-rugby coach felt he could bully a woman more than he would – say – an iron man with an Oxford blue for boxing.

Meanwhile one of my favourite journalists, Annabel Crabb, has a hilarious article comparing Gillard with Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Apart from the red hair and the religious pragmatism and the occasional dubious bloke and the lack of interest in foreign affairs and the resolutely single status (“Beggar-woman and single, far rather than Queen and married,” Elizabeth told courtiers in 1563), Ms Gillard even has her own scorned Mary Queen of Scots lurking in exile, the only difference being that her name, in this instance, is Kevin.’

So I thought I might go back to look at one of the most notorious put-downs of women in positions of power, John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet
 Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in the Protestant city of Geneva in 1558.

John Knox was one of the leaders of the Scottish Reformation, often seen as a founder of Presbyterianism.  His Protestant activities got him booted out of Scotland in 1549 by the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, and then out of England by Mary Tudor in 1554.  He later returned to Scotland and was minister at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh until his death in 1572.  Knox’s pamphlet argues that the rule of women is unnatural:

‘To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.

In the probation of this proposition, I will not be so curious as to gather whatsoever may amplify, set forth, or decor the same; but I am purposed, even as I have spoken my conscience in most plain and few words, so to stand content with a simple proof of every member, bringing in for my witness God’s ordinance in nature, his plain will revealed in his word, and by the minds of such as be most ancient amongst godly writers.’

He dwells heavily on the evidence of bad women rulers, like Jezebel, while downplaying any evidence of good women rulers, like Deborah, one of the Judges of the ancient Hebrews.  His argument is almost entirely drawn from the Bible.

Knox only mentions one contemporary woman, Mary Tudor, but there is no doubt he had others in mind as well – for one of the interesting features of the 16th century is how many women rulers there were around.  Most of them were widows, like Mary of Guise in Scotland, or Catherine de Medici in France, regents on behalf of a young child.  There were also several women rulers in their own right, including Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots – who risked becoming pawns of the marriage market, their kingdoms subsumed by their husbands, as the heiresses to Brittany and Burgundy had been in the previous century.

Perhaps the most interesting women rulers of the time were the three generations of women, all widows, who ruled the Netherlands as regents for Charles V, his aunt Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), his sister Maria of Habsburg (1505-1558), and his illegitimate daughter by a Flemish mistress, Margaret of Parma (1522-1586).

What each of these women had in common was her Catholicism.  The Protestant Reformation was tearing apart the former religious unity of Christendom.  In Scotland, England, France and the Netherlands, Protestants were engaged in an ideological (and sometimes actual) battle with Catholics, and these women were attempting to hold the line.

Knox’s argument against the rule of women was doubtless genuinely felt, based on his Biblical reading, but it also suited his political agenda.  But his timing was out.  His 1558 pamphlet was originally intended to be the first of 3 ‘blasts’, but in November 1558, Mary Tudor died childless, and her half-sister Elizabeth became Queen.  Suddenly, there was the first of a monstrous Protestant regiment to consider – and Knox never published any further Blasts.  But Elizabeth never forgave him, all the same.

Which brings us back, strangely enough, to Virginia Slims, so named because of the tobacco from the colony of Virginia, which in turn was named after the Virgin Queen.  Elizabeth’s success as a ruler came at a price, to take herself out of the marriage market, to avoid subjecting herself to any man.

Have we come a long way, baby?