Is it ever okay to talk about the physical features of a female politician? Or what she wears? This question has arisen due to the numerous references made about Julie Bishop’s shoes since the former foreign minister announced her retirement from Parliament on Thursday.
One alleged culprit in particular reprimanded for the reference is none other than Prime Minister Scott Morrison. On social media the PM has received scathing reviews for his impromptu farewell speech to the Liberal Party’s first female deputy leader and the nation’s first female foreign minister.
Like most off-the-cuff speeches, Mr Morrison’s remarks were a bit clunky and relied on things that came readily to mind, rather than the polished notes of lofty rhetoric that are delivered in prepared speeches.
Ms Bishop’s service to the country, community and the Liberal Party were “tremendous”, according to the PM. She was a “Liberal through and through”. And they shared “many things in common, not just thinking that Tina Arena is the best Australian female singer!” The PM then went on to acknowledge her passion and dignity, grace and class.
He also drew on a familiar resource, the Bible, to remark that the verse, “Well done, good and faithful servant” very much spoke “of the service that we have seen from the Member for Curtin”.
These comments weren’t witty and eloquent, but they weren’t dismissive or disrespectful of Ms Bishop either, as some have suggested.
However, Mr Morrison’s greatest insult, apparently, was to mention Ms Bishop’s shoes.
“Her successor will have big shoes to fill,” said the PM. “And we all know Julie has the best shoes in the Parliament! They will, indeed, take some filling.”
Whoever replaces @JulieBishopMP will have big shoes to fill and we all know Julie has the best shoes in Parliament.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) February 21, 2019
To make matters worse, he later repeated the terrible slur in a tweet.
Mr Morrison has many flaws as a politician, and his party undoubtedly has a problem in recognising and promoting talented moderate women. But his ad hoc speech was in no way a sexist slur or demeaning of Ms Bishop.
He had every right to mention her shoes, given their significance has been explored by political commentators (including this one) ever since Ms Bishop wore those fabulous red satin pumps to her first press conference after failing to secure the Liberal leadership.
The scarlet heels were subsequently made a permanent part of Ms Bishop’s ‘brand’ and political legacy when she donated them to the Museum of Australian Democracy.
As for commenting on the outgoing backbencher’s white dress, which PM Morrison did not do but many of us have, this was done because of its political significance – not because she wore it so well.
Over in the United States, progressive female politicians have also been wearing white because it’s a symbol of the suffragette movement, whose members wore the colour in the early 1900s as they campaigned for women’s right to vote.
A couple of weeks ago, female politicians from the progressive Democratic Party wore white to attend US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address because they reportedly wanted Mr Trump to see “a wave of suffragette white” in the audience.
One of those women, Representative Lois Frankel of Florida, told CNN that “Wearing suffragette white is a respectful message of solidarity with women across the country, and a declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned rights”.
It’s unlikely those who reported on this practice were accused of sexism or denigration. It’s also no coincidence that Ms Bishop decided to wear white for her final important announcement.
While she has said in the past that “it’s not like me to detail what I meant by a particular act” in reference to those famous red shoes, Ms Bishop could have explained her preference for white by referring to the words of the groundbreaking young American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC, as she is known, said she wore white earlier this year to honour “the women who have paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come”.
In a perfect world, Ms Bishop might have given the PM more time to prepare a farewell speech, or Mr Morrison might have tasked one of his staff to draft one in preparation for such an announcement.
It would have also been better if the PM had recognised some of Ms Bishop’s achievements, such as being the first female deputy leader of the Liberal Party, the first female foreign minister, or the only Australian political leader to actually shirtfront the Russian President Vladmir Putin over Russia’s involvement in the downing of MH17.
But just as Labor Senator Pat Dodson will be remembered for his hat, Ms Bishop may be remembered for her shoes.
That remembrance does not diminish or embellish the achievements of either politicians. It merely points to one of the things that is notable about them.