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Hillary and hashtags: how young female voters think

5 June 2019
Research details young women’s complicated relationship with politics
Females aged 18 to 30 in London and Sydney have faith in the political system, yet are often disenchanted with the governmental status quo, new University of Sydney research has found.

As part of her PhD research at the University of Sydney, Ms Kate Lonie interviewed 50 women and discovered that many consider voting "non-negotiable" and idealise celebrity politicians, like Hillary Clinton. 

"One of the participants, Ruby*, a 27-year-old from London, admired Clinton for her resolve 'given the torrent of abuse that woman has received over her career'," Ms Lonie, from the University's Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, said.

Ms Lonie found that social media is a conduit through which this stance is amplified and spread. 

"For example, Bec*, 27, from Sydney, believes it is 'kind of cool' to share selfies with high-profile female politicians like Tanya Plibersek, with captions like 'Squad Girls' or 'just hanging out with Tanya'," Ms Lonie said. 

Because of this adulation, however, young women can be disillusioned when their idol's behaviour falls short of their expectations. 

"Ruby, for instance, thinks that the 'God-like' status afforded to Clinton by many feminists is misplaced. 'Just because. [Clinton is] more feminist than some other women, doesn't mean to say she's got a 'get out of jail free' card,' she said in her response," Ms Lonie said. 

Julie Bishop, too, was lauded and critiqued by young women. 

"For example, Sydney-based Aurora*, 25, thinks Bishop both 'pretty impressive' in terms of her professional achievements and 'dumb' for not labelling herself a feminist," Ms Lonie said. 

Participants voiced a lack of faith in constituents and their vision and impact, as well as concern about insufficient diversity in the political system. Because of this, they "express an often grudging acceptance of the parliamentary process," Ms Lonie said. 

She also found that while young women are frustrated with gendered stereotypes in the political sphere - for instance, a focus on appearance - they tend not to mind these when they are applied elsewhere.

"For Sally*, a 27-year-old, Sydney-based participant, the sexualisation of female politicians is particularly problematic - not only does it 'demean the office that they hold', but such coverage also has significant, broader implications for gender and society," Ms Lonie said. 

"The example of Julia Gillard is seen as particularly indicative of the 'worst' of political media coverage. The description of Gillard's 'legs' and 'breasts' on a menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser in 2013 'would never happen with a man' and is indicative of the 'sad' and 'awful' nature of Australian politics, said Alexandra*, 25-year-old, Sydney-based participant."

By contrast, participants tended to not be bothered by the superficial treatment of other 'celebrities'. 

"For example, Sydney-based Danielle*, 19, didn't mind media descriptions of Kate Middleton's outfits, yet found coverage of Hillary Clinton's dress choices distasteful," Ms Lonie said. 

*All participant names are pseudonyms.

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