The Current Affairs television programme, ‘Sunday,’ recently shared a snippet on Instagram from an interview with Jacinda Ardern when she became the Leader of the Labour Party (on August 1, 2018).
She was asked “Why can’t a Prime Minister have a baby?” and she responded, “I don’t think it’s about why can’t, I think it’s about why not?”
Why not, indeed!
New Zealand has been buzzing with the news of the Prime Minister’s pregnancy.
The news made international headlines.
She will be only the second Prime Minister to deliver a child in office (the first was former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990).
Congratulatory messages poured in from New Zealanders, world leaders and so many others. It is wonderful to have a woman Prime Minister of child-bearing age, let alone one who will deliver her baby while in office (not literally, of course)!
Yet, there will always be naysayers. Some claimed that a woman could not have a baby and be the Prime Minister at the same time without severely compromising one of those very important roles.
Others questioned her timing. Some said that they felt “cheated by the Prime Minister they had voted to power but had now swanned off to be a mother – how dare she!”
Open and Candid
The Prime Minister has always been open about the fact that she wanted to be a mother.
She has talked publicly about the dilemma between motherhood and career facing so many women, herself included.
She has talked about juggling both – that is what working women do.
Even in her now-famous interview on ‘The AM Show’ when she told Mark Richardson that questioning a woman in this day and age at job interview about her motherhood plans was unacceptable. She was clear that it was alright to ask her that question because she has spoken openly about that dilemma in the past.
Sincere and Serious
When she announced her pregnancy she made it clear that she took her role as PM very seriously. She had a clear plan in place.
She was honest that the news was exciting but unexpected even for the couple.
She will take six weeks off after the birth to make sure that she is well enough to return to work. After that, she will be back on the top job while her Partner Clarke Gayford becomes a full time, stay-at-home dad.
She will be in a much better position than the woman who works three jobs and still has to worry about the children, dinner, cleaning, doctor’s visits, prescription pick-ups and laundry – and she acknowledges them.
I suspect that she knows that she should not be held up as the Gold Standard for all women – not everyone has access to the level of support she will have. Neither will they choose to do what she is doing.
And that is fine.
Delighted and thrilled
I am thrilled for our Prime Minister.
I am delighted for us as a nation because it is yet another landmark achievement by a New Zealand woman leader.
I am also proud because it normalises both motherhood in politics and full-time fatherhood. At a time when the women’s rights movement continues to fight to advance the status of women in New Zealand and globally, it is a powerful statement against rigid gender norms and stereotypes.
Gender is not biological
Studies have shown that raising children in societies that adhere to rigid gender roles, with fixed ideas about what should be considered ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ can actually be detrimental to their physical and mental health.
People often tend to think that gender is biological. It’s not. Sex is biological.
Gender refers to a socially constructed definition of what it means to be a man or woman. For example, the adage that boys do not cry or saying that some hits like a girl – they stem from social constructs of what it means to be masculine and feminine.
They are often deeply entrenched – but that still does not make them biological.
Also, they hurt both girls and boys (and those who do not identify with the binary) because they force people to act in certain ways just to be socially accepted.
They also set unreasonable standards that set most people up to fail.
Rigidity breeds violence
The advertising industry often plays a significant role in reinforcing gender stereotypes (think beer ads that have men with six-packs at the barbecue or the Briscoes lady, to name just two).
In 2017, the United Kingdom advertising broadcasting authority banned advertisements that promote unhealthy images of men and women in gender stereotypical roles.
In addition to being unhealthy, there is evidence that domestic violence is worse in societies with rigid gender norms and stereotypes.
Getting back to the political sphere, gender stereotypes are dangerous because they colour our perception of what a good leader looks like.
For example, women leaders are often seen as credible only when they emulate men.
Many lower the tone of their voice, dress in pants suits and deny all that is associated with be a woman – for example, childbearing – to be taken seriously.
Our Prime Minister flies in the face of that. She wears beautiful clothes, including sarees, statement jewellery, speaks as she has always done and now this.
She is carrying a child. I love that she is boldly going where so many women leaders have feared to go – to be who she is and prove that she can still be taken seriously as the Prime Minister.
We must also remember, however, that it is ultimately about choice.
Not so long ago, National MP Maggie Barry implied in Parliament that Jacinda Ardern could not speak with authority about children’s policy because she did not have any herself.
Often women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Motherhood in politics is a choice.
Deciding not to have children is a choice.
And they are both Ok.
Priyanca Radhakrishnan is Member of Parliament on Labour List. She champions social and community causes and stands up for equality of human beings at all levels. She is a voracious reader and articulates on issues with courage of conviction.
Additional Reading: Our Leader and another article titled’ Baby-busy bodies: the same old sexist theory’ under Viewlink.
Photo Caption: Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford announcing their parenthood at their home in Auckland on January 19, 2018. RNZ Picture by Dan Cook (Under Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz).