21 Gender and sexuality in Australian politics

Merrindahl Andrew

Key terms/names

backlash, bodies, institutions, leadership, numerical representation, parties, public/private divide, quotas, substantive representation, suffrage

Gender pervades social and political life.[1] It is impossible to function in the world without using gendered categories and concepts and impossible to avoid gender roles, whether one ends up conforming to or resisting them – or, as is more likely, doing a complex mixture of both. Gender is one of the perpetually unresolved matters of politics; woven into power structures but continually challenged, gender shapes many of the most fraught and controversial political issues, such as reproductive rights, welfare, violence and poverty. For feminists and their allies, gender politics offers the hope of transformation and a centuries-long record of progress towards equality.

Over the last half-century, sexuality and gender diversity have increasingly become topics of contention, with moves to end discrimination and promote inclusiveness met by intensifying attempts at conservative repression. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people’s rights and women’s rights are framed as threatening and, at times, as foreign agendas, strengthening neo-traditional sexual and gender diversity politics within nationalist political movements.[2] In Australia, LGBTIQ+ issues have become more prominent due to conflict over marriage equality and contestation about the place of sexual and gender diversity education in schools.[3]

This chapter discusses the different ways gender and sexuality are manifested in Australian politics, and the key concepts mobilised by scholars and advocates working on issues of gender and sexuality. It begins with the ways feminist and queer scholars have questioned definitions of ‘the political’ that rely on a gendered view of the public/private divide. The second part of the chapter focuses on political participation, outlining social movements that have put issues of gender and sexuality on the agenda, exploring the attainment of voting rights and considering gendered patterns of voting. The third section explains how powerful norms and ideas about leadership are gendered and sexualised, and the fourth addresses institutions, both in terms of the gendered nature of political institutions and feminist institution-building. The fifth part focuses on representation in both its numerical and substantive forms, outlining the representation of women and LGBTIQ+ people in Australian parliaments and exploring the role of political parties and quotas. The final section of the chapter discusses media, backlash and social change in the area of gender and politics.[4]

Expanding politics: questioning ‘normal’

Politics has conventionally been viewed as being about government and the public. But politics can also be defined in terms of power. Applying this broader view of politics, we can see that the apparently natural division of public and private subordinates women and children. In liberal political theory, the division between state and civil society (public and private) is established through a fraternal social contract that claims to free individuals from traditional hierarchies.[5] As Carole Pateman and other feminist scholars have shown, however, this social contract is based on a concealed ‘sexual contract’ in which the individual is implicitly understood as a man who is the head of his household, with women and children subsumed within the family – the private sphere, where men can do what they wish.[6] As Pateman argues, ‘the doctrine of “separate but equal”, and the ostensible individualism and egalitarianism of liberal theory, obscure the patriarchal reality of a social structure of inequality and the domination of women by men’.[7]

The identification of the family with the private sphere has made caring labour invisible and undermined women’s participation by associating the private with feminised and stigmatised qualities such as emotion, irrationality and the body. As politics is typically identified as being related to the state, some things are seen as being more closely related to politics than others. In particular, bodies, reproduction, sex and emotion are often seen as existing outside the state and as feminine, compared with institutions and rules, which are considered to be at the centre of the state and to be masculine.

This pattern has severely constrained attempts to address rights violations, including violence against women and children. In feminist approaches to politics, there is an attempt to question this division and challenge claims of equality, while also exploring the private as a site for new forms of politics based on care and dialogue. A major contribution of feminist and queer scholarship has been challenging these presumptions about what ‘the political’ is.[8]

These challenges have expanded the discipline of political science to consider topics such as what citizenship would look like if it was truly inclusive of women, dependence and care responsibilities, performance and appearance, and voice and interruption. However, much political science scholarship continues to disregard gender and sexuality (as well as race, class, disability and other factors)[9] in a way that perpetuates the centring of white men’s experiences as ‘normal’ and ‘others’ as aberrant or exotic.[10]

While gender remains important in political scholarship and practice, there has been a strong critique of the binary and essentialist way gender terms and categories are used. Scholars have sought to deconstruct gender, going beyond even the sex/gender distinction (sex as biological fact, gender as social construction) to focus on how power relations produce gendered subjects.[11] This project, sometimes called ‘queering’, has challenged not only patriarchal presumptions but also some of the categories on which feminists have tended to rely, such as women/men.

At the same time, the hegemonic nature of feminism, and what it includes or excludes, has been criticised. This has involved challenging the concept of ‘women’ as a unified category and recognising that gender is always intertwined with Aboriginality, race, sexuality, dis/ability, class, cultural background, migration status and other identity factors.

As well as questioning what is included in ‘politics’, it is worth considering the boundary drawn around Australian politics. Much of what is discussed in this chapter applies also in many other countries. Developments in gender, sexuality and politics are occurring at transnational levels, especially through online communications and communities, international networks and cultures, and migration.

The focus on ‘Australian’ also reflects current political power and the legacies of colonisation. Colonisation has significant gender and sexuality dimensions, including the disruption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gender roles and norms, colonial laws regulating sexuality, sexual violence and servitude, and the gendered impacts of child removal – together with concerted resistance. The legal and cultural power structures on which the Australian state was founded continue to exist, meaning that Australian politics is not culturally or linguistically neutral but distinctively British – a situation that is variously endured, contested and accommodated by people from other backgrounds.

A body of scholarship and activism is now concerned with Indigenous and decolonising perspectives on feminism, which call on participants to reflect on their own situatedness within systems of power. These perspectives identify and challenge the unearned privileges of whiteness, rather than reproducing a presumed neutral or universal conception of womanhood, which, in reality, has been derived from white women’s experiences and viewpoints.[12] They also highlight problems in the feminist critique of the public/private divide, in that this divide is shown to obscure the existence of racialised women who are denied access to the liberal private sphere – a denial played out in contemporary politics through the removal of children from Black and Indigenous mothers. Building on this understanding, Indigenous and decolonising perspectives on feminism engage in bringing to light the violence upon which the liberal social-sexual contract is based and creating new modes of politics and governance with care at the centre.

