When Queensland Parliament was built 151 years ago, it was built without any female toilets, speaking volumes about who they thought the state’s main power-holders would be.
“I could feel that when I was elected in ‘95. They did have ladies bathrooms by then, but it was nevertheless – and particularly on my side of politics, the labour party – a very blokes kind of male-dominated environment.”
When Anna Bligh was elected into Queensland Parliament in 1995, she was part of the 5% of women fighting to retain their place in its walls.
During her time there and under her Premiership between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of women rose to 45%.
“All of us, every single person in this room, is living at this moment in history, at a time when the 50 years post-war to now, what we’re seeing is the largest single movement of women out of the domestic sphere into the public and work sphere ever before in human history at an unprecedented rate and scale,” Ms Bligh said in a CEDA Leadership conference.
“Because we’re all in the middle of doing it, a lot of us I think often can’t see it. But in 200, 300 years’ time when people are looking back at this moment in history, it will be astonishingly clear to them that this was one of the biggest social and economic features of this point in human history. Women out of the private sphere and into the public sphere in every shape and form.”
The name Bligh was historic before Anna was born into it.
Her great- great- great- great grandfather, William Bligh, was an English navigator, explorer and commander of the HMS Bounty when its crew mutinied against him, a fitting metaphor for the politics of today. In spite of this he went on to serve as Governor of New South Wales.
Ms Bligh grew up with her mother on the Gold Coast after her parents separated when she was 13 years old, brought on mainly by her father’s alcoholism and gambling.
These early experiences are likely to have influenced her commitment to the principles of feminism and women’s rights and her first job was working in a women’s refuge.
Ms Bligh won the seat of South Brisbane in 1995. She was promoted to the ministry in 1998 and became the state’s first female education minister in 2001. Four years later she became deputy premier and succeeded Beattie as premier in 2007.
As a young mother entering politics, she’s since revealed she spent a sleepless night nursing her sick son before her first question time in State Parliament.
Ms Bligh was asked repeatedly, ‘What’s it like doing it as a woman?’
She could have mentioned she was tired of the media talking about her shoes, or how she missed her child during long stints travelling, or how she was scrutinised more heavily because she was the first woman in her role and the threshold against which the rest of her gender would be judged.
Yet it was a question she found difficult to answer because she’d never done it is a man.
Caught between trying to escape the gender frame and wanting to show young women it was possible, Bligh’s internal dialogue was very different to the confident, sharp-tongued democrat raising her chin in parliament.
“When I search in my mind for what a leader sounds like, I can hear Nelson Mandela, I can hear John F Kennedy, I can hear Paul Keating, I can hear Winston Churchill, but I can’t hear a voice that sounds very much like mine when I think about what authority sounds like… And there’s always a conversation going on in your head: ‘have I got that right, do I sound like I’m the real deal’, when you don’t have a point of reference for it.
“So in question time, you know when I’m in the middle of throwing lines across the chamber and arguing a point that needs to be argued, there’s also part of me thinking, ‘Is my register getting too high? Am I sounding too shrill? Is this sounding like someone who knows what they’re talking about?’ It is because there isn’t a point of reference to do that. It also means that when you’re one of the minority or the only one or the first one, it’s impossible to forget your gender.”
Bligh has since described feeling the weight of the sisterhood on her shoulders and that, if she’d failed in her role, it would have been viewed as a failure for women.
Many words can be used to described Anna Bligh, but failure isn’t one of them and she’s since been awarded with the highest civilian appointment for services to politics and women, Companion of the Order of Australia.
The Hon Anna Bligh AC is speaking at the 8th Public Sector Women in Leadership Summit running in Canberra from 18 – 22 November. Bringing together many of Australia’s foremost Public Sector female leaders, including the Hon Julie Bishop, and male champions of change, the event will provide advancement to current and aspiring government leaders.