Tough Choices: News Media Accounts of Women Union Leaders

Article excerpt

The 1990s saw a revival of feminist interest in analysing news media representations of women in political positions. [1] In part this was probably due to the rise in numbers of elected women politicians and the concurrent achievement of leadership positions by women in political parties and other membership based organisations, including trade unions. Women's increased entry into elected positions was accompanied by an increased scrutiny of women's experiences and responses to their experiences by representative organisations such as unions and political parties. Gender made it onto the policy agenda although it has not yet achieved a central priority. [2]

Women citizens want more women in public life and, as audiences of news, they want more information about the personal beliefs and experiences of their elected representatives. This audience interest is important to news producers who seek to increase their audience share (particularly amongst women) to compete more successfully for advertisers. Public and media interest in how women perform as political actors has increased the amount of news coverage of their actions and stories about their personal lives. The traditional association of women with the private sphere, and their 'novelty' value, may account for some of this emphasis on the personal. It also articulates with the general trend in news reporting to increase coverage of the personal lives of public figures, sometimes referred to as the 'feminisation of news,' [3] as part of a strategy to increase the appeal of the news to new audiences, particularly women.

In this article I will argue that the opposition of women to politics, which lies at the heart of many of the difficulties women experience as political actors within the public sphere, is sustained and circulated by particular emphases in media representations of women as political actors. [4] This has significant implications for women trade union officials as well as for women elected politicians. Women within trade unions face a double challenge in attempting to communicate their achievements, credentials and experiences. Not only are they always already positioned as outsiders through their gender, but the traditional conventions of news reporting position trade unions in opposition to the presumed interests of audiences. [5]

I discuss news media representations of Jennie George as ACTU president to illustrate (and to some extent document) the problems women leaders face in combating the masculinised culture of the union movement, and indeed of public politics generally. Media representations also compound the problem by re-inscribing George's femininity and difference from the masculine norm-positioning her consistently as the Other.

Multiple Differences

In the 1870s and 1880s the Australian union movement believed it was creating the working man's paradise. It developed a strong masculinist organisational 'monoculture' [6] despite political and factional differences between unions and variations in the specific models of unionism across industries, areas of work and states. The traditional culture of the trade union movement is combative, shaped in part by its origins in defending workers against employer exploitation and in acting assertively to improve workers' pay and conditions. But this culture has also been informed by beliefs about working-class masculinity and the appropriate ways to assert, and to defend that masculinity in the face of threats to one's interests as a worker and/or as a man. [8] As Carmel Shute has argued, 'unions rely on an emotional dynamic which requires men to assert their strength. Militancy and masculinity have become conflated.' [9]

The historical emphasis on the physical strength of blue-collar workers, their necessary toughness and their militancy in pursuit/defence of their interests, [10] articulates with a number of myths about the 'good union official' (for example one who works extremely long hours, prioritises work over family, and wears ill-health as a badge of 'honour). …