Reviewed by Gerard Healy
This is an interesting, but difficult to read, text by Julia Baird, focusing on the treatment by the Australian media of female politicians. It’s difficult to read because in story after story another female MP gets chewed up by a powerful press pack looking to sensationalise their looks, dress-sense, competence and/ or ambition. When the dust settled there were very few “winners“ left standing.
This 2021 version is an update from Baird’s 2004 original and was supercharged with the Brittany Higgins revelations earlier this year. The earlier work was based on Baird’s PhD thesis and featured well-known figures such as Bronwyn Bishop, Cheryl Kernot and Carmel Lawrence. This later work covers more recent MPs such as Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek and also provides a retrospective look at where we’ve come.
The approach Baird takes is to look at how the media frames female politicians. A well-worn one is the Housewife Superstar. In press coverage of female MPs, photos of them doing household chores were commonplace for years. The then aspiring MP was often asked about her responsibilities for caring for her children and partner. Gradually, some women realised if it wasn’t being asked of male MPs, why should they do it?
Other frames include Steel Sheilas (tough, ambitious women such as Bronwyn Bishop) and Cover Girls (those dubbed by the press in the 1970s as young and attractive such as Ros Kelly and Kathy Sullivan). A newspaper headline of Pauline Hanson in the 1998 election cried, “Forget policy: I’ve got great legs!” (146).
A 2012 cartoon by Judy Horacek sums up the case here: a line of women is diving into a pool named ‘Public Life’ while two males watch on. “I want 1000 words about their swimsuits” says the male boss.
The nub of Baird’s case is that rarely are male politicians treated in the same way. Can you remember a male MP being pulled up over what clothes they wear? Or who will look after their children while they’re running the country? How about a photo of them in the kitchen preparing a meal for their loved ones? I couldn’t think of many, with the possible except of Tony Abbott in his ‘budgie smugglers’.
Due to the structure of the book, I felt there was a certain repetitiveness to the stories. The focus would shift to a new frame but the underlining narrative was depressingly similar. In example after example, the female MP would rise and then fall.
There’s a strong link between this work and the recent ABC TV series Ms Represented hosted by Annabel Crabbe. Many of the women in Baird’s book appear on screen to relate accounts of their time in Canberra. Crabbe also adds the historical perspective of how women first got the vote and the early pioneers in our parliaments. It took a long time for the welcome mat to be put out.
Margaret Thatcher, as Tory Party leader, visited Australia in 1976 and Baird looks at the coverage she received. Many reports mentioned her looks, less so her policy positions but one legacy of her trip seemed to be a search for Australia’s next “Iron Lady”. Another outcome appeared to be comparing each female MP to Thatcher’s iconic standard.
But doesn’t the media give all politicians a hard time sometimes? While many male politicians have been chewed up by the media, does Julia Baird present a fair account of this? I think not, but her goal here is to persuade us that women are much more likely to get a raw deal by being framed in such restrictive ways.
Overall, it’s a powerful, well-argued case, which left me feeling sad for the women involved and our democracy generally. As Baird says, we need competent, experienced people running for office and the media’s treatment of women MPs isn’t very encouraging. A recent poll of young women (18-24 years) found no-one wanted a career in politics.
Baird offers up some ideas on how to deal with the media (291). Be yourself, establish a serious, policy-oriented profile, avoid the celebrity shots, steer attention away from your personal life and cop criticism were some of them. She also says beware playing the gender card and understand that the media are not your enemies or your friends. Amanda Vanstone cautions against playing the victim and her straight-forward approach and her ability to laugh at herself earned respect.
A definite strength of the writing are the extensive notes, research papers cited and bibliography towards the end of the book, which cover over 60 pages. There’s a wealth of detail given to fill in the stories and a trove of useful resources to follow up if you’re inclined to dive in. There is, however, no index as such.
Recommendation: Definitely a book we should read and think about.
Julia Baird is the co-host of The Drum on ABC TV and the author of several books including the highly regarded biography of Britain’s Queen Victoria (2016). Her book Phosphorescence (2020) was the highest selling non-fiction title that year and won several awards. She has a PhD from Sydney University and enjoys ocean swimming.
by Julia Baird