Sexism and Leadership: the Case of Julia Gillard

Photo from:  Senator Kate Lundy

Photo from: Senator Kate Lundy

In 2010, Wales-born lawyer Julia Gillard (b 1961) became Australia’s first female prime minister after she seized the leadership of the Australian Labor Party from Kevin Rudd.  Several months later Gillard and her party won the national election and formed a minority government.  Her victory over Rudd was the first time an Australian prime minister was removed by their party during their first term in office.  It would not be the last, however. Just months before the 2013 election, the Labor caucus, by a 57 to 45 vote, withdrew its support and re-instituted Kevin Rudd.

Throughout her tenure as leader of Australia, Gillard faced explicit sexist personal attacks. Following her loss to Rudd, she reflected on how her gender affected her role as prime minister and her position within her party; “I’ve been a little bit bemused by those colleagues in the newspapers who have admitted that I have suffered more pressure as a result of my gender than other PMs in the past but then concluded it had zero effect on my political position or the political position of the Labor party” (in The Guardian, 26 June 2013)

The assault against Gillard was brutal and graphic. Early in her leadership, Australian broadcaster Alan Jones referred to Gillard as a “lying cow” and a “horrible mouth on legs”. The Liberal opposition leader stood before protest signs against a carbon tax reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Julia: Bob Brown’s Bitch”, with the latter caption reducing her to the sexual toy of a powerful man. At the beginning of June 2013, a fundraising dinner for the opposition Liberal party typified pervasive misogyny. It served what it called “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail” described as “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.  While apologies have been issued, the menu’s degrading, and violent imagery was far from atypical.    Gillard has also been excoriated for her failure to confirm to hetero-normative practices, particularly her relationship with live-in partner, Tim Matheison and her public choice not to have children.  In 2013 radio host Howard Sattler, who was subsequently fired, demanded Gillard respond to the rumour that Mathieson must be gay, a clear aspersion on the normative femininity and masculinity of the couple.  Gillard’s chief political rival, Liberal leader Tony Abbott questioned the ability of a childless woman to make policy on childcare and suggested that should “make an honest woman of herself”. Undermining extends beyond the media and political opposition. One CEO of an Australian agriculture company publicized his commercial equipment as “designed for non-productive old cows. Julia Gillard’s got to watch out”.  The misogyny and rejection of women’s right to power and influence readily extended beyond personal attacks.  In one interview, when asked about the under-representation of women, Abbot asked “If it is true… that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?

While Gillard was perhaps the western world’s outstanding 21th century example of hostility to women in public life, she has had good company in facing sexist assaults.  Recurring preoccupation with Hillary Clinton’s hair and pantsuits made fashion the measure of the woman while dismissals such as the injunction to “iron my shirt” endeavoured to retire that American to the domestic realm.  Canada has fared little better as Joanna Everitt and Elisabeth Gidengil confirmed for the 1993 federal election.  The new century did not change the message.  In 2013, one radio host unrepentantly labeled Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horvak a ‘whore’ for dealing with the minority Liberal government. On the Pacific coast, Premier Christy Clark was criticized for a low cut shirt (a tempest in a c-cup, one commentator called the scandal), while the parliamentary photo of federal NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan was photo-shopped to reduce her cleavage.  Such denigration regularly haunts all female candidates for public office. The treatment of women in politics reflects pervasive patriarchal norms that devalue, fail to recognize and aim to eradicate women’s power and capacity to lead.   Gillard’s case in particular may be linked to what has been termed the Australian ‘man in crisis’ (Bode).

To the collective applause of feminists in Australia and elsewhere, however, Gillard rejected silence. In October 2012, she famously gave a fifteen-minute speech in the Australian House of Commons condemning the opposition leader on behalf of all women in the nation. “Sexism should always be unacceptable”, Gillard said, demanding that Abbott “think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society because we are entitled to a better standard than this”.

In January 2013, after some two and half years in office, Gillard called a national election for 14 September 2013.  Before losing the leadership, she warned voters that a loss for her party would mean women will “once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia’s political life”. By summer, however, polls showed only 30% of respondents casting their primary vote (Australia has an alternative vote electoral system) for Labour and Gillard was doomed to fall before Rudd’s mounting challenge.

Her ouster gives special meaning to Gillard’s publicly expressed worry about pervasive misogny: “I don’t want to see a message like that sent to … young girls,” she said, “I want young girls and women to be able to feel like they are included in public life”.   In an press release before she offered her resignation to the Governor General of Australia, however, Gillard offered a rallying cry – “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that.”  And she should be – Gillard’s strength and resilience should silence critics who doubt women’s capacity for the top jobs.

