Is politics and parenting an impossible dream?

June 25, 2010

Australia’s new Prime Minister Julia Gillard said * she made a choice to go into politics rather than be a parent. 

She was once reported as saying a mother would never be Prime Minister but she says she was misquoted

“It is not what I said, not what I meant and not what I believe,” Gillard responds fervently, adding: “I look forward to a time when a mother is Prime Minister in this country.” 

For some time, when speaking publicly about the pressures in women’s lives, Gillard has rhetorically asked the question, “Could John Howard or Peter Costello have had quite the same careers if they were women?” The question is intended to be a humorous way of getting her audience thinking. 

The point she is making, she explains, is that it is easy for some men to look at women’s choices and offer a critical view without thinking for themselves what they would have done if faced with exactly the same choices. 

“I was trying to say we need to be talking about the pressures for women,” she continues. “Not just for politicians, but for women right across the nation who live the juggle of trying to put work and family together.” 

Gillard describes the stress she sees in the life of her friend Kirsten Livermore, the Federal Member for Capricornia. Livermore is the mother of two young children and her huge electorate is based in Rockhampton in North Queensland. She regularly brings her children to Canberra, but even with her husband’s support, Gillard says, “It’s unbelievably tough to work in a highly pressurised workplace and deal with family issues at the same time.” 

It appears to be even tougher for some people than others and more of those people happen to be women. 

Does that mean politics and parenting are mutually exclusive, or at least a lot harder  for women? 

Many men manage to combine the two roles but a lot fewer women do. 

That may be because fewer women who want to be mothers also want to enter politics; or that more women who enter politics don’t want to be mothers. 

But I suspect it is also because, in spite of the gains made in gender equality, women still find it harder than men to manage demanding careers and parenthood, and politics is a particularly demanding career. 

Jenny Shipley combined motherhood and politics, but her children were at secondary school by the time she reached cabinet and young adults when she was Prime Minister. 

Helen Clark chose not to have a family. 

Ruth Richardson had a young family but in her autobiography wrote of how difficult it was to juggle pregnancy, babies and politics. 

Katherine Rich often spoke of how family-unfriendly parliament and politics were and she decided to retire at the end of the last parliamentary term because she wanted to spend more time with her family

Lots of sitting MPs, here and in other countries, are parents; some of them are women. But fewer women than men reach the upper rungs of the political ladder. 

There will be lots of reasons for that, among which is that some – like some men –  may not have the desire or ability. 

But some don’t aim for the top because they put their families first, some do by choosing not to have children, few manage both parenting and the political heights. 

The Australian says Julia Gillard’s ascension fulfils feminist dream

But at least for now it appears that the feminist dream requires women to choose between politics and parenting and that  combining politics and parenting is still an impossible dream for most women. 

* Sky TV last night, not online.


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