The new Turnbull cabinet announced on Sunday afternoon brings to five the number of women in cabinet. This has largely been celebrated as a significant increase in the number of women in the Abbott cabinet – notably in terms of the number of women now holding senior portfolios. That is to say, there is now a group of women who wield significant power in Australian government.
At the same time however, there has been discussion about which women have been appointed. Many have noted, for example, that Senator Cash says that she is not a feminist; and Senator Cash is the Minister for Women. The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has likewise brushed aside questions of whether or not she is feminist.
For those committed to the feminist project this may not represent the ideal pathway to structural change in government policy, but I maintain that more women at the table is important regardless.
Equality for women requires fundamental structural change. Government needs to revisit policy on tax, employment conditions, superannuation, social security, and housing (amongst other things). Violence against women is now gaining some traction as a policy priority – but the time for inquiries and taskforces is over. Frontline services must be funded, including advocacy and emergency housing and resettlement assistance. Court services need to be established. Additionally, education for perpetrators needs to be rolled out. Ministerial platitudes are not enough.
All of these issues are part of the feminist project, and strategic and visionary policy alternatives would benefit from considered feminist input. I do not think though, that a feminist ideology is necessary for structural change. For example, there may be an economic imperative to increase women’s workforce participation that may drive policy, rather than one grounded in feminist ideals of women’s autonomy.
Conversely, a feminist (in) government may not necessarily implement the necessary structural change. For example, Julia Gillard is a proclaimed feminist yet led a government that wound back the single parent pension. As a result, single mothers – a largely marginalised group in society – would be required to work rather than care for their small children. I suspect that Gillard was hamstrung by the political system itself. Despite what appear to be her own convictions, she was for political reasons, unable to implement them. (This suggests a case for structural change in the way that the political process itself works.)
Having women in cabinet, or feminists in cabinet, is not a magic bullet. But there is a reason why having women in positions of power is a feminist act in itself.
Normalising women in power
Dale Spender pointed out in her book Man Made Language that we are acculturated to the voice of authority as a man’s voice. We are surrounded in our media by the faces of mature looking men and accustomed to hearing their lower register tell us important things. This is why ‘shrill’ as a criticism is a jibe at a woman’s lack of authority in her speech. It is closely related to ‘hysterical’, with all its implications of the feminine and a lack of rationality.
The predominance of men of authority in our media affects society’s perceptions in other ways. We are saturated by images portraying the importance of men in politics, in sport, as journalists, and as performers. Our children perceive that these visible roles are men’s roles. And we embed these expectations in another generation. This can only change through a far greater representation of women doing things.
The numbers of women leading our institutions remains small and the public representation of women as the face and voice of authority is correspondingly narrow. Normalising women as leaders is in my view, integral to the feminist project. There are of course, women leaders who work against the types of structural reform I mention above. It is impossible to expect that all women will be ideologically on the same page; or that all women will be seeking to advance other women in exactly the same way. We can (and must) bring the arguments up to these women as part of the process of reform. But we should do so, in my opinion, knowing that these women continue to break down some of the barriers to women’s broader representation in society.