You can watch Gillard’s speech here –



Brett, Judith.  “They had it coming – Gillard and the misogynists” The Monthly.  November 2012. Retrieved from

Bode, Katherine. “Aussie Battler in Crisis? Shifting Constructions of Australian Masculinity and National Identity,” ACRAWSA ejournal, v. 2, no. 1, 2006,

Jabour, Bridie. “Julia Gillard’s ‘small breasts’ served up on Liberal party dinner menu”.  The Guardian. 12 June 2013. Retrieved from

Lester, Amelia. “Lady like – Gillard’s Misogyny”.  9 October 2012. Retrived from

Murphy, Katharine. “Julia Gillard asked by radio station if her partner Tim Mathieson is gay”. The Guardian. 13 June 2013. Retrieved from

North, Anna. “Government Website Photoshops Out Official’s Cleavage”. Jezebel. 21 September 2011.   Retrieved from

Rouke, Alison. “Julia Gillard poll bounce following misogyny speech”.  The Guardian. 22 October 2012. Retrieved from  

Rouke, Alison. “Julia Gillard ousted as Australia prime minister”. The Guardian. 26 June 2013. Retrieved from

Sanie, Ernie. “Top 10 sexist moments in politics: Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton and more”.  The Guardian. 14 June 2014. Retrieved from

“Satirical ‘Ernie’ awards for sexism awarded in Australia”.  CBC News. 27 September, 2012. Retrieved from

“Women banished under a coalition government, Julia Gillard claims”. The Australian. 11 June 2013. Retrieved from


Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir

(1942 – )

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first female prime minister of Iceland and the first openly lesbian head of state in 2009. She has served in the Icelandic legislature as a Social Democrat since 1978.

She also did much early work as a union activist, a traditional path for many left wing politicians. In 2010, her government banned strip clubs and payment for nudity in restaurants in a move that invoked a recurring debate among feminists about cash for sex. With the legalization of same sex marriage in Iceland in 2010, she married her long-time partner. In an 2010 interview with the New Statesman, she observed that “My long experience in politics tells me that egalitarian policies are the best way to unite and empower people, and are also a necessary counterweight to he sometimes dividing and detrimental influence of market forces.”



McDonald, Alyssa. 2010. “Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir—Extended Interview.” New Statesman. Jan. 15.

Kim Campbell

(née Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell) (1947-)

Kim Campbell by Wikipedia Commons user Skcdoenut.

Canada’s first and only female prime minister, in office for only four months (June 25, 1993 to November 4, 1993), Kim Campbell has long been a subject of feminist debates about representation, gender, and politics in Canada. She was also its first female Minister of Justice, Attorney General, and Minister of National Defence, in the latter case a first in NATO as well. As the first woman to have held office in all three levels of government (municipal, provincial, and federal), Campbell is often heralded as trailblazer for women. When Campbell appeared before her volunteers after being elected leader of the Conservative Party, they started chanting “Four more years!” Campbell shook her head and yelled “Ten more years!”—reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s promise to take the British Conservative Party into the next millennium.

Few would disagree that Campbell’s election signified an important milestone in Canadian history and the history of women in government. However, critics point out that the so-called “inclusive” politics championed by Campbell essentially involved a continuation of Brian Mulroney’s tax cuts and deregulation of corporations—policies that have been documented to exacerbate the wealth gaps and social inequality that feminize poverty and restrict the social and economic mobility of women. As a member of the Social Credit government in British Columbia (1983-1988), Campbell worked alongside Premier Bill Bennett, who led the way in Canada in introducing draconian cuts to social programs. Although she described herself as a feminist, critics see Campbell as firmly on the right of the political spectrum in social and economic policy. In the words of Judy Rebick, former president of Canada’s leading feminist group, the National Action Committee, “Her vision of getting women into positions of power is so limited. She supports economic and social policies that will marginalize women and keep women poor, so its basically women who are already in an advantaged position whom she is going to help get into positions of power” (as quoted in Dobbin 1993: 166). Feminists active in the women’s movement have also suggested that Campbell and other female conservative political leaders, compared to male prime ministers, are able to much more effectively marginalize the women’s movement—by claiming that they represent women and then depicting feminists who demand social change as a radical fringe (Rebick 1993). Such figures also benefit from nuanced reading of their lives that recognizes that their prominence reflects both traditional elites’ power to coopt members of structurally disadvantaged groups and the reality of multiple social locations. It matters after all that Campbell is white, straight, and middle-class.

Further Reading

Kim Campbell, First and Foremost—CBC Archives

Kim Campbell—Library and Archives Canada

Dobbin, Murray (1993) The Politics of Kim Campbell: From School Trustee to Prime Minister. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.