Feminism in Australia

Here are three things I learned at a feminism conference in Sydney this week

Girls walking in the parkThat gender intersects with matters like race, class and disability doesn’t faze young women in the least, says writer Emily McGuire. Photograph: Alamy

Not a day has passed this week when the role of women in this country hasn’t been front and centre of public debate. A fortnight ago we had two women in federal cabinet. Now we have five. It’s still just 24%, but it’s a big lift, even a new bottom line. From now on, surely it will be impossible for a prime minister to appoint just one woman to the most powerful decision-making body in the land and say he’s terribly sorry, but it’s a merit thing.

Related: Women in Australian politics: data shows the gender gap has widened

We still like a “first” story, too. Marise Payne is the first female defence minister and nobody suggests she is somehow less competent than her predecessor, Kevin Andrews. Of course, having a female defence minister is likely to have little impact on our defence policy – is feminism meant to change the structure of things, or just give talented women the chance to shoot for the corner office? Will there ever be an answer to that question?

Tony Abbott's former chief of staff Peta CredlinThis week, too, former prime minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, blamed sexist stereotypes for much of the criticism of her as controlling and divisive. “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong, ” she said. That argument goes around and around because it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Some will claim she was incompetent, others that there has to be a fair dose of sexism for people to blame Credlin for the failures of her boss.

Then on Thursday, the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, made his first big costed policy announcement – on domestic violence against women. There was a $100m package that most people involved in the area thought was not enough but a good start. But it was his language that was most startling. This is a country steeped in the (male) mateship myth, obsessed with (male) sport, and where casual sexism is entirely unremarkable.

So there must have been some spluttering around the nation when Turnbull declared “a national objective to ensure Australia is more respecting of women”. Not only that, it was now going to be “un-Australian” to disrespect women. Given that the very essence of Australia since 1788 has been disrespect towards women, this may be Turnbull’s prime ministerial promise.

Peta Credlin, chief of staff to former prime minister Tony Abbott. ‘If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong.’ Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP
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