To the lady in the Lodge

Anya Poukchanski


Anya Poukchanski is a writer who works in various genres. She completed a law degree and a bachelor of economics and social sciences at the University of Sydney, where she was editor of the student paper Honi Soit and the magazine UR and also student editor of the Sydney Law Review and the Australian Journal of International Law. Anya’s honours thesis about the rise of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party was awarded the University Medal. Anya has served as an associate to a Federal Court judge and currently works as a solicitor.


Anya Poukchanski’s essay is a letter to Australia’s second female prime minister. In it, Anya addresses our future leader about her priorities, experiences, values and strategies, and how they relate to her gender. The letter seeks to continue an unfinished national conversation about female leadership, which began under Julia Gillard’s stewardship, but was cut abruptly short with her removal. It reflects on what may change with the passing of time, what may stay the same, and how the prime minister’s gender could affect the way she exercises the position she holds—whether in five, ten, or twenty years. Does or should a female prime minister govern differently? Does she owe a special allegiance to women, or they to her? What issues will she face with respect to the status of women and, importantly, men? And what does her ascent, with the challenges she faced along the way, tell us about the contentious and imperative goal of equality between the sexes?


We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.

—Margaret Atwood



Dear Prime Minister

First of all, congratulations! I hope you have your feet up and a shiraz in hand. I’m assuming, for your sake as much as anyone else’s, that you’ve just feted the successful close of a gruelling election campaign, and have a couple of weeks to reflect and react before your reality is blurred into unremitting hyperactivity. The last time around shows this would be better than a backroom elevation to power—and the last time around is likely to be your dogged shadow for a maddening while.

From election hangover day, the media will have been full of commentary and comparison stories. Are you like her? Are you different? Will her legacy infect your leadership and will you suffer her fate? There will have been some stories about your hair and a regurgitated photo of Not the Best Dress You Ever Wore. You are probably not surprised by this. As a woman in politics you will have long ago learned that your femaleness is a badge you wear, while maleness is the skin into which your colleagues are born. So, as Australia’s second female prime minister, you are a slightly less fabulous beast than the first, but you are nonetheless a curiosity. Just the second unicorn to wander into the clearing. Everyone naturally wants to know if there are common traits among your species.

Leadership is still a male-tinted picture. I can say that quite safely, writing now for the future. Perhaps after you, for the third or fourth woman to occupy your role, the connotations of leadership will be different. The first sign of this might be that headlines do not count how many women came before her. At present, the belt continues to be notched. The first female prime minister coincided with the first female governor-general, came soon after the first female premiers of New South Wales and Queensland, supported from somewhere in the bureaucratic web by the first female police commissioner. We arranged these people in a constellation and joined the dots. The chart showed progress. But other signs were more telling. There were fewer women in parliament than men; fewer in executive positions and on boards; fewer in highly paid jobs and many fewer in the police and military.

Prime Minister, do not be tempted to see your newly gained position as a finish line. With all due respect, there are many more important markers of equality. Mali, Pakistan and Haiti have all had female prime ministers, and on the UN gender inequality index their rankings are 141, 123 and 127 respectively, out of 186. Not even the laws enshrining equality between men and women should close this issue for you. In your own experience you will have encountered the evidence: studies showing women are still expected to be the primary carers of children and elderly people, that they use more qualifiers and apologies in their speech, that the very tenor of their voices is considered less authoritative. These are among the reasons why they hold fewer leadership positions, why they are paid between 10 and 25 per cent less for performing the same job, and why they are much more likely to live in poverty or decline into it after retirement. Legal equality can help mask de facto discrimination.

Hopefully, your presence at the Lodge will help change the attitudes behind these trends. But it can only be one (albeit prominent) story among many, to which people will only really choose to listen if it has a ring of truth. If they can catch in you, say, a glimpse of their colleague, their sister, their favourite lecturer at university. If you do not resonate with their reality then they can class you merely among that race of strange creatures, powerful women, to which their own kind do not belong, as women in England did under Margaret Thatcher.

So I am writing to you in this very public forum in aid of that cause. I hope that if the challenges you face due to your gender are discussed and addressed with clarity, level-headedness and initiative, not just by you but by those who influence and express the public will, Australia may be permanently steered toward a more stable and constructive way of dealing with gender.

