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Will Aussies elect a childless woman as PM?

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, centre, flanked by local candidate Laura Smyth, right, and Jenny Macklin, minister for families, housing, community services and indigenous affairs.


For Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, the election campaign was inevitably going to include some mention of her hair.

Not only is it the fate of every female public figure to defend her cut and colour, but for Ms. Gillard, whose boyfriend is a professional hairdresser, some discussion on the topic was unavoidable. However, what she might not have been prepared for was the reaction to her relationship with her mane man, now a styling-product sales representative.

You see, Ms. Gillard and Tim Mathieson live in sin. Not only are they not married, but the flamed-haired Prime Minister doesn't have children and, at the age of 48, isn't expected to change her mind.

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The childless, unwed leader of the centre-left Labor Party has been battling these issues throughout the campaign leading up to the Aug. 21 vote, including accusations that she would not understand issues around families and parenting because she is, as one opposition senator once put it, "deliberately barren."

The issue goes beyond the normal battle of the sexes in Ms. Gillard's campaign for the top job, which puts her up against conservative Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, 52, a married father of three.

The controversy is over her choice to skip being both a wife and mother - a double women are expected to strive for - and how uncomfortable that decision has made some people in Australia.

Shortly after she became Prime Minister, reporters asked whether she would finally marry Mr. Mathieson to help her chances at the polls.

She shot back: "If you went up to your average Australian and said, 'Would you get married because you might get a promotion at work?' they would say, 'No, I wouldn't dream of doing it.' "

An Australian sex therapist chastised the Prime Minister's "marriage lite" status, writing in one newspaper: "As a popular role model for women, her lifestyle choice may influence other women into making big mistakes about their lives."

One commentator joked: "We're used to having strong, single women with no children in charge in Australia. They used to be nuns."

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While Ms. Gillard is still favoured to win the election, her lead has narrowed significantly as the debate grew about her life choices.

"She doesn't fit a traditional female norm," according to Margot Young, associate law professor at the University of British Columbia, who specializes in social justice.

"It makes us uncomfortable because our norms don't associate women with power.  We see women as nurturing, as conciliatory, as selfless. Think about the characteristics you associate with a good mother, they are not dissimilar from what we think of how women should behave just generally."

What particularly bothered Prof. Young about the Australian campaign was when a reporter asked Ms. Gillard if she would apologize to her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, for ousting him in a party coup in June. A male politician wouldn't have been asked the same question, the professor said. "In men, it's applauded."

The Australian election highlights the unease that society has in general with women in power. In her book, Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada's Unfinished Democracy, Sylvia Bashevkin calls it the "women plus power equals discomfort" equation, citing Belinda Stronach as well as Hillary Clinton.

Of course, not everyone in Australia questions Ms. Gillard's way of life. The family-status issue has also prompted some reality checks in a country where the number of unmarried couples is on the rise and more women are choosing not to have kids.

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Herald Sun columnist Alan Howe recently cited a string of childless male prime ministers in Australia's past.

Perhaps most poignant was what happened to some leaders who did have families. In particular, former PM Joe Lyons, who had 12 children. "Naturally it all proved too much," Mr. Howe wrote, "and he collapsed and died on April 7, 1939, the first prime minister to expire in office," at the age of 59.

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About the Author

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More

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