In terms of research practices, the development of feminist research ethics also requires attention to the social position of the knowledge producer and the potential for relationships and care between the people involved, and exploring alternative modes of knowledge beyond the abstract and individualised.[13] Feminist research also includes epistemological shifts towards valuing the knowledge of racialised women, including art, storytelling, music and dance, approaching this knowledge through dialogue to create new ways of speaking about and engaging in the political.

Political participation

Gender is an issue because feminists and their allies have made it so. The reason they have done so is that gender inequality and gender norms have enormous impacts on individuals and communities, including on people’s power and rights, practical circumstances (employment, income, education), safety and access to decision making.[14] The same is true of sexual and gender diversity. Without lesbian and gay liberation movements and the expanding mobilisation of LGBTIQ+ people these issues would not be visible or addressed within politics or political science. Feminist and LGBTIQ+ movements in Australia have been responsible for expanding civil and political rights, raising new issues for consideration within formal politics, achieving reforms and building new organisational forms.

In Australia, the mainstream (white) story of the women’s movement has its roots in the struggles surrounding the vote, responsibility for children and military conscription that took place towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century.[15] It is important to acknowledge that the movement was created within a colonial context and carried ideas of progress that were embedded in colonialism – an intertwined history that is now the subject of interventions from Indigenous and decolonial feminisms[16]

In the UK, USA, Australia and western Europe, these earlier mobilisations are often called the ‘first wave’. The ‘second wave’ of feminist mobilisations occurred in the same countries from the 1960s until roughly the 1980s.[17] The ‘waves’ metaphor is useful in that it identifies highly visible surges of mobilisation, but it can be misleading in that it obscures the less visible work done ‘in between the waves’ – which includes policy advocacy, work within institutions, institution building, community building, informal networks and artistic affinities.[18]

The ‘first wave’ women’s movements were largely white, heterosexual and middle/upper class, oriented towards experiences of womanhood that excluded the issues faced by other women.[19] As women’s liberation and gay and lesbian rights movements mobilised on larger scales from the 1960s onwards, the groups seen as central to the movements continued to be those that were comprised of white middle/upper class people. However, alongside these movements have been a range of other mobilisations, including Aboriginal women’s collective efforts for rights and wellbeing, separate from the feminist movement,[20] mobilisation within trade unions,[21] white working-class Marxist-socialist feminist movements, human rights activism by and for women with disabilities,[22] and migrant and refugee women’s mobilisations and community building.[23]

While the account given here centres on the gender dimension of the women’s movement and other movements, this is not to say that gender (or at least gender as understood by those in the ‘mainstream’ of the women’s movement) is, in reality, the most salient feature or ‘axis’ of oppression/privilege for the people involved. Indigenous and decolonising feminisms are among those approaches bringing other dimensions of oppression and privilege to the fore.

The gay and lesbian rights movement, which evolved into the LGBTIQ+ rights movement,[24] successfully achieved legal decriminalisation of homosexuality in all Australian states and territories (from South Australia [SA] in 1975 to Tasmania in 1997).[25]LGBTIQ+ communities have mobilised cultural power through events such as Mardi Gras and popular culture expressions of sexuality and gender diversity, many of which are international in nature. As in other countries, lesbian and gay groups created community responses to HIV/AIDS that challenged the state’s neglect of lesbian and gay lives.[26] equality (achieved in 2017) has been the most notable recent campaign in relation to sexual and gender diversity. Another important focus of contestation has been Safe Schools – a national program aiming to eliminate homophobic bullying in schools and create safe schooling environments.

Voting rights

As we have seen above, there are various forms of participation outside of formal politics that are particularly relevant for people who are marginalised in or excluded from formal politics. In systems of electoral democracy such as Australia, however, voting is seen as the foundational form of participation.

The Australasian colonies were among the first jurisdictions worldwide to introduce universal white male suffrage: the right of all white men aged 21 and over regardless of class or property to vote.[27] Women (and, in some states, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men) were excluded regardless of property. Queensland and Western Australia explicitly denied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of all genders the vote.

In 1894, SA introduced voting rights for adult women (including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women). The other Australian states and territories followed, extending voting rights to some women within the next decade and a half.[28] The right to stand for office followed somewhat later in most jurisdictions; women could not stand for election to the Victorian parliament until 1924.[29]

The process of Federation and the formation of the new Constitution of Australia provided opportunities for white women to press for political rights.[30] As a result of women’s mobilisation and support from allies, especially from SA, the Constitutional Convention of 1897 secured agreement (by only three votes) that white women would be eligible to vote and stand for the new Australian parliament. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth) established the rights of white women aged 21 and over to vote and stand for parliament at the national level but explicitly excluded ‘any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand’, unless they were already enrolled in a state before 1901.

The achievement of voting rights is often described as legislators ‘giving women the vote’. However, excluded people were not passive recipients in the process. Major mobilisations of women through organisations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Australian Women’s Suffrage Society were instrumental in persuading male legislators and voters, through interventions such as the 260-metre-long Women’s Suffrage Petition presented to the Victorian parliament in 1891, containing 30,000 signatures.[31] Those who opposed extending the franchise used arguments such as the prospect that men may have to perform housework and child care because women would be so occupied with civic concerns.

As noted above, Federation did not improve the situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and patterns of disempowerment continued. From the 1950s, however, the US civil rights movement inspired Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to intensify their efforts to obtain voting rights, among other rights. It was not until 1962 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gained the right to vote in federal elections.

