Continuing our series on women in federal politics, we meet the Hon Kate Ellis MP (ALP), Federal Member for Adelaide, Minister for Early Childhood, Childcare and Youth, Minister for Employment Participation and Minister for the Status of Women.
The 43rd Australian Parliament was extraordinary for several reasons but perhaps most notably for how Labor women confronted sexism and misogyny.
Julia Gillard wasn’t the only woman subjected to sexist undertones, nor was she the only one to rail against it. Adelaide MP Kate Ellis says she considers it a duty to speak out against sexism.
“I actually think it’s really important for women who are in a position [of power] to have their voices heard and who are regarded as role models for other women to speak out about injustices, speak out about sexism and call it what it is,” Ms Ellis told Australian Women Online.
In her third term, her second in the ministry, Kate Ellis dealt with unwanted attention about her looks and style of dress and was shouted down on the ABC’s Q and A program by men who didn’t care to hear her opinion. Commentary too often focused on her high-heels, a leather skirt, or that she was labelled as the “sexiest MP”, rather than her performance in the policy areas of childcare, education and promoting a healthy body image.
Kate considers such talk illustrative of how professional women can be reduced by superficial labels. The self-described feminist says it only motivated her to advocate for greater respect of women.
“I think it is the role of feminists to make sure we continue on the battle to get equal rights, and to get fair treatment, and to see women take up a position in society that we have been held back from for far too long,” she said.
“We continue to be under-represented in the top echelon. Whether it is politics, whether it is business, whether its in income or a whole lot of other things, there is a lot of work that people have fought to achieve for decades and I think that we still have to carry on.”
When Kate Ellis chose to pose for a photo shoot for the now defunct fashion magazine Grazia in 2010, the critics condemned her for it. Some felt the glossy pictures sent mixed messages to young women about the importance of looks and what they should aspire to.
“At the time I was working on promoting positive body image and highlighting the role that magazines play in putting forward what are unrealistic expectations for a lot of women,” Ms Ellis explains. “So when they said they would do a feature on the issue and on the action that we were taking about, I thought that was a pretty good way to get the message out.”
Nonetheless, she managed to take all the criticism in her stride. “In my line of work there is normally mixed reactions and criticisms to everything you do,” she said.
“I know there are people who wish I didn’t wear high-heels. I know there are people who wish people would dress differently. Women are always getting other people’s views on that. If you dress too dowdy you’re criticised. If you dress too sexy you’re criticised. I think, in the end, people just have to make a decision on what’s right for them and go with it. I know that those choices will be criticised by some but I will absolutely defend the rights of women to make those choices to begin with.”
The positive body image campaign didn’t end with the magazine article. Kate Ellis worked with the fashion industry to implement a voluntary code of conduct to promote natural images and an annual award for companies that uphold it.
As Minister for Early Childhood, Childcare and Youth, she considers reforms in early education as her most significant achievement to date. Those include better-educated and paid childcare workers, more flexible operating hours, increasing the rebate from 30 to 50 per cent and fortnightly payment of rebates.
“If we can step in and give children the best start in life, it really does make a huge difference to what they’ll end up going on to achieving and attaining throughout the rest of their lives,” Ms Ellis said proudly.
These reforms were inspired in part by her mother. When still a child, Kate Ellis wanted to follow her mother into a teaching career. Although she didn’t, Minister Ellis says the principles and respect for education she learnt from her mother, inform her work in politics.
Kate Ellis studied international affairs at Flinders University, where, she says, her involvement in the student union ‘politicised’ her. She aspired to be a journalist or a diplomat for a time but after campaigning for a republic before the 1999 referendum, she was asked by the Australian Labor Party to consider politics.
In 2004, at the age of 27, Kate Ellis became the youngest woman elected to the House of Representatives.
“I think it was actually just the realisation that you can’t sit back and complain and yell at the television and throw the paper unless you’re prepared to put your hand up and do something about it,” she said of her path into politics. Three years later, she became the youngest Federal Minister in the history of Australian politics.
When Kate Ellis married the editor of News.com.au David Penberthy in February this year, she became the proud stepmother of Penberthy’s two children, but says she has no immediate plans to have children of her own. “I have two beautiful stepchildren, so I have the best of both lives,” she says, “Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have children, but I’ve got my hands full for now.”
With the election less than four weeks away, Kate Ellis remains as passionate as ever and says she will be standing for re-election for the seat of Adelaide on 7 September. “I’ve still got the fire in my belly, so I think I still have a contribution to make.”
Whether in government or in opposition, Kate Ellis says she will continue to work for gender equality and for more representation of women in Canberra.
“There are a lot of women in politics you don’t hear about and I think there is a long way to go in that regard. I think when you look at it, we’re still probably really under-represented.”