So, please, Prime Minister, do not rest on symbolism. Your trail-blazing predecessor must have thought the cheque was cashed when she appointed four female departmental secretaries in one day, because on that day she also demoted the Office of the Status of Women from its ear-accessing post in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. A few months later, men with airtime were calling her a witch, and other rhyming variants. Instead, make a practical mark in a cause you may feel you have realised but which still expresses the needs of most women.

What should you do? You would not want me to tell you, even if I were game to give policy advice. There are multiple ways of achieving the same goals. Those goals have not changed, in the mainstream of feminism, since its inception. Promote women’s professional achievement. Make institutions more amenable to their participation. Make sure not just the law, but also the culture, of government does all it can to ensure women are treated with respect in the workplace and at home. Make sure your foreign policy, in particular Australia’s aid, promotes the basic, non-negotiable values of equality around the world. Listen to women’s contributions. Do not act as if there is nothing left to do.

Here is one thing you may not have thought of: you will not change much without including men in this plan. From women in some of society’s most powerful posts, such as Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter (former director of policy planning at the US State Department) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s chief operating officer), we hear the same life-learned advice. Having an equal partner at home is the basis for equal achievement in the wider world. A partner who exacts those archaic womanly duties history hung upon us drains a woman of her energy and autonomy. And worse, of course—studies show that men who fixedly play out traditional gender roles are more likely to commit domestic violence.

Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’ but a social issue, so you can reject the criticism that you are favouring one half of the population (though as privileged political populations go, that is a high proportion by any leader’s measure). It is well known that high levels of women’s education, health and workplace participation greatly improve indicators of general health, child mortality, and economic growth. Indeed, this is a first principle of our own foreign aid policy, which you have a duty to uphold and fund.

A touchstone of equality is the division of work and family duties, and Australia—unless it has changed much since the time of this writing—still has far to go. Cultural expectations and institutional failures (such as lack of available child care and patchy parental leave) that pressure women to stay home or work less deny them the liberty of work and the economy of their skills and labours. The conviction that it is a woman’s role to care for children, especially young children, is understandably pervasive—the challenge to it arose only in the last hundred years, and forcefully perhaps only in the last fifty. Many women themselves feel their urge to bear and nurture children is biologically determined, and the physical facts of maternity would seem to offer support to this proposition.

Nonetheless, research stubbornly refuses to finally confirm these notions. Both men and women show hormonal changes upon the birth of a child that incline them to care for it. Women’s greater involvement in the process, beyond the time of breastfeeding, has in modern science been primarily explained by social rather than biological structuring. The idea that children and domesticity is an inherently female role is one that you will frequently encounter in different iterations and, happily, one to which your response can be as close to uncontroversial as politics allows: women may or may not be more interested than men in staying home to raise children—either way, we have to create a situation where all parents have a genuine choice about whether or how to do it.

What is less often recognised, and what lends weight to the argument for establishing a more flexible system, is that the same cultural and institutional pressures can hurt men by cutting them out of meaningful family life, relegating them to work when they may want a substantial role in raising their children. It can also hurt children, by denying them the opportunity to build a strong relationship with their father. As James Joyner, a prominent international security analyst, pointed out soon after the death of his wife left him caring for his two young children, the work–life dichotomy is a problem for all of us, not just women.

For this reason, in doing the work of women’s empowerment you need not call yourself a feminist. Do not mistake me, that is what you will be. But the slanderous distortion of the term into a disparagement seems likely only to spread, and you would do better to spend your political capital on enacting its values rather than defending its name. The loss of the word is a loss to contemporary society. The historical tradition it invokes is important. Ideas are more distinct when they are named. But the absence of the word need not mean the dissolution of feminist values.

Addressing women of my generation, you will know that many grew up thinking feminists were angry old women of a time gone by. In some ways it is unsurprising that the 1990s saw the term hesitate. Neoliberal thinking, in its emphasis on individualism and rationality and its distrust of collective structures, was our schooling in politics. We were taught that our successes and failures were our own, which made even the latter liberating, because it was in each person’s grasp to turn their failures around. Deep, invisible paradigms such as patriarchy jangled like an ageing bogeyman. In addition, we did not want to think of ourselves as victims. Raising the banner of feminism meant acknowledging that there was something to fight against, something which continued to menace us.

It did, of course. Women continued to be sexually harassed and assaulted and discriminated against. But that chimerical legal equality won by previous generations comforted us that basic ideas were no longer in dispute. For most educated people in the West, whether they called themselves feminists or not, it was unthinkable that anyone would take away women’s right to vote, to get educated, or to work outside the home. This is the only redeeming fact about the demise of the word ‘feminism’: that it was enabled only by the acceptance of the idea itself. Facts such as that we have few women to vote for, less financial return on our education than men, or do most of the work inside the home, still need the attention of people like you.

