Sunday, August 06, 2017

Women, babies and political power

The sudden election of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in place of  Andrew Little just weeks before the next general election on 23 September 2017 caused some surprise. Labour had been lagging in the polls, but the move still seems to have been unexpected.

Under the New Zealand MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system, it is difficult for either major party to gain a majority, making coalition governments the norm. On the current opinion poll figures, either a National/NewZealand First or a Labour/New Zealand First/Green combination are technically possible. However, the higher the vote of the two major parties, the easier it is to form a coalition, giving the National Party a real advantage. Labour hopes that Ms Arden's appointment will give it a poll boost, narrowing the gap with the Nationals. I don't think that there has been a poll since Ms Ardern's appointment, but it appears to have given Labour a boost.

New Zealand politics is generally not well covered in Australia. However, in this case, the question of a possible future pregnancy for the 37 year old Ms Arden did generate coverage on this side of the ditch.

The issue arose when the host of The Project in New Zealand, Jesse Mulligan, asked Ms Ardern, who does not have children, whether she had to decide between having a career and becoming a parent. As reported by the ABC:
"Let me put it this way. A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career, or continuing their career at a certain point in their lives — late 30s." 
"Thank you for reminding the New Zealand public of my age," Ms Ardern interjected, to laughter. 
Mulligan continued: "Is that a decision that you feel you have to make, or that you feel that you've already made?"
The question generated a storm, one that I thought Ms Ardern has handled very well.

She said that she expected to be asked the question because she had previously discussed the issue in the context of choices and challenges for women,  including (I think) her own desire to have a child. As I interpret her response,  she and her partner Clarke Gayford would essentially take things as they come.

At the same time, while she was prepared to respond on an issue she had previously raised, she rounded on a radio show panellist Mark Richardson who is reported as saying that employers "need to know that type of thing from the women you are employing...The question is, is it OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?" .Ms Ardern said that while she had been prepared to respond,  for other women it was totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace.

Mr Richardson reportedly then dug himself into a bigger hole: saying a potential employer had a right to know if they would have to let a staff member take "a year of leave.....I'm not saying don't employ that person". "Why would you ask if it wasn't going to prejudice your decision?", Ms Ardern responded.

Mr Richardson is a former cricketer turned TV presenter  who clearly holds some antediluvian views. Among other things, I think that it would be illegal in New Zealand as well as Australia for an employer to actually ask that question. Stuff NZ reports on some of the responses to his remarks.

My mind went in a slightly different direction. I am not aware of cases, and this may just be lack of knowledge on my part, of elected female heads of state having babies while in office. However, there is one respected female profession where women have had babies while exercising considerable official political influence and indeed direct power and that is the role of Queen or Empress.

Queen Elizabeth the Second was queen when Prince Andrew was 1960. Queen Victoria had nine children while Queen. Empress Maria Theresa had no less than sixteen children while reforming the Hapsburg Empire, while Catherine the Great of Russia  managed to fit in multiple lovers and at least one illegitimate child while acting as authoritarian ruler.

I could give other examples. However, my simple and not especially profound point is that pregnancy of itself does not preclude a woman successfully occupying a top political position. Surely we can fit in at least one elected leader?            .


Anonymous said...

Cameron, it seems, doesn’t arrive at his desk in No 10 until 8.30am and has left by 7pm. Away from that desk, he may be working privately, but he certainly finishes earlier than his Downing Street predecessors.

Margaret Thatcher famously slept only four hours a night. Perhaps that worked for her.

For Gordon Brown, however, who was known for waking up his advisers before dawn with questions on policy minutiae, it did not lead to particularly good decision making.

And then there's the Indian PM, who is said to put in 18 hour days. It would be interesting to know what both MT and JG do/did with their time; I suspect both do/did a bit more than your "normal" 50+ hours.

Mind you, I don't feel at all sorry for any of them; even in small business it is quite possible, if not normal, to work 60-70 hour weeks. I know I did, for a number of years, to try to get ahead.

So, you go girl, and I wish you well! You can have it all. Except, I'd suggest, just not all at the same time. And also, there's a kid involved, but I shouldn't mention his/her needs these days; "Think of the children" is only useful when it's useful, it seems.

Still, I must say it was very smart of her to get it right out front at the start of her leadership. But it wasn't her who provoked the questions? Really, it really wasn't ;)


Anonymous said...

Hereditary heads of state (read Queens Regnant)are expected to be fecund, in order to ensure the preferably male succession, as indeed are Queens Matrimonial. One needs look no further than HVIII of England and his matrimonial (mis) adventures to trace a particular reproductive anxiety. Mary 1 and Liz 1 of England were notoriously infertile, followed by Mary II, and her unfortunate sister, Anne, who endured 17 pregnancies, which resulted in one son who lived until about 11. Her inability to provide a living heir enabled the Hanoverian succession, which latterly engendered its own succession crisis, resulting in the reign of the uber fertile Victoria, and a long term dynastic continuity.
BTW, JDB, you are off the 'I like you' list for your omission in wishing felicitations for a successful theatrical season (possibly my last - I am seriously thinking of retiring).

Jim Belshaw said...

JCW, I have responded on FB to your last.

While I agree with your broad point, it doesn't detract from women being effective even when having bubs!

kvd, your point re time says little about women v men, more about current obsessions with "hard work". Some of the most effective British imperial civil servants were very productive despite only working six hour days! It's how the work is organised.

Anonymous said...

Well! Now I'm really confused.

On the one hand, my dad was born in NZ, and I'd be happy to accept my citizenship thereof - given the complete fkup our pollies are making of "this great nation". And on the other, if BJ is thereby disqualified and has to forego his position, I couldn't be more pleased :)

Might even consider voting for the hopeful-mother-in-prospect, just because! Win-win-win! I've already got 2 sheep, and also, the wine is better :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Laughs. kvd, as you may remember, my Dad was born in NZ and I ran for pre-selection for Eden-Monaro. The questions that are now being considered were not even on the horizon then. Now that the children (and grandchildren in some cases)of NZers in Oz know that they may have access to dual citizenship, there may be a bit of a rush to get an NZ passport. With Australian Governments constantly advocating a little Australia policy and driving further wedges between Oz and NZ, there may well be many Australian born who would like an NZ passport as well so as to preserve a position in New Zealand.