A toast to Joan Child and the fight for equality

PHOTO: This week, the women of the Labor Party fondly remembered Joan Child, who has just died at the age of 91.
PHOTO: This week, the women of the Labor Party fondly remembered Joan Child, who has just died at the age of 91.

In an era in which women were routinely dismissed as hapless housewives, Joan Child refused to be seen as an aproned anomaly. Julia Baird looks at how far society has come since the former speaker raised her glass to equality, and how far we still have to go.

In May 1974, in the suburbs of Victoria, Joan Child, a cleaner, factory worker and mother of five, was at home celebrating her election to federal Parliament as the member for Henty.

The phone trilled for hours as people rushed to congratulate Child for becoming the first female Labor member of the House of Representatives. It was just two years after the explosive victory of Gough Whitlam had ended a quarter-century of conservative rule, and Child was delirious with triumph.

When Fairfax newspapers rang and asked if they could send a journalist and a photographer to capture the historic moment, she readily agreed.

But when the photographer asked her to pose pegging her washing on the line or scrubbing the dishes, she flatly refused. Instead, she stood with a glass of champagne in her hand in front of the clothesline and beamed: a white sheet with the words “Great Going Gough” was draped over it.

Child’s defiance was significant. She would not succumb to the trick many women MPs before her had fallen for – like Senator Dorothy Tangney, who was snapped pulling a roast out of the oven, or Tasmanian MP Mabel Miller, who was pictured mixing a salad the day after her election.

Child had a lifetime of paid and unpaid housework behind her – she was eager to prove now that she was a capable politician, not an aproned anomaly.

This week, the women of the Labor Party fondly remembered Child, who has just died at the age of 91. The woman who became the first female speaker of the House of Representatives had been an inspiration and a role model, said Prime Minister Julia Gillard, referring to her “remarkable gifts of common sense, good humour and persistence against the odds”.

The woman currently occupying Child’s old chair, Anna Burke, said Child had called her on the day she became the second woman to be appointed speaker of the Lower House, and told her to “hang tough … just be yourself and don’t give them an inch”.

Joan Child was tough: a determined politician who had been widowed at 42 and worked as a cleaner to support her family and finance her political campaign. She was a consistently strong voice for women and the disadvantaged. And, crucially, she was also first among the group of women the press then dubbed the “Housewife Superstars” of the Australian Parliament, who spent many years fighting sexist, patronising attitudes towards women MPs in the media.

Joan Child was a champion of women determined to be photographed, interviewed and portrayed in the same way men were: not as hapless housewives who somehow stumbled or fluked their way into the hard, foreign world of male politics, but as women who belonged in Parliament.

In the 1920s to 1980s, female MPs were often forced to assure reporters that they would still get home in time to cook the tea in order to placate anxieties about the immense social dislocation that was feared would follow a woman walking out her front door and into the public sphere.

When Australia’s first woman MP Edith Cowan was elected to West Australian Parliament in 1921, for example, the Age welcomed it but cautioned against the start of a trend: “Were political office to become the latest craze of fashion, there would be many dreary and neglected homes throughout the country sacrificed on the altar of political ambition.”

From federation to 1972, only 42 women were elected to state or federal parliaments. In 1972, a record number of women ran for Parliament and won 16 seats – 2.2 per cent of the total, which was heralded as a remarkable achievement. After this, Child spoke frequently to women’s groups, telling them to fight back against clichés and demeaning labels, and resist the idea that the state of their kitchens represented the state of their minds, or the country.

The title housewife was then usually used as a term of diminution, implying that women who did housework were simple, ill-informed and ignorant. Headlines cried “Housewife takes to politics!” One journalist, in an article headed “Grandmother MP is as popular as ever”, wrote that, “It is easy to misread Joan Child by thinking her naïve and housewifely.”

Hence the pushback. It was not long before other women’s refusal to comply with photographers became the hook for stories about female politicians asserting themselves. Jeanette McHugh was snapped on the phone instead of her kitchen, Susan Ryan laughed when asked to pose with a vacuum cleaner, and former NSW Labor minister Janice Crosio declined requests to pose with curlers in her hair, cooking bacon and eggs for her husband for breakfast or cooking his dinner.

By the 1980s, most women viewed photos of female MPs doing housework as embarrassingly anachronistic – unless they were for the niche audience of women’s magazines. Some cliches refuse to die though; when Carmen Lawrence was elected premier of WA in 1990, instead of using a fresh photo, the Australian dug out a file photo to accompany the front page story of Lawrence standing clutching her handbag in a housing estate kitchen. The caption read, “Dr Lawrence can stand the heat.”

When Julia Gillard was opposition spokeswoman for health, she was asked without warning to come to a kitchen on a talk show set after an interview and whip up some gnocchi: it was a flop. And we are all now familiar with the national tragedy her empty fruit bowl was deemed to be: a cautionary tale for all workingwomen, apparently, even those without children.

We have not stopped asking female MPs about coping, balancing, juggling and managing today. We don’t ask them much to pose in front of ovens any more: instead, ridiculously, we suggest they greedily “want it all”. For shrugging off the nonsense, Joan Child, and instead raising your glass to the feats of the women around you, we salute you.