Using the vote

Many early women political activists rejected the idea of pursuing political power through the established parties in favour of articulating a maternal civic philosophy that held itself above the grubbiness of ordinary politics.[32] At the same time, women political activists vigorously encouraged women voters to assess parties on their merits (particularly their positions on key issues such as child welfare and women’s economic independence). Echoes of this practice of non-partisan mobilisation can be seen in organisations such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters (1921–82) and the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) (1972 onwards).[33]

Historically, women as a statistical group[34] have voted more conservatively than men in Australia, supporting the Liberal–National (Coalition) parties more than men and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) less than men.[35] Given that left-wing parties are more likely to pursue policies supporting women’s economic equality, it might be expected that they would be the ‘natural home’ of women voters. However, women’s equality is just one issue considered by voters, and others may take priority.[36] Women may also have been influenced by the ALP’s view of labour as a right of the male breadwinner and of class solidarity as mateship.[37]

In recent years, the gender gap in voting behaviour has narrowed.[38] From the 1960s onwards, there has been a gradual increase in the percentage of men voting for the Liberal or National parties and a gradual increase in the percentage of women voting for the ALP.[39] In 2010, with Julia Gillard – Australia’s first woman prime minister – contesting the election, the gap was reversed; women were supporting Labor more than the Coalition and more women than men were supporting Labor. This shift was consistent with international trends, in which left-of-centre parties were able to narrow and in some cases begin to reverse traditional gender gaps that had seen them supported more by men than by women.[40] In the 2013 election, the gender balance shifted back so that roughly equal proportions of women and men supported Labor and the Coalition, although women were more likely to vote for the Greens than men. In 2019, women were once again less likely than men to vote for the Liberal Party (by 10 per cent), more likely than men to vote for Labor (by 3 per cent) and more likely than men to vote for the Greens (by 6 per cent).[41]

The voting patterns of LGBTIQ+ people are much less studied. The Australian Electoral Study, perhaps the key scholarly source of information about voting behaviour and attitudes in Australia, does not ask about respondents’ sexuality. It 2019 it began allowing respondents to select ‘Other’ as an alternative to ‘Female’ or ‘Male’ gender, but only includes statistics for ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ in its published report.[42]


Scholarship on women in politics has shown that leadership is associated with masculine qualities of toughness, single-mindedness and aggression. These qualities are seen as undesirable in women, as well as – via the conventional double standard – positive attributes impossible for women to fully embody.[43] Women politicians are often punished harshly for transgressing norms of femininity or leadership (constructed as mutually exclusive). Sinclair has drawn attention to the ‘power and privilege reproduced in leadership and leadership research’, which ‘reinforces the power of a narrow white male elite and continue[s] the oppression of the majority of women, Indigenous peoples and those from non-white backgrounds’.[44]

Over the last few decades, feminist studies have explored possibilities for relational, non-hierarchical models of leadership and organisational management.[45] At the same time, feminist studies of leadership are bringing to light women leaders in a variety of domains, including those usually overlooked as sites of leadership, such as environmental movements,[46] disability advocacy,[47] and children’s media.[48] While ‘post-heroic’ ideas about leadership have become more popular in corporate life, in practice, ‘rewards and promotions [continue] to flow to those demonstrating traditionally “masculine” leadership traits’.[49]

Recently, scholars have also begun to ask how sexuality and bodies (intertwined with gender) interact with concepts of leadership.[50] This scholarship has identified the association of leadership with a particular form of masculine heterosexuality and the censoring of women’s sexuality by dominant models of leadership.[51]


Institutions are not just organisations with names and legal structures; they also operate as ‘formal and informal collections of interrelated norms, rules and routines, understandings and frames of meaning that define “appropriate” action and roles and acceptable behaviour of their members’.[52] These norms, rules and routines have strong gender and sexuality dimensions and are often based on masculine expectations and practices, with major impacts on outcomes, including government policies.[53]

In studies of women in New South Wales and Victorian politics, political institutions (especially parliaments) have been found to be actively hostile to women. Furthermore, they are venues in which feminist norms such as consultation and consideration of emotions and the bonds of dependence are often derided.[54] Challenges to these gendered norms have come in many forms, such as breastfeeding in the chamber, which has led to changes to rules against ‘strangers’ being allowed onto the chamber floor.[55] Challenges over the working hours and scheduling of parliaments are another arena in which there have been attempts to give greater weight to (gendered) relational imperatives, against the (gendered) bias towards unencumbered individualism in the traits expected of parliamentarians.[56]

Feminist institution building

Under the Whitlam Labor government in the 1970s, Australia developed a (then) unique model of women’s policy machinery in which dedicated units in departments, supported by a central hub, worked to integrate gender analysis throughout the different policy areas. Women’s budget statements analysed budget commitments with a gender lens, and ‘femocrats’ (feminist bureaucrats) within government tried to maintain links with feminists outside government, particularly the Women’s Electoral Lobby.[57]

From the 1990s onwards, this model declined, in part due to rising neoliberalism and the gradual disappearance from public view of an autonomous, active and oppositional women’s movement.[58] The recent surge of feminist activity globally (including the Women’s March, #metoo and other mobilisation against violence and harassment), as well as ongoing Indigenous women’s resistance and leadership, has intensified demands for greater gender equality mechanisms. The reintroduction in 2020–21 of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Time Use Survey (a key mechanism to measure gender disparities in unpaid care labour) after a 12-year hiatus may be a sign that feminist demands for stronger women’s policy machinery are being heard.

The other major stream of feminist institution building – non-government women’s services, such as shelters and women’s health centres – has continued, now running as part of a large, under-resourced sector of government-funded but independently run community services.[59] This institutional ‘nestedness’[60] sometimes supports and legitimises women’s services, but it also makes it difficult for them to sustain and gain recognition for their distinctive role.


Across the world, much attention has been given to the participation of women (and, more recently, LGBTIQ+ people) in formal politics, measuring inequalities as well as identifying the underlying factors that structure participation, with the aim of improving the inclusiveness of existing political systems. The concept of representation is key to this ‘inclusion project’.[61]

For scholars of gender and sexuality, representation is not just numerical (or ‘descriptive’) but also substantive. This means that there needs to be a distinction between simply having a woman or LGBTIQ+ person in a position of power (numerical representation) and that representative addressing issues and adopting political positions that advance the goals of feminist and LGBTIQ+ activism (substantive representation). Many women politicians, for example, share socially conservative positions that are opposed to feminist and LGBTIQ+ activism; yet their participation as visibly feminine people in politics is still significant in itself. Feminist and queer scholarship has sought to define what difference representation makes – and could make – without assuming that underlying dynamics are automatically shifted by numerical representation.

