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Almost twenty years ago, in the false dawn for the Australian republic that was to end with resounding defeat in the 1999 constitutional referendum, feminists drew attention to something that should have been worrying for all republicans. Australian women, opinion polls revealed, were less likely to support a republic than men. No one knew for certain why. I and others offered hypotheses: women, we suggested, were alienated by the muscular calls for Australian independence; they found the ‘Boys Own’ scenario of striking out against the Mother Country unappealing; they were reassured by the grandmotherly images of the Queen; they were turned off by the campaign’s emphasis on political leadership and the jostling within the republican movement itself. Under-represented in institutional politics, we noted, women found it hard to identify with the political changes being proposed. And, as the 1994 Civics Expert Group surveys confirmed, they felt generally less confident about political or constitutional knowledge, and this lack of confidence, we speculated, contributed to a preference for the status quo. The republican movement, we urged, needed to take these perspectives seriously, to find a way for women’s concerns to be met and their voices to be heard.

There were some responses. Equal representation in republican forums was an obvious start, and the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) took this goal seriously. It promoted female speakers at its forums, and listed alternating male and female candidates on its ticket in the election for the 1998 Constitutional Convention (at which the merits of a republican constitution were debated). Such strategies delivered a reasonable number of elected women at the Convention (although only a third of the government-appointed representatives were women). Overall, however, little changed. Women organised their own unofficial constitutional convention. It attracted little attention, and, it is fair to say, also failed to generate workable ideas to make republicanism more attractive. All the while other women were campaigning, including as leaders, in the monarchist organisations. Their task was easier; all they needed to do was oppose change. In response, despite some misgivings about the campaign, republican women rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to make change seem desirable.

All this, so long ago (my children were in primary school; they are now adults), has come back to me vividly in the last few days. Nearly fourteen years have passed since the referendum defeat. And little, it seems, has been learned. I became acutely aware of this, in contemplating a new book, Project Republic, which was launched at parliament house in Canberra last Monday. Its appearance signals what is hoped will be a fresh start for the long-cold campaign. As the author of one of the chapters (on the necessary constitutional changes for achieving a republic), I won’t offer a review. I simply note three things: first, commendably, the editors, Benjamin Jones and Mark McKenna, were responsive to concerns about gender imbalance, and the book includes an excellent chapter on ‘Women and the Republic’, by Joy McCann, in which many of the 1990s ideas about women’s disengagement have been re-voiced. But, secondly, somehow, of the twenty-one contributors to the book, only four happen to be women. And, finally ... five speakers at Monday’s launch: all men. The heart sinks.

Here, instead, I want to speculate anew on why (apart from the obvious – the blokey-ness of such initiatives) women may still be less inclined to turn republican.

Last year, when proposals for the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians were being examined, I wrote a paper surveying Australia’s referendum history and testing the record against the many theories about the low rate of success. Again, no one really knows for sure why Australians vote as they do, but there are some reasonable intuitions. Amendments to the Constitution that seem radical or gratuitous, or that appear needlessly to shift the locus of power, or involve multiple changes which cannot be disaggregated, are likely to be rejected. Amendments that would disturb the status quo without a clearly-appreciable rationale are similar. The 1999 republic referendum suffered from all these ‘faults’.

Each proposal also has its own particular hurdles to surmount. There can be no doubt, however, that a proposal that does not achieve a reasonable showing in opinion polls should not advance to the referendum stage. And polls that reveal an alignment of opinion and gender should be taken seriously. Poll results, however, only hold for a limited time. We need to think afresh about women’s perspectives. Maybe, back in 1999, women identified with the Queen, wanted security rather than change, disliked macho rhetoric and masculine leadership strategies, and felt uncomfortable about their level of constitutional knowledge. Are these still the reasons in 2013?

Probably. But the canvas has also changed. The British royal family (not just the Queen) is more popular now and certainly more attractive. Indeed, royal families all over Europe have become more popular. They have, indeed, become feminised. Although both the first and second in line to the British throne are men, many of the current European heirs are women, and changes in laws of succession have regularised what were previously anomalies (princesses without brothers). Britain’s recent succession rule change won’t apply for at least two generations, but it reflects not only a commitment to gender equality, but also a popular embrace of the legitimacy of female monarchs.

It also reflects other shifts. Royal heirs these days are permitted to marry commoners. All over Europe, as in Britain, crown princes and princesses have married non-royals. Unlike in the past (tragically illustrated in the arranged marriage of Charles and Diana) they now marry for love. Australia even has its own fairy-tale story of the ordinary girl who met a prince, disguised as a commoner, in a Sydney pub, during the 2000 Olympics, and who is now Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. The photos of young royals, and those of their spouses and their pretty children, adorn the covers of the multiple popular magazines one sees at supermarket check-out counters. They are the dignified antidote to films stars and the growing number of in-your-face celebrities. Although men, no doubt, read these magazines, it’s a sure bet that the majority of readers are women, and that a significant percentage of these readers are young. I would bet, too, that the demographic of monarchists has shifted since 1999; that the women who opposed the republic back then tended to be older but that younger women have now joined them. What monarchism seems to offer now is an attractive image of family life; young couples in love; adorable babies; beautiful clothes, a glamorous lifestyle that is at once out of reach, and also aspirational. Republicanism, in contrast, offers a colour-free story of sovereignty, a purely political (or even worse, a constitutional) object. It promises change without rationale other than the realignment of power. Its lack of appeal is compounded when men monopolise the field.

We should understand these values, not sneer at them. It is not demeaning to suggest that the monarchy, as currently imagined, is inherently more attractive to women. Politics is an unpopular domain all around the democratic world these days, and I would bet that women are especially turned-off by the growing nastiness of party political squabbles. The challenge, it seems, is to find a way of detaching republicanism from this domain: ‘aestheticising’ it, giving it the type of warmth that young royals currently radiate. I say this as a dedicated Australian republican and as a feminist; but also as one for whom happy families are a positive ideal.

I don’t know how it can be done. But, 'feminising' the republic – as has happened with the monarchy – may be a good start. We should have more female Governors-General. We should encourage the idea that the Governor-General might be transformed into our republican head of state, and that she (or he) might serve (as William Deane did, or Michelle Obama does in America) as a beloved national, even 'parental', figure. There is time. There is currently no sign of pro-republic political will, let alone a groundswell of popular opinion. Only 48% of Australians at present favour a republic (in the halcyon days, it was over 60%). Obviously a lot of men are also unimpressed. But, if the republican movement wants to make a fresh start, let's start at least with what was sidelined last time: the women's perspective.