Kids are alright,but are they a requirement for leading the ALP?
In her brief flirtation with the top Labor job last month, the party’s most ambitious woman, Julia Gillard, discovered that some people think her status as a single, childless 43-year-old woman renders her “unelectable”. She also found that some people think her neat, sunlit kitchen in Melbourne’s western suburbs looks “lonely” and “lifeless”, code for spinsterish.
“Single? Female? Childless? Was this really what Australians wanted in their alternative prime minister?” asked one newspaper.
It’s not something she had considered before, she said in a phone call from Melbourne on Australia Day after announcing she would not run for the leadership. “That’s just my life.”
But far from being an odd fish, Gillard spearheads a new and honourable tradition of powerful, unmarried childless women who are quietly heading for the top in their careers, unencumbered by the very real needs of children and the sometimes unreasonable demands of a spouse.
The 2005 Bureau of Statistics yearbook shows the fastest-growing household type in Australia is a single person living alone. In the next 20 years, single people will comprise a third of all households, and not entirely because of an ageing population.
Like a growing number of women, Gillard never set out to not get married or not have children, but says that is just the way her life turned out. “It’s an accumulation of the little decisions that brings you here.” And, like many single women, she just never met the right man, “if the definition of the right man is a relationship that endures forever … Obviously I’ve had a series of relationships that mattered”.
Not that she’s intent on remaining single: “I wouldn’t preclude the thought of being in a strongrelationship”.
When she was a little girl people would ask her if she wanted to be a mother one day, and she would reply: “Oh no. I don’t think so”.
“I never had a strong desire to have children”, she says. “But it was not a decision [based on any notion] children would prejudice my career.”
Gillard is single again after splitting last year with her companion of two years, fellow Labor MP Craig Emerson. The new focus on her single status has led to “all sorts of peculiar offers”, she says, laughing about the men who yelled, at an Australia Day function in her western Melbourne electorate, “you look all right to me, love!”
But she was stung by the criticism of her single status, which seems to have emanated from the ALP itself, as part of a campaign to undermine Kim Beazley’s rivals for the party leadership.
“We can’t even blame the media for this; it’s her own colleagues that did it,” former Labor minister Susan Ryan told the ABC. “Now we’re back in the dark ages, where a woman’s marital status and whether she has children or not is being used against her by her own colleagues.”
Gillard denied her colleagues were behind the whispers but she did feel compelled to compare herself with her ideological opposite, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
“Dr Rice is a single, childless black woman and she is the most powerful woman in the world,” Gillard told reporters, as the pressure against her mounted. Flipping sausages on a BBQ, she went further to justify her single status: “No one person can encapsulate everyone’s life experience. A man doesn’t know what it’s like to be a woman, a person with children doesn’t know what it’s like to be a person without children, a person from a wealthy background doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up on a housing estate.” Touché.
She also points out she is part of a family, anyway: her “original family”, parents John and Moira, and older sister Alison, who live in Adelaide.
Likeable and engaging, Gillard also has a tribe of close friends in Melbourne including Terry Bracks, wife of the Victorian Premier. When Mark Latham abruptly quit the Labor Leadership, she was on holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam with another friend.
In any case, she says voters in her electorate don’t care about her marital status, as long as she does the job.
On the other side of politics, 36-year-old Liberal Sophie Panopoulos, also ambitious, childless and unmarried(so far), weighed into the Gillard debate with her own tale of marital-status prejudice.
“All of the Labor sisterhood in Canberra remained absolutely silent when the Labor candidate for Indi (in north-east Victoria) in the last election made the same allegations about me,” she told the ABC’s 7.30 Report. “[He said] I really wasn’t fit to be the member because I wasn’t married and didn’t have children.”
But the allegations didn’t damage Panopoulos’s standing with the electorate. In fact, she won the seat by a margin of 21 percent and attracted almost six percent of Labor voters from her ostentatiously married-with-children rival.
Few Australian politicians have made as big a deal of their family as Latham. There was the famous shot of him striding down a hallway with his mother and wife and two sons when he was first elected Labor leader. He invited cameras to his home during the election campaign to snap him on Father’s Day playing backyard cricket with his boys.
Latham read storybooks to schoolchildren and did everything possible to portray himself as the quintessential family man. But did that make the electorate warm to him? Far from it. In the end, when Latham resigned, he cited a desire to devote himself to his family. From Latham’s experience, you might even infer that the demands of being Labor leader with young children are too hard.
Of course, Gillard could have married her handbag, just to conform. But why should she?
Instead she has to contend with snide comments about her “unnaturally spotless” kitchen, in which she was photographed for the Sun-Herald recently.
Sure, it might not be the schmick Calcutta marble kitchen of a yuppie Sydney couple with a subscription to Belle. But it is a practical kitchen, about what you might expect from a busy single professional person who had returned to work a week early from a holiday and hadn’t had time to buy apples for the fruit bowl.
Successful single men rarely face such prejudice; and most don’t stay single for long, there being no shortage of women eager for rich-wife status.
But it is trickier for a successful career woman to find a partner who doesn’t demand babies at an inconvenient time of her career, as movie star Brad Pitt supposedly did with Jennifer Aniston, for instance, or who doesn’t feel neglected by her success.
Instead, increasing numbers of self-respecting women in their 30s and 40s are content to accept they may never marry or have children. They focus instead on their careers, and relationships with friends and “original family”. It’s not a lifestyle they chose, or one they imagined for themselves. But they are not lonely. They don’t feel they are settling for second best. They are just realistic.
The bonus for a society which embraces such women is the extra guilt-free attention they can lavish on their jobs. Julia Gillard’s single, childless status is an electoral asset because it means she can work harder.
Or, as a woman emailed me after a shorter version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Julia and other single gals such as myself are an asset to any organisation because we are not going to p… off early from our responsibilities to collect little Charlotte or Joshua from daycare after another outbreak of conjunctivitis.”