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It is impossible to watch the demolition of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership, even from afar, without experiencing distress that goes well beyond the circumstances of the present. I am currently in London, completing research on the marital denaturalisation of women (of which I have written in previous posts). Archival records, reaching back for decades, chart the long and halting struggle on the part of women to be recognised as full citizens – as members of the political community in their own right. Again and again, women who led the campaigns were forced to justify their entitlement even to claim this status.

Many men, equally committed to equality, supported them stoutly, and reading their speeches, one wants to cheer out loud. But, as was well understood on each occasion amendments to gender discriminatory laws were proposed, progress was like pushing sand uphill. Grains alone stuck to the top. Eventually, however, enough accumulated for change to occur. Women were ultimately able to hold independent citizenship, as well as vote and stand for parliament. But women’s political agency was not complete. Formal status as citizens did not guarantee recognition of legitimacy. It still does not.

Whatever one thinks of Prime Minister Gillard’s politics, it is clear as daylight that she has been subjected to a campaign, both from within and outside her own party, that no man would have to endure. I am not thinking of the tasteless sexist jokes or puerile comments about her clothes or appearance. Personal abuse is deplorable, but it is commonplace in politics, especially when a leader is unpopular.

Much more significant is the constant questioning of Gillard’s very entitlement to serve as a leader. The fact that in 2010 she successfully challenged former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (whose deep unpopularity at the time seems now to be forgotten, especially by him) is still held against her, three years after the event. The fact that she is spoken of as ‘untrustworthy’ for this reason alone is both astonishing and revealing. Many previous Australian leaders have been toppled while in office. It happened to Robert Menzies, UAP Prime Minister, in 1941 (he later returned, as Liberal PM, 1949-1966). It happened to Liberal Prime Minister, John Gorton, forced to resign by his own party in 1971. Labor Treasurer, Paul Keating, twice challenged Prime Minister Bob Hawke, knocking him off at the second attempt in 1991. If we were to add the ‘coups’ staged against Opposition leaders in the past, the list would be long and bloody.

But, while challenges against male leaders are certainly tolerated (and often admired), once the matter is settled, the victor is given both recognition and time. That Kevin Rudd appears incapable of refraining from challenging the Prime Minister (whether openly or not) speaks not only to his personal narcissism, but also his conviction that she cannot truly be the leader. It is inconceivable that his sniping campaign would have continued, had his defeat been at the hands of another man.

Is this a constitutional matter? It may be, if Rudd is to achieve his delusional goal of returning, sword in hand, to lead the party at the September election. The current government is a minority government, held together by undertakings on the part of Independents and minor party members. These undertakings were given to the current leader. A change in Labor leadership would unsettle this arrangement, potentially leading to withdrawal of their support. The Governor-General would then need to consider whether the Prime Minister had the numbers to govern, or whether an alternative leader now ‘enjoyed’ the confidence of the House. Rudd’s personal gain might be paid for by constitutional crisis, and the elevation to government of the current Opposition, even before the people spoke.

The very fact that we have a woman Prime Minister (and Governor-General) for the first time in Australia is a triumph in itself. But women leaders still have to fight many battles that working class men once fought (and now seem to have forgotten), in order to be seen as legitimate. The Danish TV drama, Borgen, currently showing on Australia’s SBS, is a subtle and intelligent representation of this reality. It depicts the circumstances of a country’s first female Prime Minister, fictional Danish PM, Birgitte Nyborg. It shows how thin and unstable political support can be at the best of times, and how much harder a woman leader has to work to retain it, even from those close to her. The fate of Nyborg will not comfort Julia Gillard, but it may offer a type of solidarity. I hope she watches it. I hope Kevin Rudd does, too, and that he feels ashamed of himself.