There is evidence that numerical representation enables substantive representation, such as the collective action of women in parliament across party lines on reproductive rights during the deliberations on a drug used for medical abortions.[62] Women and LGBTIQ+ people being present in decision making affects what issues are prioritised and brings knowledge about marginalised problems and experiences into decision making. But this does not happen in the absence of countervailing forces, especially existing norms and male-majority representation, but also (at times) harassment, political violence and more subtle forms of marginalisation and exclusion. The diversity of women and LGBTIQ+ people is also not yet well addressed in scholarship on representation or in advocacy for greater representation. There is a growing understanding that the category ‘women’ is, in itself, important, but needs to be used in a more disaggregated and nuanced form also addressing race, class, migration status and disability.

Gender representation often tends to be seen as seeking parity in binary terms, encompassing the two genders that are taken to compose humanity: male and female. Manon Tremblay notes, though, that ‘the French concept of parité … is deeply heterosexist’, and human beings cannot be reduced in this way: ‘Things are much more complex’.[63]

Representation in parliaments and Cabinets

Practices of assessing parliamentary gender representation in simple terms are now well established. In January 2021, 31.1 per cent of Australian House of Representatives members were women, placing Australia 50th in the world.[64] Representation differed between the two houses of parliament, with 51.3 per cent women in the Senate.[65] While analysis of LGBTIQ+ representation has not yet been published for the 2019 election, in 2016 LGBTI representation stood at 3 per cent in the House of Representatives and 5 per cent in the Senate (compared, for example, with the UK, which had 6.9 per cent LGBTI representation in the House of Commons after the 2017 election).[66] Worldwide, in February 2016 the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative identified 180 ‘out’ lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) parliamentarians in 42 countries.[67]

Studies of electoral systems across the world have shown that proportional representation systems (as in the Senate) have a positive effect on the election of female candidates, compared with majoritarian systems with single-member electorates (as in the House of Representatives).[68] This can be seen in the Australian parliament. Yet as Wilma Rule notes, ‘Negative electoral system features have been overcome by women’s political mobilization’.[69]

Until recently, research on the gendered impact of electoral systems has ignored the role of sexuality. Manon Tremblay raises several possible avenues for inquiry, including the fact that, unlike women, who are distributed fairly evenly across different geographic areas, LGBTIQ+ people may live in quite dense concentrations. In this kind of constituency, ‘to be an openly LGBT person can be an asset in the selection of candidates’.[70] The finding that urbanisation had no impact on the 2017 Australian marriage equality vote – contrary to assumptions that rural areas are less LGBT-supportive than urban areas[71] – affirms Tremblay’s point that further research is required on LGBT-supportive attitudes and parliamentary representation.

In Australia, while Liberal women’s representation in parliament increased significantly in 1996, supported by mentoring from the party’s Liberal Women’s Forum, there have since been reductions in women’s representation on the Coalition side; women comprised only 17 per cent of Coalition MPs in 2016 (which was the lowest level since 1993)[72] and 27 per cent of senators. By September 2019, this rose to 19.5 per cent of Coalition MPs and 42.9 per cent of Coalition senators.[73] By comparison, women made up 41.2 per cent of Labor MPs and 61.5 per cent of Labor senators in 2019, while the Greens had just one male MP in the House of Representatives and five out of nine (55.6 per cent) Greens senators were women.[74]

In contrast, the number of openly LGBTIQ+ Coalition parliamentarians increased from one in 2012, when Senator Dean Smith was elected, to four (all gay men) in 2016 – the three new members being elected to the House of Representatives.[75] In 2019, the Coalition added Angie Bell as the first openly gay woman to represent a major party in the House of Representatives.[76] The ALP has three: two women senators, including Senator Penny Wong, the leader of the opposition in the Senate and shadow minister for foreign affairs, and one man in the House. One of the Greens’ nine senators (Senator Janet Rice) identifies as LGBTIQ+ and is the Greens member with portfolio responsibilities for LGBTIQ+ issues.

If parliaments are the formal venues for democratic representation, ‘the ministry [Cabinet] is the apex of political power’.[77] Women’s representation in Cabinet has increased from no women in federal or state/territory Cabinets until 1947[78] to around 27 per cent at the federal level (under a Coalition government in 2021),[79] after highs of 30 per cent under the Rudd Labor government between July and September 2013 and 27 per cent under the Turnbull Coalition government in 2016–17.[80] These are small numbers overall: only two women held federal Cabinet positions before 1983, and until 1996 there was only ever one woman in Cabinet at a time.[81] Labor governments in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have recently achieved majority representation of women in Cabinet.[82]

Jennifer Curtin observes that party discipline has very much limited opportunities for Liberal Party feminists to act as part of a broader non- or cross-party feminist agenda. The ability of women ministers in the Australian conservative parties to substantively represent women’s issues is, in many ways, hidden due to the expectations of Cabinet confidentiality.[83]

Political parties and quotas

Political parties have been both a key barrier to the representation of women and LGBTIQ+ people and a site in which people have organised for better representation. As Manon Tremblay concludes, ‘of all the cultural, socioeconomic and political factors affecting the election of women to legislative assemblies, parties are surely the most influential variable’.[84]

While research on the preselection of LGBTIQ+ people is lacking, scholars have confirmed global trends in which parties tend to place women candidates lower down party lists, nominate proportionally fewer women for safe seats and be less likely to preselect women than men as candidates for single-member electorates.[85] These trends are also evident in Australia. Since party preselection is generally the necessary first step towards election to parliament, parties have a major role in hindering or facilitating women’s representation.

