Julia Gillard: self-made woman supreme | Paola Totaro

The new prime minister has taken some flak on her way up Australia's macho political hierarchy. But she can dish it too

Pinch me, I must be dreaming. One night's sleep and it seems the world has turned upside down, "down under": a woman prime minister in Australia?

Surely not. The nation that still defines its essence and spirit in male form – the lifesavers of Bondi beach, the Anzacs, Ned Kelly, the heroes of the outback – now has a woman at the helm. And an unmarried, unabashedly childless, red-headed, feisty career woman to boot.

The wonderful thing about this revolutionary moment in Aussie political history is that this first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, is not a media construct but most certainly, uncompromisingly herself: what you see (and hear) is exactly what you get.

Tough, disciplined, splendidly "couldn't give a rat's" about her broad accent and gravel-meets-steel voice, she gives the finger to the things that have, for so long – too long – defined female leaders. Margaret Thatcher went to an election, her first, as a mother and housewife, baking and cooking. She was even photographed cleaning her house.

Just five years ago, Gillard endured a roasting unimaginable in Britain after being photographed at home in her kitchen where the bench and stove were deemed too clean and tidy to be truly used.

The offending kitchen was no different to those of gazillions of single, successful working men: a fridge for drinks, a kettle for a morning coffee on the run. But being female, she was pilloried and even dismissed as lacking the qualifications to run the country because of being "deliberately barren", a comment made not by a demented radio talkback host but by a fellow MP (and, as it happens, a close friend of the former Liberal prime minister John Howard).

Gillard's hairstyles, her accent and voice, her clothing and choice of trousers, even the fact that her boyfriend is a hairdresser (apparently, too convenient) – all have come under ferocious scrutiny, unleashing a level of vehemence and voyeurism that went way beyond the norm applied to men.

Yet Julia Gillard's steely execution of her former leader, Kevin Rudd, suggests that she has learned well the lessons of political history and the ways of political men. She is intensely private and self-disciplined but manages to avoid being labelled obsessive and appears both candid and forthright.

These are all powerful traits in a leader. But the most valuable – and I suspect, rare characteristic – of this new leader is her thick skin and sense of humour. Unused kitchen? Pffft! She gave her partner, Tim Mathieson, a barbecue as a gift not long after the uproar: "She won't go near it," he said. "She bought it on that premise."

Contributor

Paola Totaro

The GuardianTramp

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