What's made Julie Bishop so afraid of feminism?

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Just for one minute, focus on what she's achieved. Forget the fact that yesterday at the National Press Club, at the launch of Women in Media in our national capital, Julie Bishop said she wasn't a feminist.

But think about these achievements. She's the Foreign Minister. She's the only woman in Cabinet. She was, in order, class captain, school captain, managing partner, completer of a short course at Harvard Business School, deputy leader of the opposition under Brendan Nelson.

And of course there is this. In the 80s and 90s, she became the instructing solicitor for CSR, the parent company for Wittenoom mine. More than 2000 workers and residents have died as a result of asbestos diseases in that town – as a result of the mineral mined there.

Julie Bishop told Jordan Baker in The Australian last year: "We did everything we could to fight the case professionally - when I say fight it, to test the legal propositions, knowing that the other cases potentially rested on this . . . . did I stand there and say 'no, I have a moral objection to working on this case'? Of course not."

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Yes, Julie Bishop is not a feminist although she claims she's doing the best she can to make it easier for other women to come after her. Which can only mean that after she moves into the top job, there will be room for at least one other woman in Cabinet. There are other reasons not to call yourself a feminist – the fear your male colleagues already feel when your ambition is just like theirs. The word feminist might further terrify the strikingly incompetent.

Bishop's also not a member of any union you'd recognise as such – although there have certainly been memberships of professional organisations. There is no trace of recognition that collective action might just work, so it's no wonder that yesterday at the National Press Club she decided to make it plain that she doesn't find the term feminist useful, although she does acknowledge the women's movement.

"I recognise the role it has played. I certainly recognise the women's movement and the barriers they faced and the challenges they had to overcome."

But what was much more surprising than Ms Bishop's revelation was the disappointment of others - because the Foreign Minister's success is the perfect example of class-based individualism. Individualism. Not feminism. Feminism is about acting collectively.

It's not only that, of course. The most famous group of middle-class women in politics were the suffragettes. But these were women born of another time, they believed that working together would make change. The suffragettes were more or less the same kind of social class as Julie Bishop but acting in a different period of history.

I asked Raewyn Connell to help me get a better insight into this woman, our Foreign Minister, who has certainly benefitted from all the work of the women's movement. Connell is now a professor emerita but for decades was a professor of sociology at the University of Sydney. Now she is heading to Beijing+20 as one of the experts for UN Women. Her work on gender, class and culture is at the very top of her field. Her book Masculinities is the most cited in its field, translated into nine languages.

She explains Bishop this way: "She is the product of fifty years of neoliberalism . . . and in this environment, there is a much more insistent individualism than there was even in the same class, a generation or two ago."

But there is also increasing inequality and discrediting feminism is partly a product of that, says Connell.

"Think of the way the Murdoch press has handled gender issues over the past 30 years – you don't get brownie points for aligning yourselves with feminism."

Clearly, Bishop doesn't feel she has to. Yesterday she acknowledged her own privilege when she said this: "You're not going to get me saying that my career has been stymied because of a glass ceiling. That would be inappropriate for somebody in my position to suggest."

Connell says this kind of language – this style of discussion – is precisely the kind of thing you hear in women in business conferences, where women always want to be regarded as having got there on merit. What ever the hell merit might mean."

For the rest of us, it shouldn't matter whether Bishop aligns herself with feminism or not. It's a brief glimpse of an ungenerous nature – but perhaps politicians these days imagine they can't be generous.

Instead we will have to rely on others to spruik the benefits of feminism. As Connell says: "I'm very pleased to see public figures of any kind endorsing any action for gender equality."

So Bishop's position – not a feminist, not a believer in the glass ceiling (for herself, anyway), not someone who thinks gender counts – should not be cause for surprise or disappointment.

But it is cause for some regret. As Tracey Spicer, journalist and commentator, put it yesterday: "It's very sad that the most powerful woman in Australia doesn't feel powerful enough to be able to support equality for woman."