In response to this, feminists and their allies have pushed for quotas to improve representation of women in parliament. More recently, quotas for LGBTIQ+ people have also been proposed. Quotas are rules about the minimum/maximum proportions of a group who are allowed or required to fill positions – in this case, in party-endorsed candidacies.

Gender quotas aim to disrupt the taken-for-granted-ness of politicians being men as well as provide substantive redress for the barriers that disproportionately obstruct women candidates. Quotas can be legislated or applied as rules within parties. Quotas have contributed to the doubling of women’s representation in parliaments around the world over the last 20 years.[86]

Different views about quotas reveal different beliefs about who is suitable for and capable of holding office. Opponents of quotas typically argue for selecting ‘on merit’.[87] Given that current ‘merit-based’ systems have produced such disparities in representation, this implies that women and other under-represented groups are inherently less meritorious. Those who support quotas see structural and cultural barriers as discouraging and excluding people who would be as capable as (perhaps even more capable than) those who have found it comparatively easy to get their ‘merit’ recognised. In 2019, Vote Compass found that while a large majority of Labor voters were in favour of gender quotas, 53 per cent of Coalition voters were against them, and men overall were twice as likely as women to oppose quotas.[88]

In 1994, the ALP introduced a quota to ensure women made up 35 per cent of Labor parliamentary parties by 2002. A further rule change in 2002, driven in part by activism from EMILY’s List, required women candidates to be preselected for at least 40 per cent of winnable seats by 2012, which was later increased to 50 per cent by 2025.[89] The Liberal Party has a target (set in 2016) to preselect women in 50 per cent of winnable seats by 2025, but calls for binding quotas have been rejected by party leaders. Instead, the party has established the Enid Lyons Fighting Fund to help close the gender gap in political finance.[90] While the Greens do not have formal quotas, the party has comparatively strong representation of women and LGBTIQ+ people.

Mechanisms to improve the representation of LGBTIQ+ people are less developed, but the ALP now has Rainbow Labor, a network operating within the party that was successful in changing the party’s policy on marriage equality. After the 2016 federal election, the Queensland State Conference of the ALP adopted the first LGBTI quota in Australia, requiring at least 5 per cent LGBTI candidates in winnable Queensland seats for state, federal and local government elections.[91]

Media, backlash and social change

Scholars including Linda Trimble, Carol Johnson, Julia Baird, Elizabeth van Acker and Blair Williams have shown how media coverage of women politicians gives platforms for gendered abuse, focuses on their appearance and trivialises their substantive contributions.[92] Women who perform femininity to an acceptable standard find that this is taken as delegitimising their value as professional politicians. Politicians who are mothers face questions about how they will be able to manage their public role while tending to their children’s needs. On the other hand, women who do not perform conventional femininity to an acceptable standard find that this ‘failure’ brings into question their ability to fulfil their role – for instance, Julia Gillard’s childlessness, which conservative commentators portrayed as making it impossible for her to relate to ‘ordinary women’. Acceptable and unacceptable performances of femininity (and masculinity) are also assessed through the lenses of race, sexuality, class and dis/ability.

As Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard was subjected to extreme levels of misogynist abuse, particularly on social media and radio, but also in ‘real life’. In 2011, the opposition leader stood in front of banners reading ‘JuLIAR … Bob Brown’s Bitch’ and ‘Ditch the Witch’ while speaking at a carbon tax rally. A Liberal–National Party fundraiser menu offered ‘Julia Gillard quail’ with ‘small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box’. [93]

Gillard finally (after having avoided referring to her gender throughout her public life) spoke out against what she saw as the misogyny of then opposition leader Tony Abbott in a speech to parliament, which was subsequently shared and viewed on social media over three million times. The opposition and the mainstream media suggested that she had ‘played the gender card’ as a political tactic, while women’s news sites and social media sharing indicated a very different and more supportive response. Trimble and Johnson have noted that the discourse of the ‘gender card’ and ‘gender war’ were used to try to silence people making an issue of inequality.[94]

On leaving politics, Julia Gillard argued that as a result of her prime ministership it would be easier for the next woman and the next woman after that. McLaren and Sawer note that, while this might be true, her treatment suggests it may well be more difficult for the next feminist.[95] The backlash against Gillard emboldened anti-feminists, and potentially increased the polarisation of views about feminism and gender equality. It is notable that, in centre-right and far-right parties in Europe, men are more likely than women to identify as promoting gender equality, suggesting that it is riskier for women to do so than men.[96]

While Gillard is a prominent example, women, LGBTIQ+ people and people from other marginalised groups who publicly engage in politics face abuse, hate speech and other forms of violence – whether they are involved as candidates or media commentators or are active on social media or in their communities and workplaces. The ferocious online attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Sudanese-Australian engineer, broadcaster and writer who made a Facebook post on Anzac Day reading ‘LEST. WE. FORGET. Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine’, are another example of hate speech at the intersection of race and gender.[97] At the same time, effective communities and networks of marginalised people are flourishing, giving support and discursive resources to members engaged in politics.[98] Backlash and community-building effects are now being recognised as key elements of social change.


More than ever, Australian political institutions are grappling with issues of gender and sexuality. At the same time, communities and movements are demanding that those with power use it to create a broader understanding of what politics is and who can be part of it. By integrating an awareness of gender and sexuality throughout the work of the discipline, political science can contribute to this process.


Ackerly, Brooke, and Jacqui True (2008). Reflexivity in practice: power and ethics in feminist research on international relations. International Studies Review 10(4): 693–707. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2486.2008.00826.x

Altman, Dennis, and Jonathan Symons (2016). Queer wars. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Andrew, Merrindahl (2014). Women’s Electoral Lobby. In Judith Smart and Shurlee Swain, eds. The encyclopedia of women and leadership in twentieth-century Australia. Australian Women’s Archives Project. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0441b.htm

—— (2008). Social movements and the limits of strategy: how Australian feminists formed positions on work and care. PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

Australian Human Rights Commission (2018). Face the facts: gender equality. Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission.

