Was the blokes’ republic a turn-off for women?

Did more women than men vote no to the republic – and if so, why?

Polling before the referendum showed several divides: yes voters were more likely to be younger than older, Labor than Liberal, urban than rural and well-off rather than struggling.

But one of the most consistent divides was around gender, with polls reporting that the number of women supporting the republic plan lagged about 10 percentage points behind men.

The Labor Party president, Mr Barry Jones, says election results suggest that women generally put a higher premium than men on the concept of security, “that is, hanging on to the known”.

Women also tend to be less attracted than men to themes of separation, independence and self-reliance, according to the historian Professor Marilyn Lake.

This might translate into less enthusiasm for “cutting the apron strings” from the mother country.

Social researcher Mr Hugh Mackay says he would have accepted that explanation 30 years ago but today’s women are much more independent. He believes the predicted gender gap was the result of more women than men resenting the way the referendum process was handled.

“One of the standard things said about gender difference is that men are more interested in outcomes, and women are more interested in process,” he says. “(It’s) an analogy for sexual foreplay, in a way: the male just wants to get on with it, and the female wants to be romanced and gentled into it.

“The (referendum) process was so rushed that there was a sense of being hustled along, and I think women intuitively felt the process wasn’t getting the proper attention, that we jumped straight to one model with no real public debate.

“It was men who were typically saying, `It may not be the model you want but nothing’s perfect. Let’s just do it’.”

Mr Mackay says women are also more likely than men to favor Mr John Howard as preferred Prime Minister, and therefore his stand.

Former Victorian Labor Premier Joan Kirner agrees that “blokes like just to get on with the decision” but says: “The research we have done for Emily’s List on elections indicates that women are far more likely to make a positive decision around issues that affect what the pollsters call `the details of their lives’.

“If matters don’t affect the details of their lives – and they don’t regard the republic as doing that – they will either be dismissive or vote against it.”

The deputy leader of the Victorian Opposition, Ms Louise Asher, suspects that the pressure of women’s lives militated against their positive involvement: “Most are incredibly busy trying to juggle triple roles. In the end, this was not going to impact on their economic wellbeing, it wasn’t going to buy them more time, and I don’t think anyone in Australia – putting aside the question of the monarchy – thinks the current system is actually disadvantageous.”

But there is evidence that women do care about Australia’s future identity. Says Mrs Kirner, “When I did consultations around Australia for the centenary of federation report for Keating in 1994, we had droves of women coming up to talk to us about the kind of Australia they wanted to see, their desire for reconciliation between black and white, and their pride in the country.

“It’s not that they are not interested in these issues as such, but they have got to be reflected in people-type terms.”

Mrs Kirner is critical of the Sydney-dominated yes campaign for failing to take ordinary women with it: “I said to the republican movement five years ago that … we needed to have community consultations with women, but it wasn’t the Sydney style. They had lunches and dinners, more formal functions rather than a community process.”

She suspects women were also alienated by the campaign’s blokiness. “If we had got more people like Hazel Hawke and Nova Peris-Kneebone out on the ground as part of a proper deliberative process, we would have done better.

“The last two weeks of the campaign was almost entirely dominated on the republican side by the faces of men. I thought if I saw another face of a bloke over 50 I would scream.

“When the coup de grace was supposed to be Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam saying `It’s time’, I could just see women in the kitchen saying, `Yeah, it’s time to get the bloody dinner’!”

Rather more mortifying for women is the possibility that any gap could be explained by their greater political ignorance. Dr Pamela Ryan, managing director of Issues Deliberation Australia, oversaw a “people’s constitutional convention” in which 380 voters debated the issues with leaders of both sides of the republic debate.

She says that among the voters, “Women had lower levels of political knowledge than men, and that can often motivate a no vote.”

At the start of the debate only 33 per cent of the women, compared with 47 per cent of the men, knew that the role of the proposed president was like that of the current Governor-General. Ten per cent of women (22 per cent of men) had known that the prime minister could remove the president with the approval of the House of Representatives.

But here’s the rub: in this group, that ignorance did not translate into a marked gender gap, with support for the yes vote at the beginning of the debate running at 50 per cent for men and 48 per cent for women.

First published in The Age.