What's made Julie Bishop so afraid of feminism?

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'I'm a female foreign minister. Get over it'

Julie Bishop says she doesn't describe herself as a feminist, but doesn't reject the term either.

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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.

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

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."

24 comments

  • So powerful but at the same time so weak. There are at least 3 (more) reasons in that article why Julie Bishop will never be PM.

    Commenter
    SB
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 30, 2014, 8:41AM
    • Maybe she's affriad of being associated with some of the more vocal (read radical) feminists?

      Commenter
      Sam
      Date and time
      October 30, 2014, 8:46AM
      • Why do I get the feeling that if a Labor or Greens female MP came out with the same stuff they'd be applauded unconditionally instead of criticized by all the bleating lefty stooges who've never had a productive job in their lives, the author of this article being a prime example.

        Commenter
        Tony H
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 30, 2014, 9:17AM
        • She couldn't give two hoots for women (or anyone else for that matter), especially equality for women. She's a conservative Tory. What do you expect of something who looks like she just fell out of a bird's nest

          Commenter
          tom muller
          Location
          cemtra; west msw
          Date and time
          October 30, 2014, 9:27AM
          • "...because the Foreign Minister’s success is the perfect example of class-based individualism. Individualism. Not feminism. Feminism is about acting collectively."

            Jenna you've taught me something and all of a sudden it makes sense to me why some conservative women disavow feminism because for the longest time I have been completely at a loss to understand it. I believe in collective action on many fronts. And feminism. It hadn't occurred to me that women like Julie Bishop are wary of anything that elevates the unwashed masses up to their level, even if it directly benefits their own gender. Sad really, but it makes sense why Tory women scrunch up their noses at feminism.

            Commenter
            Rachael
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            October 30, 2014, 9:52AM
            • Great article. If Ms Bishop mentioned the F word then Hadley, Jones, & Murdoch etc would lambast her for being a short haired, pant wearing, childless, unmarried witch. A leader Ms Bishop clearly isn't.

              Commenter
              Paul
              Date and time
              October 30, 2014, 10:10AM
              • Julie Bishop is not "afraid" of feminism.

                Like all independent women Julie Bishop *laughs* at feminism.

                Don't obfuscate please.

                Commenter
                MalcolmS
                Date and time
                October 30, 2014, 10:49AM
                • The problem is all in the last paragraph.
                  The feminist movement thinks it has a monopoly on supporting gender equality.
                  It doesn't. It needs to get over itself and aim for practical ends, not ideological means.

                  Commenter
                  Heisenberg
                  Location
                  thisaggression.wordpress.com
                  Date and time
                  October 30, 2014, 10:53AM
                  • She doesn't call herself a feminist because she doesn't play the victim. It's fairly straight forward I don't like her politics but she never plays the gender card and grts a good deal of respect because of it.

                    Commenter
                    Lizzy
                    Date and time
                    October 30, 2014, 11:03AM
                    • well done Julie, now please run for PM in the upcoming election and show the wingers how true feminism is executed.
                      and for the parody pretend feminists, learn a lesson, do more and talk less.

                      Commenter
                      Victorious Painter
                      Date and time
                      October 30, 2014, 11:50AM

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