Australian Women’s Archives Project (AWAP) (2008). Carrying on the fight: women candidates in Victorian Parliamentary Elections. http://www.womenaustralia.info/exhib/cws/intro.html.

Baird, Julia (2004). Media tarts: how the Australian press frames female politicians. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

Bean, Clive (2018). Changing leaders, ‘Mediscare’ and business as usual: electoral behaviour. In Anika Gauja, Peter Chen, Jennifer Curtin and Juliet Pietsch, eds. Double disillusion: the 2016 Australian federal election, 235–53. Canberra: ANU Press.

Bean, Clive, and Ian McAllister (2015). Documenting the inevitable: voting behaviour at the 2013 Australian election. In Carol Johnson and John Wanna (with Hsu-Ann Lee), eds. Abbott’s gambit: the 2013 Australian federal election, 411–24. Canberra: ANU Press.

Bell, Emma, and Amanda Sinclair (2016). Bodies, sexualities and women leaders in popular culture: from spectacle to metapicture. Gender in Management 31(5–6): 322–38. DOI: 10.1108/GM-10-2014-0096

Behrendt, Larissa (1993). Aboriginal women and the white lies of the feminist movement: implications for Aboriginal women in rights discourse. Australian Feminist Law Journal 1: 27–44. DOI: 10.1080/13200968.1993.11077108

Brennan, Deborah, and Louise Chappell (2006), Introduction: gender and NSW politics. In Deborah Brennan and Louise Chappell, eds. ‘No fit place for women?’ Women in New South Wales politics, 1856–2006, 1–14. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Byard, Sheila (2014). Australian Federation of Women Voters. In Judith Smart and Shurlee Swain, eds. The encyclopedia of women and leadership in twentieth-century Australia. Australian Women’s Archives Project. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0639b.htm

Cameron, Sarah, and Ian McAllister (2019). The 2019 Australian Federal election results from the Australian Election Study. Australian National University. https://australianelectionstudy.org/.

Celis, Karen, Johanna Kantola, Georgina Waylen and S. Laurel Weldon (2013). Introduction: gender and politics – a gendered world, a gendered discipline. In Georgina Waylen, Karen Celis, Johanna Kantola and S. Laurel Weldon, eds. The Oxford handbook of gender and politics, 1–26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curtin, Jennifer (2014). Gender, politics and the representation of women. In Alan Fenna, Jane Robbins and John Summers, eds. Government and politics in Australia, 311–28. Melbourne: Pearson.

—— (1997). The gender gap in Australian elections. Parliamentary Library Research Paper 3 (1997–98). Canberra: Parliament of Australia.

Elix, Jane, and Judy Lambert (2014). Passionate defenders, accidental leaders: women in the Australian environment movement. In Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic, eds. Diversity in leadership: Australian women past and present, 301–12. Canberra: ANU Press.

Francis, Rosemary (2014). Trade unions. In Judith Smart and Shurlee Swain, eds. The encyclopedia of women and leadership in twentieth-century Australia. Australian Women’s Archives Project. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0438b.htm

Gauja, Anika, Fiona Buckley and Jennifer Curtin (2018). The Liberals have a serious women problem – and it’s time they took action to change it. The Conversation, 21 May. https://theconversation.com/the-liberals-have-a-serious-women-problem-and-its-time-they-took-action-to-change-it-96643

Grey, Elizabeth (2009). Challenging women: towards equality in the parliament of Victoria. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Hanrahan, Catherine (2019). Federal election: Australian women want action on these three issues – but men not quite so sure. ABC News, 1 May. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-01/vote-compass-election-women-quotas/11053956.

Henningham, Nikki (2014). ‘Part of the human condition’: women in the Australian disability rights movement. In Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic, eds. Diversity in leadership: Australian women past and present, 149–66. Canberra: ANU Press.

Hough, Anna (2021). Women in leadership: International Women’s Day 2021. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2021/March/IWD_2021.

—— (2019). Composition of Australian parliaments by party and gender: a quick guide. Parliamentary Library Research Paper (2019–20). Canberra: Parliament of Australia. https://bit.ly/3SuS9ff

Hutchison, Emma (2016). Affective communities in world politics: collective emotions after trauma. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2021). Women in Politics: 2021. https://www.ipu.org/women-in-politics-2021.

Jabour, Bridie (2013). Julia Gillard’s ‘small breasts’ served up on Liberal party dinner menu. The Guardian, 12 June. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/12/gillard-menu-sexist-liberal-dinner

Johnson, Carol (2015). Playing the gender card: the uses and abuses of gender in Australian politics. Politics and Gender 11(2): 291–319. DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X15000045

Johnson, Carol, Sarah Maddison and Emma Partridge (2011). Australia: parties, federalism and rights agendas. In Manon Tremblay, David Peternotte and Carol Johnson, eds. The lesbian and gay movement and the state: comparative insights into a transformed relationship, 27–42. London; New York: Routledge.

Kantola, Johanna, and Emanuela Lombardo (2017). Gender and political analysis. London: Palgrave.

Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod (1990). Feminism within American institutions: unobtrusive mobilization in the 1980s. Signs 16(1): 27–54. DOI: 10.1086/494644

Koven, Seth, and Sonya Michel, eds. (1993). Mothers of a new world: maternalist politics and the origins of welfare states. New York: Routledge.

Mackay, Fiona (2014). Nested newness, institutional innovation, and the gendered limits of change. Politics and Gender 10(4): 549–71. DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X14000415

Mackay, Fiona, Surya Monro and Georgina Waylen (2009). The feminist potential of sociological institutionalism. Politics and Gender 5(2): 253–62. DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X09000208

Maddison, Sarah, and Emma Partridge (2007). How well does Australian democracy serve Australian women? Democratic Audit of Australia, Focused Audit No. 8. Canberra: Australian National University.

