Identity politics undermines a person’s achievements and perpetuates the lie that immutable characteristics are the most important thing about a person. Nowhere is this more obvious than in coverage of female politicians in recent elections.
Headlines celebrated Kamala Harris as the first woman elected Vice President of the United States and how she has accepted her place in history. We were supposed to be excited as ‘Jacinda Ardern appoints first Maori woman as foreign affairs minister’ and Queensland’s ‘history-making’ poll was to be celebrated because “two women [were] going head-to-head.”
The emphasise on their sex — something they did not choose, have no control over, and is irrelevant to their abilities — undermines their achievements.
In an article on Harris’ speech you need to scroll past talk of her sex, race, and outfit choice before you get to any discussion about the substance of her character, her role as a prosecutor, or educational history.
You need to do some digging before you find out Nanaia Mahuat — New Zealand’s new foreign minister — was first elected in 1996, has held a significant number of portfolios, and sat on numerous committees.
Annastacia Palaszczuk studied at the London School of Economics, served as minister for transport, and led Labor to a third-term victory with an increased majority. Queensland LNP leader for the past three years (until stepping down after the election), Deb Frecklington, was elected in 2012 and has degrees in business and law.
Why shouldn’t headlines read ‘Veteran Labor politician appointed as Foreign Minister’ or ‘Labor legacy vs. lawyer in the battle for Queensland’?
Harris, Ardern, Palaszczuk, or any other women in politics were not merely pulled off the street and thrown into a role because they needed a woman. They worked and studied hard, and their achievements should not be diluted with inane and nonsensical questions like “what is it like to be a woman in politics?” or “what does your victory mean for women?” The focus on their group identity — in this case, their gender — is at the expense of their individual talents and abilities.
There is an obvious contradiction at play here. Those who champion the idea there should be more women in politics emphasise they are just as talented, if not more, as their male counterparts. These people baulk and are downright offended when others argue measures like gender quotas place sex above merit.
As Ardern said “It is both a cabinet with huge merit and talent, which also happens to be incredibly diverse” — there is no reason to doubt this.
But when you celebrate someone because they are the first woman to achieve a specific role or political position, it’s hardly surprising some doubt their talent. By emphasising their sex over their achievements, you are suggesting the former trumps the latter.
Further, without wishing to open another front of the gender wars – male politicians do not receive this treatment. As one headline read: “Mander bows out, Crisafulli leans in: LNP leadership refresh shapes up.” I doubt the headline “Two men in LNP leadership race” would ever appear or male politicians would be asked, “what does your victory mean for boys everywhere?”
Curiously, those who celebrate women in politics will often deride certain sections of the media if they discuss a female politician’s looks or outfit choice — which is entirely fair. But it is hypocritical to focus on a female politician’s sex and then criticise anyone else who plays your game.
Finally, all this emphasis on getting women into politics and celebrating their victory for womanhood is a tad disingenuous.
If all that matters is the job is filled by someone of the female persuasion – why do their politics or party affiliation matter?
In the recent US Presidential election, there was only one woman in the race: Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen. After being told before the 2016 presidential election —and every day since — that it was vitally important for a woman to be in the White House, why did people not rally around Jorgensen?
Likewise, would a Labor supporter who thinks we need more women in politics vote for a female Liberal candidate over a male Labor one?
The answer is, and should be, no. People should vote according to their beliefs and who they think will do the best job. No one should vote solely for a woman just because she is a woman.
The current discussion on women in politics robs women of their achievements, makes them appear tokenistic when they are not — and perpetuates the myth that reproductive organs are more important than party affiliation or political beliefs.
Monica Wilkie is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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