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
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
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
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
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.