Manning, Haydon (2013). Male and female voters: will there be a ‘gender gap’ in 2013? The Conversation, 22 April. https://theconversation.com/male-and-female-voters-will-there-be-a-gender-gap-in-2013-13183

Matthewson, Paula (2019). On merit. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

McAllister, Ian, Clive Bean, Rachel Gibson, Toni Makkai, Jill Sheppard and Sarah Cameron (2019). Australian Election Study, 2019. ADA Dataverse, V2. DOI: 10.26193/KMAMMW.

McAllister, Ian, and Feodor Snagovsky (2018). Explaining voting in the 2017 Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite. Australian Journal of Political Science 53(4): 409–27. DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2018.1504877.

McCann, Joy, and Janet Wilson (2014). Representation of women in Australian parliaments. https://bit.ly/3tYvj6y

McLaren, Kirsty, and Marian Sawer (2015). Gender and the 2013 election: the Abbott ‘mandate’. In Carol Johnson and John Wanna (with Hsu-Ann Lee), eds. Abbott’s gambit: the 2013 Australian federal election, 375–89, Canberra: ANU Press.

Moon, Jeremy, and Imogen Fountain (1997). Keeping the gates? Women as ministers in Australia, 1970–96. Australian Journal of Political Science 32(3): 455–66. DOI: 10.1080/10361149750850

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2000). Troubling business: difference and whiteness within feminism. Australian Feminist Studies 15(33): 343–52. DOI: 10.1080/713611977

Motta, Sara C., and Tiina Seppälä (2016). Editorial: feminized resistances. Journal of Resistance Studies 2(2): 5–32.

Murray, Suellen (2005). An impossibly ambitious plan? Australian policy and the elimination of domestic violence. Just Policy 38: 28–33. https://bit.ly/498xJy8

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria (1998). Multicultural feminism. In Barbara Caine, Moira Gatens, Emma Grahame, Jan Larbalestier, Sophie Watson and Elizabeth Webby, eds. Australian feminism: a companion, 232–39. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Pateman, Carole (1989). The disorder of women: democracy, feminism and political theory. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

RMIT/ABC (2017). Fact check: are there more women in federal Cabinet now than ever before? ABC News, 16 July. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-11/fact-check-are-there-more-women-in-federal-cabinet-than-ever/9033650

Rule, Wilma (1987). Electoral systems, contextual factors and women’s opportunity for election to parliament in twenty-three democracies. Western Political Quarterly 40(3): 494‒95. DOI: 10.2307/448386

Sawer, Marian (2015). The case for quotas in politics: the absence of women isn’t merit-based. The Conversation, 30 July. https://theconversation.com/the-case-for-quotas-in-politics-the-absence-of-women-isnt-merit-based-45297

—— (2012). What makes the substantive representation of women possible in a Westminster parliament? The story of RU486 in Australia. International Political Science Review 33(3): 320–35. DOI: 10.1177/0192512111435369

—— (2007). Australia: the fall of the femocrat. In Joyce Outshoorn and Johanna Kantola, eds. Changing state feminism, 20–40. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

—— (1990). Sisters in suits: women and public policy in Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Sawer, Marian, and Merrindahl Andrew (2014) The evolution of feminist approaches to leadership: social movements. In Judith Smart and Shurlee Swain, eds. The encyclopedia of women and leadership in twentieth-century Australia. Australian Women’s Archives Project. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0437b.htm

Shah, Sami (2019). What the fear of ‘getting Yassmin-ed’ says about free speech and racism in Australia. ABC News, 7 May. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-07/sami-shah-fear-of-getting-yassmined-free-speech-in-australia/11054020

Sinclair, Amanda (2014). A feminist case for leadership. In Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic, eds. Diversity in leadership: Australian women past and present, 17–35. Canberra: ANU Press.

—— (1995). Sexuality in leadership. International Review of Women and Leadership 1(2): 25–38. http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8275&context=ecuworks

Smith, Nicola J., and Donna Lee (2015). What’s queer about political science? British Journal of Politics and International Relations 17: 49–63. DOI: 10.1111/1467-856X.12037

Staggenborg, Suzanne, and Verta Taylor (2005), Whatever happened to the women’s movement? Mobilization 10(1): 37–52.

Thorpe, Nakari (2019). Australia’s first gay female Liberal MP joins the House of Representatives. SBS News, 2 July. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/australia-s-first-gay-female-liberal-mp-joins-the-house-of-representatives.

Tomsic, Mary (2014). Entertaining children: the 1927 Royal Commission on the Motion Picture Industry as a site of women’s leadership. In Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic, eds. Diversity in leadership: Australian women past and present, 253–67. Canberra: ANU Press.

Tremblay, Manon (2019). Uncovering the gendered effects of voting systems: a few thoughts about representation of women and of LGBT people. In Marian Sawer and Kerryn Baker, eds. Gender innovation in political science: new norms, new knowledge, 91–114. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

—— (2008). Conclusion. In Manon Tremblay, ed. Women and legislative representation: electoral systems, political parties, and sex quotas. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Trimble, Linda (2016). Julia Gillard and the gender wars. Politics and Gender 12(2): 296–316. DOI: 10.1017/S1743923X16000155

van Acker, Elizabeth (1999). Different voices: gender and politics in Australia. South Yarra, Vic.: Macmillan Education.

Wainer, Jo, and Nancy Peck (1995). By women for women: Australia’s National Women’s Health Policy. Reproductive Health Matters 6: 114–21. DOI: 10.1016/0968-8080(95)90166-3

Williams, Blair (2017). A gendered media analysis of the prime ministerial ascension of Gillard and Turnbull: he’s ‘taken back the reins’ and she’s ‘a backstabbing’ murderer. Australian Journal of Political Science 52(4): 550–64. DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2017.1374347

—— (2013). Julia Gillard, the media and young women. Adelaide: YWCA Adelaide.

Williams, Blair, and Marian Sawer (2018). Rainbow Labor and a purple policy launch: gender and sexuality issues. In Anika Gauja, Peter Chen, Jennifer Curtin and Juliet Pietsch, eds. Double disillusion: the 2016 Australian federal election, 641–59. Canberra: ANU Press.

