Through her election campaign, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been asked about immigration, carbon emissions and East Timor, but above all she has been challenged about her decision, as one senator put it, to be "deliberately barren".
Gillard addressed the question with equanimity during a television interview. "There's something in me that's focused and single-minded and if I was going to do that [have a family] I don't think that I could have done this [had a political career]."
She reminds me of the actress Jodie Foster, an attractive angular face, a whipping wit, a guarded quality. And, oh, the hair. Every woman in public life ends up dependent on her hairdresser. When Hillary Clinton was asked during her campaign "Who does your hair?", she broke down in front of her New Hampshire audience.
It had triggered all her pent-up frustration and self-doubt. Even now she is outperforming President Obama, she still has bad-hair days. Gillard married her hairdresser, which was a further blow to what a former Labor Party leader Mark Latham called the crisis in Australian manhood.
A woman takes a man's job and declines to have children? Isn't the correct sequence for Hugh Jackman to walk in through the swing doors after rounding up the cattle and show her what a man and a woman are for? Australia is still, psychologically, a frontier country and is perhaps traumatised by a Glenys Kinnock figure arriving from the Welsh valleys with a progressive agenda and a feminist lip.
Julia Gillard would have fitted fine in America, where female success is not seen necessarily as the correlation of male humiliation. It must have been a culture shock for Mel Gibson, whose quaint Australian views could not be modernised by California.
Yet Gillard is not just a victim of troubled testosterone. She is philosophically siding with the reactionary right – and playing into women's deepest insecurities – when she implies that to do a job well, women must choose.
Gillard might have found an ally in the Queen, who always put public duty before maternal imperatives. And perhaps it is fellow feeling that persuades Gillard to let the Queen complete her reign before declaring Australia a republic.
The topic of whether female leaders can be good mothers is a book in the making, if it does not already exist. But whether being a mother makes you better or worse qualified to be a leader is a less explored question.
Would one ask it of men? I remember The Daily Telegraph opposing the Tory leadership bid of Michael Portillo, partly on the grounds that his childlessness affected his empathy with voters. The same was said, of course, of Edward Heath when he was Prime Minister.
I believe we should trust in imaginative empathy, and that it is crude and cruel to equate childlessness with lack of feeling. The coalition leaders parade their family-men status, but it has not lent any particular sheen or insight to their policies, so far as I can see. The truly brilliant mind reportedly belonged to the exiled gay former Treasury secretary David Laws.
Even where jobs are directly related to children – i.e. teachers – I cannot understand discrimination against the childless. Parenthood offers many joys, but spare time is not one of them.
The argument that women are somehow betraying the planet by not having children also falls apart when so many environmentalists advocate population control. Whatever Julia Gillard's fate, let her be judged as a politician, not as a Sheila, nor, hatefully, as "deliberately barren".Reuse content