Although promoting women’s rights serves all of society, and although you need not take up the feminist epithet, do not evade the fact that you are a woman. No one else will. Your predecessor in gender made it a policy, in her first years in office, not to talk publicly about her femaleness. Nevertheless nobody failed to notice it. She was appealed to as a woman almost as much as she was criticised as a woman. It is better to be on the front foot.

Instead, I am going to suggest something you may not like to hear, Prime Minister. It is not that, because you are a woman, your government must understand the needs of women in a more profound way than one with a male at its helm. That belies a central tenet of representative government, which is that our MPs must have the democratic imagination to represent us all, not just the people who voted for them or fit their profile. Anyway, to ask you to understand all women based on your gender would be ridiculous, given that your experience—now that you are Prime Minister—is by definition atypical.

It is, rather, that you have a moral duty to consider women. The basis of the duty is simply that you are best placed to do so. Whether through your own experience or through media attention or lobbying, questions of particular relevance to women will be kept more boldly on your agenda than your male predecessors’, and, perhaps in misguided deference to the idea I refuted above, the public is likely to give you more scope to address them. They may say you are ‘playing the gender card’, but at least they will recognise that that card is peculiarly in your hand. You should not waste this valuable opportunity, whatever you may think of its premise. ‘There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women’, said former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. I would venture it is not such a special place as to have no rowdy neighbours. I suspect that sharing these women’s circle of hell are the wealthy who do not give to the poor, the parents who neglect their children and every person who ever made a pass at their best friend’s spouse. It is about supporting those who need you.

You may feel you are paying a high price for giving such support. Media coverage is probably already a concern. You can take some bitter comfort in the knowledge that, no matter what your policies, the tone struck on the air and online would be little different. The media, at least today and with the kind of vicious tenacity that any dog owner would recognise as a long-term hold on the bone, gnaws on women with particular relish. They are classically the object, to be devoured. But they are now also the object to be discussed. Together these criteria mean that the only women met hospitably in the media are both good to look at and placid about being talked about, rather than talking. The others struggle. They get called ‘shrill’. The media is hostile to women who demand to be heard and particularly to those who have the nerve to be ugly as they do it.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany as it led the European Union through economic recession, was mocked for her supposedly awkward attempts to create the feminine image she had previously been criticised for lacking. Hillary Clinton’s hair made as many headlines as she did when she ran for president in 2008. Germaine Greer herself delivered a prime-time assessment of prime minister Gillard’s arse on a TV show meant to engender national discussion. Whether or not she was joking was lost in the general glee. The list could go on. A rather shorter list is the one of giggle grenades lobbed at the looks of male politicians. I think you will agree with me that John Howard’s eyebrows were hilarious, and they were perhaps the closest contender in Australia, making it on to the regular costume party dress-up list. But somehow, thinking over the world’s gentlemen politicians, I cannot agree that their overall appearance is proportionally more pleasing than that of their female counterparts. It is just that we are used to judging them on substance rather than image.

A big part of the problem is one you are in the wrong industry to solve. A 2007 study confirmed that stories written by female journalists make up only one third of by-lines in Australia’s national newspapers. Not one woman currently edits a national weekday newspaper. Yet more than half of all journalists are women. There has been a collective supposition that with the internet’s democratisation of expression that we will see this effect reversed. Unless there have been surprising developments, you can see, Prime Minister, that this has not been the case. Sexism moved into the wilds of the internet and, as in most places, made itself comfortable. Not only do women have a small role in many online institutions—Wikipedia, for example, has only 13 per cent female contributors, and Google only 30 per cent female employees—but the abuse and harassment that some men suppress in person comes surging out under the protection of anonymity. Online abuse, trolling, and intimidation have become a massive threat to women’s participation on the net, prompting new protective laws (yet to be tested properly), boycotts of Twitter, an open letter from the founder of Reddit asking its male users (two-thirds of the total) to please be less sexist, and spirited, sometimes highly entertaining, fights back (such as the hashtag #mencallmethings, which exposes online bullies). The most virulent and baldly misogynistic abuse directed at your female predecessor originated online, and found a nourishing home there. You will likely draw these people’s attention in the same way.

