February 17, 2024
The Canberra Times Opinion Editorial

Joining the ‘first lady’ club: oh Jodie, what have you done?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese snaps a selfie for twitter and posts a sweet ..”She said Yes!”

So Jodie Haydon said ‘yes’, right at a time when women around the globe are increasingly saying ‘no’ to marriage. And for good reason. The data is in.

We know from reputable research that women who don’t marry and don’t have children are “the happiest group in the population”. But if we are really hand on heart truthful, many women don’t need behavioural scientists from the London School of Economics to confirm this stuff. We know it from lived experience.

The author of the research, Paul Dolan, says marriage specifically benefits men because they “calm down”.

We also know from longitudinal HILDA data (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) that a “conscientious wife” positively impacts a man’s earning power. Another bonus for any ambitious man thinking of “putting a ring on that missus”, as shock jock Kyle Sandilands crudely put it to the Prime Minister on radio last month.

The “missus”.

Everything about that title, the pejorative ownership and submission it implies, stinks. It’s not just offensive, it’s a wildly dated throwback to dark times when women had few choices outside wifedom and servitude to a husband.

Yet here we are, well into the 21st century and still men of influence speak of women this way. Albo didn’t chide the bloke. How could he? He went to his wedding. I can only hope Jodie, when she becomes the wedded ‘Missus’ has the good sense to set mates like Sandilands straight.

So, assuming the radiant, newly engaged couple marry while Albanese is still PM, Jodie Haydon, the 45-year-old never married, fun loving rugby league fan, will have to work out what she wants to be. A ‘first lady’ in service of the office of Prime Minister? Or something more? Something new? A role befitting the feminist advances women like her beloved grandmother Claire and Albo’s own courageous single mum, Maryanne, helped shape by pursuing their own, independent paths, despite living in times when their choices were not well accepted.

The task ahead for Jodie is to carve out a Heydon sized space for herself, such that she doesn’t become fully subsumed and subservient to the role or reputation of the man she marries. For a start she can choose to break with previous PM’s wives and refuse to change her name. It is utterly dispiriting to learn that some 40 years after the ‘Decade of Women’, 3 out of 4 Australian brides ditch their names to take on their husbands. Back in the 1980s and ‘90’s I didn’t know a single woman who subscribed to such identity contortion.

Next, Heydon will have to write up her own job description if she is to take on official duties as the ‘first lady’. She should also insist on a salary. It’s a job after all. With very long hours.

Until now, the role of PM’s wife has been overlaid with assumption about a woman’s duty.

That must end. If Jodie Haydon chooses to be the Prime Minister’s wife she, in theory and practice, becomes a business partner.

That fabulously feisty Margaret Whitlam set her own rules, despite living in times of narrow parameters for women. When asked about her role, she characteristically quipped, “I never did find out what was expected of me. My solution was to do what pleased me.” And she did.

That towering woman rolled up her sleeves, sharpened her pencil and got involved. Back in 1974, with Gough PM, Margaret was appointed to the International Women’s Year Advisory Committee. Although she brought her knitting along to the first meeting (some women’s liberationists in those days tended to knit during meetings: a substitute for masturbation apparently!) she played a substantive role. She traveled to Mexico as part of the official delegation to the United Nation’s World Conference on Women, and even stopped over in LA along the way, to meet with a sex workers union.

Years later Margaret took a public swipe at Janette Howard for being “useless” as ‘first lady’: “What on earth does she do with all her time?” She described Howard as “a steely woman … never contributing anything else but a smile”, chiding her for holding her husband’s hand in public.

Tamie Frazer on the other hand approached the role with dedicated vigour, committing to at least three events on her own a week. Way back in the 1930’s Enid Lyons took her job as ‘first lady’ so seriously she once delivered 10 speeches in 12 hours.

But it was perhaps Hazel Hawke who won Australia’s heart when as wife of the Prime Minister she went on television, unaccompanied by Bob, and shared the heartbreaking story of their daughter’s heroin addiction. The nation was gripped.

As it was too, for very different reasons, when ‘first lady’ Sonia McMahon arrived at the White House in the sexiest, side split dress the Nixon’s had ever seen.

Whatever it is that Jodie Heydon chooses to do in the highly scrutinized role of Prime Minister’s wife, she needs to write her own rules. Quickly.

The fact these two mature, financially independent, people are marrying at all is a feminist conundrum. Love doesn’t need it. Co-habiting doesn’t require it. It’s not as if their families insist on it. And I doubt they need a new toaster.

Sadly, despite all our pretence of being a progressive, liberal minded nation, the evidence is – we are not. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions in which the Prime Minister is welcomed at an event, along with other dignitaries and their “wives”, when no official acknowledgement is made of Jodie Heydon, standing by the PM’s side.

We saw it again on the Australian of The Year broadcast. As mere partner, Heydon didn’t rate a mention.

Helen Garner recently said “Marriage is not really set up for women to flourish”.

Jodie, I sincerely hope you find your own path, to prove that great Australian writer wrong.

Virginia Haussegger AM is a Canberra based journalist and Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra

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