The embodiment of authentic practicality and fortitude, the newly appointed Nationals deputy leader addressed the media with unwavering confidence. Flanked by a border of supportive crisp shirts and ties, the first woman in Australian history to hold a leadership position in the Nationals affirmed that it was an exciting time for regional Australia.
But there was a subtle moment during Thursday night’s media conference that signified a further ripeness for change.
It happened when Nash was asked: “How will this be a different leadership?” Her response, infused with a tinkly laugh, was: “Probably one of the most obvious differences — I’m a girl.”
I am a girl.
A common colloquial term for describing a female adult, playing on enchantment of youth and fresh vulnerability.
Glorious female friendships adopt the term girl to signal so many events of the heart — indeed, doing anything “with the girls” invokes familiarity and fun. A “coffee with the girls” can be soul food.
But the context in which the term is used is so important.
“I am a girl” is a sentence that trembles under the weight of all that it signifies for women.
Anne Summers reminds that women have gradually acquired a “kind of gut knowledge” that they are outsiders.
To be a girl is not to be a man. Literally, in fact, to be a girl is not even to be a woman.
When a woman refers to herself as a girl, she paints herself as doubly vulnerable.
In some contexts — such as between friends — to give of certain vulnerability is a precious human gift. But in the public moment that the deputy leader of the nationals (elect) referred to herself as a girl, she identified as a junior form of a woman — and the subconscious shift in the conference dynamic was immediate.
Nestled between the six or seven men, there was the girl.
It has been said that women who work in male-saturated environments are essentially “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t”. That is, they are damned if they don’t impress as being as “good as the men”, but they must not threaten the social order by becoming too far removed from the stereotypical feminine persona.
Consciously or not, Nash disarmed any threat to the traditional gender order on Thursday night by choosing a word to describe her status as a National leader that simply did not do her justice — a girl.
Inherent in her response was a familiar echo of the disarming way that women must carry themselves in traditionally male rural spaces, using gender as a tool to express suitable humility and self-deprecation.
More than 15 years ago in The Real Matilda, Miriam Dixson showed that as a dominant social group, men generally had been able to get women to conform to the most convenient definitions of their essential character.
It’s time that we as women become serious about changing the dialogue. The deputy leader of the Nationals (elect) is now in a position to identify publicly as an esteemed politician and effective leader of our country.
In doing so, she will exemplify the natural confidence and dignity that we must foster in all Australian women, and particularly those in the male-dominated rural sphere. It truly is time to shine.
Skye Saunders is the Associate Director of ANU Legal Workshop and Director of ANU Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice. This article was originally published in The Australian.