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. 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.1 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.2

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 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.3

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.4 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.5

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.

A major contribution of feminist and queer scholarship has been challenging these presumptions about what ‘the political’ is, while also exploring the private as a site for new forms of politics based on care and dialogue.6 However, much political science scholarship continues to disregard gender and sexuality (as well as race, class, disability and other factors)7 in a way that perpetuates the centring of white men’s experiences as ‘normal’ and ‘others’ as aberrant or exotic.8

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.9 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.10 Developing this critical view further, 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.11 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.12 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.13 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.14 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.15

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.16 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,17 women’s mobilisation within trade unions,18 white working-class Marxist-socialist feminist movements, human rights activism by and for women with disabilities,19 and migrant and refugee women’s mobilisations and community building.20

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,21 has successfully achieved legal decriminalisation of homosexuality in all Australian states and territories (from South Australia [SA] in 1975 to Tasmania in 1997).22 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.23 Marriage 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.24 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 1895, 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.25

The process of Federation and the formation of the new Constitution of Australia provided opportunities for white women to press for political rights.26 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.

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.27 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).

Historically, women as a statistical group28 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.29 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.30 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.31

In recent years, the gender gap in voting behaviour has narrowed.32 At the 2016 federal election, women were more likely than men to vote for Labor (by 7 per cent) and more likely than men to vote for the Greens (by 4 per cent).33

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 and only allows respondents to select ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ identification for gender (with no option for ‘Other’, ‘Trans’ or ‘Non-Binary’).34


For scholars of gender and sexuality, representation is not just numerical (or ‘descriptive’) but also substantive.35 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.

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.36 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’.37

Representation in parliaments

Practices of assessing parliamentary gender representation in simple terms are now well established. In October 2019, 30.46 per cent of Australian House of Representatives members were women, placing Australia 47th in the world.38 Representation differed between the two houses of parliament, with 50 per cent women in the Senate.39 While analysis of LGBTIQ+ representation has not yet been published for the 2019 election, in 2016 LGBTI representation stood at 3 per cent in 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).40 Worldwide, in February 2016 the LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative identified 180 ‘out’ lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) parliamentarians in 42 countries.41

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).42

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’.43 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 areas44 – affirms Tremblay’s point that further research is required on LGBT-supportive attitudes and parliamentary representation.

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. 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.45 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. Quotas have contributed to the doubling of women’s representation in parliaments around the world over the last 20 years.46

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’.47 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 2016, Vote Compass found that while a majority of Labor voters were in favour of gender quotas, 60 per cent of Coalition voters were against them, and men overall were nearly twice as likely as women to oppose quotas.48

The ALP has quotas in place requiring women to be preselected in 45 per cent of winnable seats by 2022 and 50 per cent by 2025.49 The Liberal Party has a target to preselect women in 50 per cent of winnable seats by 2025, but calls for binding quotas have been rejected by party leaders.50 While the Greens do not have formal quotas, the party has comparatively strong representation of women and LGBTIQ+ people (leading both the ALP and the Coalition parties in the proportion of candidates and elected representatives after the election in 2016).

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.51

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.52 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’.53

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.54

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 at times violence – whether they are involved as candidates or media commentators or are active on social media or in their communities and workplaces.55 At the same time, effective communities and networks of marginalised people are flourishing, giving support and discursive resources to members engaged in politics.56 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.


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About the author

Dr Merrindahl Andrew is program manager of the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance. She has worked as a researcher, editor, policy advocate and women’s rights activist. 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 Altman and Symons 2016.

2 Williams and Sawer 2018.

3 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.

4 Pateman 1989, 118–40.

5 Celis et al. 2013, 6; Pateman 1989.

6 Smith and Lee 2015, 55.

7 Kantola and Lombardo 2017, 1–17.

8 Celis et al. 2013, 2.

9 Smith and Lee 2015.

10 Altman and Symons 2016.

11 Moreton-Robinson 2000; Motta and Seppälä 2016.

12 Ackerly and True 2008.

13 Australian Human Rights Commission 2018; Celis et al. 2013.

14 Andrew 2008.

15 If this was written by Aboriginal women, the story of women’s politics and feminist movements would undoubtedly be different.

16 Katzenstein 1990; Staggenborg and Taylor 2005; van Acker 1999, 7.

17 Behrendt 1993.

18 Francis 2014.

19 Henningham 2014, 157–61.

20 Pallotta-Chiarolli 1998.

21 Johnson, Maddison and Partridge 2011.

22 Winsor 2017.

23 Johnson, Maddison and Partridge 2011.

24 Curtin 2014, 312.

25 Curtin 2014, 312.

26 Curtin 2014, 312–3.

27 Curtin 2014, 31–4; Koven and Michel 1993.

28 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.

29 Curtin 1997.

30 Curtin 2014.

31 Curtin 2014, 148.

32 Bean and McAllister 2015, 411-4; Curtin 2014, 148; Manning 2013.

33 At the time of writing analysis was not yet available for the 2019 election.

34 McAllister et al. 2017.

35 Celis et al 2013; Sawer 2012.

36 Sawer 2012.

37 Tremblay 2019, 108.

38 Inter-Parliamentary Union 2019.

39 Parliament of Australia 2019.

40 Williams and Sawer 2018, 647. Note: acronyms in this paragraph differ as they have been transcribed from the source texts.

41 Tremblay 2019, 91.

42 Tremblay 2019, 92.

43 Tremblay 2019, 106.

44 McAllister and Snagovsky 2018, 419.

45 Tremblay 2008.

46 Sawer 2015.

47 Matthewson 2019.

48 Williams and Sawer 2018.


50 Gauja, Buckley and Curtin 2018.

51 Williams and Sawer 2018, 646.

52 Baird 2004; van Acker 1999; Williams 2017.

53 Jabour 2013.

54 Johnson 2015; Trimble 2016.

55 Shah 2019.

56 Hutchison 2016.