Tony Abbott is far from being the right person to be the self-appointed Minister for Women, writes, Dean Laplonge. Having three daughters – touted by the Prime Minister as giving him the credentials for the role – is hardly the best qualification.
Tony Abbott is not just the Prime Minister of Australia; he is also the self-appointed Prime Minister for Women. This makes him responsible for making decisions and providing national leadership on issues that affect millions of women across Australia. Of all his responsibilities in government and as the Prime Minister, this is the one he is least qualified to fulfil.
The problem isn’t that he’s a man. Within some feminist groups and Women’s Studies departments there continues to be resistance to men working on gender issues, particularly when “gender” actually stands for “women”.
Studies in masculinity have become more popular over the past few decades, but this is still a fairly small field of study. The vast majority of people who occupy academic positions in Gender Studies or Women’s Studies are women. In the workplace, it’s rare to find a diversity or equal opportunities officer who is male. This is a rather unfortunate outcome of feminism’s progress in academia and the workplace.
When Abbott announced he would assume the role of Minister for Women, this could have signalled a step forward. The title of Abbott’s portfolio emphasises women, but the Office is also responsible for giving advice and support about policies “that will provide positive benefits for women and all Australians”. Including men in this portfolio would help extend the definition of “gender” as it is otherwise understood in government policies. Men are, after all, also gendered. There’s no evidence to suggest, however, that Abbott understands this.
The continuing priorities of the Office for Women are to help women get better careers and to keep women safe. These are stock-standard foci for such an Office. Perhaps this is why the Office appealed to Abbott. Providing assistance to women suits his understanding of what feminism is. By continuing to see women as weak and in need of support, he can aim to be their patriarchal saviour. He can assume the role of their provider and protector.
But Abbott doesn’t have a degree in women’s studies. To my knowledge, he has never even taken a course on gender. He does not appear to have read such seminal feminist texts as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), or Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1999). The ideas that are explored in these and many more works about gender do not inform his ideas about women (or men).
Having daughters certainly doesn’t qualify him to hold a national public office that aims to speak on behalf of all women. This would be like saying I am qualified to run the national economy because I have a bank account.
If Abbott had expert knowledge about gender, he would be analysing how policies aimed at helping women might also have the contradictory effect of being paternalistic towards women. He would be asking questions about how it is that men seem to do better and more often avoid being harmed in society. He would be investigating the role of institutions in the construction and normalisation of gender. He would be interested in representations of gender, discourses of gender, gender identities, and gender practices.
This is all Gender Studies 101. And it’s time we started to demand that any Minster for Women know this stuff.
Dean Laplonge is a cultural theorist whose research and consulting work explores the relationship between culture and everyday practices. He is the author of GenderImpacts (https://genderimpacts.wordpress.com), a blog which explores the impacts of gender on the way we think and behave. He is also the Director of the cultural research company Factive (www.factive.com.au) and an Adjunct senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
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