By Becky Mingard
Three months after her election, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s newest Prime Minister, seems set to continue trampling gender roles with a casual ease that belies the significance of her achievements. The unmarried 37-year-old has recently announced her pregnancy, stating she would be taking only six weeks of maternity leave before returning to parliament. Her partner, Clarke Gayford, will happily become a stay-at-home Dad.
Over 800 newspapers and magazines around the world reported the news and while the response to her announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, some diasporic voices have been critical of her pregnancy.
Should we also voice concern for political males over 60, for their increased potential for heart disease?
There is, of course, some legitimacy to those concerns which have been raised. Understandably, many journalists have brought up the possibility of medical complications resulting from pregnancy which could prevent her doing her work, such as post-natal depression. However, these concerns are based on a possibility, a potential for medical eventualities that may equally never occur. By this premise, should we also voice concern for political males over 60, for their increased potential for heart disease? If such complications arise, I have no doubt that Ardern would make a decision as to whether she could continue to serve her country at that time, but for now these claims are baseless.
Some have also raised concerns for the period of time she will be on leave. During these six weeks, New Zealand will be faced with an arguably unelected Acting Prime Minister, with Winston Peters only having gained the position only through coalition. However, Peters will be restrained in his acting position by the Cabinet Manual, so will be unable to make radical policy change in his brief period of leadership. Furthermore the truth of a functioning political system is that it will largely keep running without its head of state: after all, Trump has been on leave for 91 days of his term, so far, in order to play golf.
Her critics fail to see the incredible changes such a public pregnancy can bring about for women.
Her critics also fail to see the incredible changes such a public pregnancy can bring about for women. Voters who have previously felt shut out of an often elite political world are able to connect with Ardern. An entire class of working women, continually underrepresented, have found in her a ‘walking manifestation of modern women’s strife.’ Her surety that a woman can both raise a child and hold a high-stress job highlights several generations of women who have done the same, ignoring conservative social constraints.
In fact, her motherhood, the very reason some believe she will not be able to hold a political job, could be the very thing that politics needs. Her experience will no doubt be very different to that of the majority male ministers, but it is this diversity of view which is essential to encourage progressive change. Yes, she may do things differently, but this is very different from doing things deficiently.
It is often said that politics needs a breath of fresh air and Ardern seems to provide a gale.
Photograph: Dave Hay via Flickr