Monday, March 13, 2006

Gillard vs Gillard

Less than a year ago, Julia Gillard was interviewed by The Sunday Age on the issue of feminism. What Julia has to say on the issue is important, as she is a leading member of the Labor Party and considered to be prime ministerial material.

Her views were clear and very much in line with feminist orthodoxy. Girls, she opined, should have choices, except that the choice to be a traditional stay-at-home mum was no longer an option. In her own words:

If one suggested to a girl in school today that her future life would consist of marriage, raising children and tending the family home, she would no doubt look at you as if you had just arrived from Mars ...

... while she may not know what course she wants to chart out in her life yet, she knows work will play a role in it – and an important one. Whether for the thrill of career, the social integration of work, the pay packet or for a mix of all of them, she’ll work. (The Sunday Age 8th May 2005)

So in May 2004 Gillard’s attitude was that women who wanted to be mothers would do so by mixing their careers with motherhood. To suggest anything else was out of this world.

This is not what traditionalists like myself want to hear. We believe that the motherhood role is an important one, and that it’s a positive thing for women to be able to stay at home to raise their children.

So should we be worried? Was Julia Gillard right to declare traditional motherhood to be unrewarding and effectively defunct?

There are several reasons why we should not be too worried about Julia’s comments. First, she contradicts herself in the very same interview. Having declared that being a stay-at-home mum is too unrewarding to contemplate, she then declares of the modern woman that,

She should be surrounded by boys who grow up to be men who feel free to make the choice to be the carer, the at-home dad, the part-time working dad, to have more options than being the breadwinner.

So it turns out that being an at-home carer is not so bad after all – Julia Gillard even recommends it as a liberating option for men. It seems that what Julia Gillard really objects to about women staying at home is not that it’s unrewarding, but that it’s a traditional gender role.

This raises a further question. Is it really true that young women have rejected traditional gender roles? There are reasons to think not. For instance, a recent survey of 5,000 teenage girls in Britain found that an overwhelming 97% wanted their future partner to be the main earner in the relationship. They utterly rejected the idea of a gender role swap.

Which brings us to the most surprising evidence against the Gillard view: Julia Gillard herself. She has now revealed that she might have happily ditched her career, despite having a most glamorous job, if she had met the right man:

If I’d met a man that, you know, I was tremendously in love with and the one thing he wanted was to have kids, then obviously I might have made a different set of decisions.

Furthermore, she doesn’t think she herself could have mixed motherhood and career, despite recommending it as the only option for today’s women:

I’m full of admiration for women who can mix it together, working and having kids, but I don’t think I could have.(Herald Sun 5th March 2006)

According to Sally Morrell, in today’s Herald Sun, Gillard continues by saying,

I can understand it all at an intellectual level and I do admire it, but I think I just emotionally would have found that all very tough.

Sally comments,

That may be because of the loving way she was brought up – hands-on, no child care.

Which is the same way her sister, Alison, brought up her own two children.

Gillard can’t remember ever having a babysitter as a child and says her niece and nephew could count on one hand the number of times they’ve been babysat.

To Gillard it was always going to be an either-or decision. “You’re working at this intense, high level or you’re having kids,” she said.

Makes sense to me.

So there is a divide here between what Julia Gillard thinks intellectually ought to happen (breaking down traditional gender roles) and what she values in her own personal experience (being brought up in the care of her own mother).

The problem is that in these situations the intellectual understanding always wins out. It is thought to be more principled to follow the intellectual understanding, and to try to get young women to reject at-home motherhood, despite what we value in our own lives.

Which is why we need to tackle the intellectual assumptions of liberalism, in which traditional arrangements are considered illegitimate precisely because they are so important within our own nature that they are seen to be an unchosen destiny, rather than a product of our own reasoned choices.

If we continue to accept this liberal intellectual framework, then we won’t be able to reconcile what we understand intellectually and what is truly important in our own lives.

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