Winsor, Ben (2017). A definitive timeline of LGBT+ rights in Australia. SBS, 15 November. https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/sexuality/agenda/article/2016/08/12/definitive-timeline-lgbt-rights-australia

About the author

Dr Merrindahl Andrew is Senior Project Officer for Prevention of Violence at YWCA Canberra, and a board member of Beryl Women Inc, the longest-running women’s refuge in Australia. She has worked as a researcher, editor, policy advocate and trainer. Merrindahl completed her PhD at the Australian National University, where she went on to work as a researcher. She has published articles and book chapters on social movements and feminism, as well as creating (with Mitchell Whitelaw) ‘The Institutional Harvest’, an interactive digital display tracking the establishment and survival of women’s agencies and services in Australia.

  1. Revised by the author in 2021. Andrew, Merrindahl (2024). Gender and sexuality in Australian politics. In Nicholas Barry, Alan Fenna, Zareh Ghazarian, Yvonne Haigh and Diana Perche, eds. Australian politics and policy: 2024. Sydney: Sydney University Press. DOI: 10.30722/sup.9781743329542.
  2. Altman and Symons 2016.
  3. Williams and Sawer 2018.
  4. At places throughout this chapter I use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in a simplistic, binary way. I acknowledge that this is not an accurate way to encompass differences in gender and that it excludes people who are gender diverse. My use of these terms in this way reflects the fact that much of the research I am summarising in the field of politics, as in scholarship generally, employs this model of gender, and I acknowledge the value of scholarship that tries to move beyond this binary.
  5. Pateman 1989, 118–40.
  6. Celis et al. 2013, 6; Pateman 1989.
  7. Pateman 1989, 120.
  8. Smith and Lee 2015, 55.
  9. Kantola and Lombardo 2017, 1–17.
  10. Celis et al. 2013, 2.
  11. Smith and Lee 2015.
  12. Moreton-Robinson 2000; Motta and Seppälä 2016.
  13. Ackerly and True 2008.
  14. Australian Human Rights Commission 2018; Celis et al. 2013.
  15. Andrew 2008.
  16. If this was written by Aboriginal women, the story of women’s politics and feminist movements would undoubtedly be different.
  17. van Acker 1999, 7.
  18. Katzenstein 1990; Staggenborg and Taylor 2005.
  19. van Acker 1999, 7.
  20. Behrendt 1993.
  21. Francis 2014.
  22. Henningham 2014, 157–61.
  23. Pallotta-Chiarolli 1998.
  24. Johnson, Maddison and Partridge 2011.
  25. Winsor 2017.
  26. Johnson, Maddison and Partridge 2011.
  27. Curtin 2014, 312.
  28. Curtin 2014, 312.
  29. AWAP 2008.
  30. Curtin 2014, 312–3.
  31. Curtin 2014, 312–3.
  32. Curtin 2014, 31–4; Koven and Michel 1993.
  33. Andrew 2014; Byard 2014.
  34. This non-disaggregated measure obscures voting differences by class, race and other factors. Many women would have been voting less conservatively than white middle- and upper-class women and men.
  35. Curtin 1997.
  36. Curtin 2014.
  37. Curtin 2014, 148.
  38. Bean and McAllister 2015, 41–4.
  39. Manning 2013.
  40. McAllister cited in Manning 2013.
  41. Cameron and McAllister 2019, 17.
  42. McAllister et al. 2019.
  43. Sinclair 2014.
  44. Sinclair 2014, 28.
  45. Sawer and Andrew 2014.
  46. Elix and Lambert 2014.
  47. Henningham 2014.
  48. Tomsic 2014.
  49. Sawer and Andrew 2014, 296.
  50. Bell and Sinclair 2016.
  51. Sinclair 1995.
  52. Mackay, Munro and Waylen 2009, 255.
  53. Brennan and Chappell 2006, 3.
  54. Brennan and Chappell 2006; Grey 2009.
  55. Grey 2009.
  56. Grey 2009, 205–10.
  57. Sawer 1990.
  58. Maddison and Partridge 2007; Sawer 2007, 40.
  59. Murray 2005; Wainer and Peck 1995.
  60. Mackay 2014.
  61. Squires cited in Celis et al. 2013, 9.
  62. Sawer 2012.
  63. Tremblay 2019, 108.
  64. Inter-Parliamentary Union 2021.
  65. Inter-Parliamentary Union 2021.
  66. Williams and Sawer 2018, 647. Note: acronyms in this paragraph differ as they have been transcribed from the source texts.
  67. Tremblay 2019, 91.
  68. Tremblay 2019, 92.
  69. Rule 1987, 495.
  70. Tremblay 2019, 106.
  71. McAllister and Snagovsky 2018, 419.
  72. Williams and Sawer 2018.
  73. Hough 2019.
  74. Hough 2019.
  75. Williams and Sawer 2018.
  76. Thorpe 2019.
  77. Moon and Fountain 1997.
  78. McCann and Wilson 2014.
  79. Hough 2021.
  80. RMIT/ABC 2017.
  81. RMIT/ABC 2017.
  82. Hough 2021.
  83. Curtin 2014, 152.
  84. Tremblay 2008, 234.
  85. Tremblay 2008.
  86. Sawer 2015.
  87. Matthewson 2019.
  88. Hanrahan 2019.
  89. https://www.emilyslist.org.au/
  90. Gauja, Buckley and Curtin 2018.
  91. Williams and Sawer 2018, 646.
  92. Baird 2004; van Acker 1999; Williams 2017.
  93. Jabour 2013.
  94. Johnson 2015; Trimble 2016.
  95. McLaren and Sawer 2015.
  96. Celis and Erzeel cited in Williams and Sawer 2018, 642.
  97. Shah 2019.
  98. Hutchison 2016.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Australian Politics and Policy Copyright © 2024 by Merrindahl Andrew is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book