Another iteration of sexism which the internet did not create but enthusiastically amplifies is the broad brushstroking of women. This particular cultural tic is based on the understanding I mentioned at the very start of this letter, and it is one which, aptly, is likely to follow you from the start to the end of your career: that women are women, and men are people. When a woman writes (or speaks, or rides a bike, or buys a t-shirt, or goes into space) she does it as a woman. Her femaleness vies for space with the activity, and often wins. So there is women’s fiction, written by and for, and there are just books; there is women’s history, presumably the history with lady bits, and there is just history; and there is women’s (or rather, ladies’) golf, and there is just golf.

Hence the most inane question our popular culture has ever generated, in a strong field of contenders: ‘What do women want?’ I, for one, want a good sushi shop to open near my office. You, if you know what is good for you, probably want an invisibility cloak. But what that question asks, usually of a woman though sometimes, for added gall, of a man, is for one of us to give a single answer on behalf of all women. What turns women on? Do women want families? Do women want careers? What do women want to watch on TV? I hope I am wrong, Prime Minister, but I think some very silly people from both sides of the fence are going to ask you at least some of these questions.

Not only are the questions ready-made, but the answers to questions that were never asked are also given. When, as a woman in the public eye, you say ‘I think’ or ‘I want’, what is heard is ‘women think’ and ‘women want’. No wonder prime minister Gillard did not want to talk about being a woman—she was trying as hard as she could to be taken on her own terms, rather than carrying the baggage of her entire gender. It did not work. A lot can and has been said about the ‘destroying the joint’ furore of 2012, but Jane Caro got to the crux. She observed that, in accusing women of ‘destroying the joint’ by pointing to three female leaders (Christine Nixon, ex-Victorian police commissioner, Clover Moore, lord mayor of Sydney, and prime minister Gillard), talkback host Alan Jones ‘accepted the all-too-common view that while the failure of male leaders reflects only on themselves, any mistakes on the part of a female leader—whether perceived or actual—reflect on the capability of all women to wield power’.[1] You are defined by your sex, and other women are defined by you.

Your ability to lead is going to be discussed as a function of your femaleness more frequently than you will like. This discussion may be uncomfortable but it will not necessarily always be in negative terms. The traditional view that women were biologically unsuited to lead has inspired the well-meaning but misguided response that perhaps they are naturally better at it. This notion has no scientific credit, and it is a dangerous message, just like any other essentialising one that says there are inherent ‘female’ attributes. Studies show that male and female cognition is negligibly different on a mechanical level. Yet the suggestion continues to be made that women’s style of leadership is different from men’s—that it is softer, or more inclusive, or more cooperative, or has some other, supposedly feminine, quality. This may not be entirely off the mark. What remains different between the minds of men and women is the socialisation to which they are exposed. As Simone de Beauvoir so aptly stated, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ And part of that process of becoming is being taught that girls are ‘nice’, girls compromise, girls say yes, and girls care. Those are not bad qualities in a leader, though they may be exhausting or conducive to submission in personal life. In fact, research has confirmed that women’s exhibition of these traits in power is precisely a sign of their habitual marginalisation: other minority groups, both men and women, have been shown to exhibit greater willingness to listen, empathise and collaborate when dealing with a dominant power.

Even before your appointment to lead the nation you will have begun to develop your own style of leadership. It must have served you well, if it has gotten you here. However, it will have to evolve, now that you are the leader of a country rather than just a political party. You will do women a service if you are publicly proud of belonging to their gender, but belonging as any person does to a group in a liberal society: with your individuality intact. Resist others’ urges to make you an effigy of women at large, or to project your choices or values onto all women. That is, ultimately, central to the aim of feminism: ‘True equality is not making women behave like men, nor is it making us “behave like women”, but is about our capacity to choose who we are without social and institutional gendered prejudices.’ Eva Cox, one of Australia’s preeminent feminist writers, said that, and I have no doubt it is correct.

So, Prime Minister, though parallels are bound to be drawn between you and Julia Gillard, you have no more reason to think them correct than to agree to the similarities you see between yourself and any of your predecessors in the position. Her legacy has no special power over you. The fact that you are a woman does. It should influence the way you do your job—but in substance, not style. You need to pay attention to certain policy areas but your contributions will be born of your own volition, for there are many different answers to any social question—just as there are as many individuals as there are women.


Yours sincerely,

Anya Poukchanski


[1] Caro, J (ed.) 2013, Destroying the joint: why women have to change the world, UQP, Australia, p. ix.