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The Feminism of Jacinda Ardern’s Pregnancy

“In my simple worldview, if you believe in equality, you should be a feminist,” wrote Jacinda Ardern for the blog Villainesse in 2015. At the time Ardern was a Member of Parliament for New Zealand’s Labour Party, but she was not yet as well-known as she was soon to become.

“For whatever reason I have always felt like my political views and drive came from my gut rather than a textbook. And that’s exactly the origin of my views on feminism,” she wrote.

Since then, at age 37, Ardern has become the youngest female head of state in the world and New Zealand’s youngest PM in 150 years. She is the third female PM of New Zealand, after Jenny Shipley from 1997 to 1999 and Helen Clark from 1999 to 2008.  

Ardern’s rapid ascension to the premiership proved to be a massive shake-up for New Zealand’s politics and came as a surprise even to her. Though she had been in Parliament since 2008, Ardern became the leader of the Labour Party quite unexpectedly last year, and only briefly before the 2017 general election.

The previous party leader, Andrew Little, resigned during the campaign when opinion polls placed Labour at its lowest levels of support in over twenty years. Ardern was unanimously chosen by party members to succeed him, and she came into the job only seven weeks before the election.

A wave of “Jacindamania” washed over the island nation following Ardern’s appointment, and Labour’s polling surged. Before the leadership change, the election had seemed to assure another victory for the center-right National Party, which had been in power for a decade. After Labour’s leadership change, however, the race suddenly became much closer.

New Zealanders went to the polls on September 23, but who the ruling party would be, and therefore who would take the post of prime minister, was not immediately clear following the election.

The National Party, under the incumbent PM Bill English, garnered only 56 of the 61 seats needed to independently form a government in New Zealand’s 120-member parliament. Ardern’s Labour won 46 seats and made a confidence and supply deal with the Green Party, but which of the two main parties would be able to form a ruling government came down to who the far-right New Zealand First Party would support with its own 9 seats.   

On October 19, almost a month after the election, New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters prepared to announce his decision in a much-anticipated press conference. He took the podium having informed neither Ardern nor English of what he was going to say. When it finally came time for the reveal, Peters announced that his party would form a coalition with Labour, and Ardern became PM.

As she prepared to enter her country’s highest office, Ardern’s constant refrain (and that of her partner, Clarke Gayford) seemed to be a mixture of humble surprise, excitement for the job ahead, and amazement at how fast it had all happened.  

Part of Ardern’s appeal, both to New Zealanders and her international fans, is her candor and her appearance as a down-to-earth, relatable figure. She wants to come across as unabashedly normal, and she and her partner share certain anecdotes about their lives that help along this image. One such story goes that Gayford had to wrestle their noisy cat from the room when Ardern took a congratulations phone call from Donald Trump after the election. Another says that shortly after moving into the Premier House, New Zealand’s official residence for the PM, Ardern ordered take-out curry that never arrived because the curry house assumed it was a prank call.

Ardern hasn’t dropped this angle in the months following her election. “I didn’t think I would be prime minister, because I didn’t consider it,” she said in an interview with Vogue in February, when asked about her early start in politics. “But that’s the power of saying yes, because there will be a moment when someone asks you to do something beyond your comfort zone. I am not unique.”

This “I am not unique” line has come up in another context in recent months, however, after Ardern announced a piece of news that was met with excitement and joy by many New Zealanders.

Ardern announced that she was pregnant with her first child in a post to her Facebook page on January 19, saying that she and Gayford were “really excited that in June our team will expand from two to three.” Her post was accompanied by a picture of two fishhooks side by side, with a third, smaller fishhook nestled in the center of one.

Some may see Ardern’s cheerful determination to be both a mom and prime minister as a bold statement about the power of women, especially given the context of her feminism. But perhaps even more salient is the fact that Ardern doesn’t seem to want her pregnancy to be a political statement at all—she sees it as simply a part of her life as a woman with the ability to make her own decisions about when and how to start a family. And that idea, that her pregnancy should be perfectly normal, sends an even stronger message.

Even before she became prime minister, Ardern’s feminism was something that distinguished her.

The day after she became Labour leader, Ardern was grilled by co-host Mark Richardson on The AM Show when he demanded to know whether she intended to have children. Richardson claimed that employers have the right to ask female employees about their family plans, and by that logic, voters had the right to know whether or not a potential PM may take maternity leave.

Ardern pushed back forcefully. “That is unacceptable in 2017,” she said firmly. “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.” (Ardern’s comments are also backed up by New Zealand law — under the country’s 1993 Human Rights Act, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee due to pregnancy or childbirth.)

New Zealand’s remoteness and its relatively small population of 4.8 million mean that its politics usually receive little attention in American newspapers, but Ardern’s response to Richardson made headlines in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Though Ardern will certainly not be the first elected woman to give birth while in office, pregnancy can be a contentious issue for female politicians.

Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto gave birth during the 1988 campaign that first installed her as prime minister, and two years later, she became the first democratically elected leader to give birth while in office when her second child arrived during her second term. However, anticipating intense criticism from her opponents, Bhutto had the baby in secret and was back at work the next morning. Bhutto’s controversial life in Pakistani politics ultimately led to her assassination in 2007, but the criticism she received for having both a family and a political career demonstrated the adverse reactions that people can have to a woman who wants to have both.

Thirty years after Bhutto first gave birth, Ardern announced her own news with confidence. She was quick to emphasize that the birth of her child will do nothing to impact her ability to serve as PM, and it will not lead to any changes in the way she performs her job.

“I’ll be Prime Minister AND a mum, and Clarke will be ‘first man of fishing’ and stay at home dad,” she wrote in the Facebook post announcing her pregnancy. (“First man of fishing” is the unofficial title that the couple uses for Gayford, a reference to his job hosting a TV show about fishing and travel.)

Ardern plans to take six weeks of maternity leave after giving birth in June. Winston Peters, who now serves as deputy prime minister, will serve in her stead during that time, and after the six weeks, Ardern will return to work for business as usual.

During the months leading up to the January announcement, Ardern secretly contended with morning sickness and other aspects of pregnancy while also setting up her government and adjusting to her new position as PM.

Ardern’s response when asked how she managed this? “It’s what ladies do.”  

“Lots of people juggle a lot of things in their personal and private lives, and I’m not unusual in that,” Ardern said. “Plenty of women have multitasked before me, and I want to acknowledge that.”

In the United States, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) recently became the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office. Duckworth had her second daughter, Maile, on April 9, but she’s been speaking about her pregnancy and taking a similar line to Ardern since her initial announcement in January.  

“As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent,” she’s said.

Even though Duckworth is certainly not alone as a working parent, there are certain logistical challenges that she will now be the first to face, as a member of the Senate.

“I can’t technically take maternity leave. Because if I take maternity leave, then I won’t be allowed to sponsor legislation or vote during that time period,” Duckworth said in an appearance on POLITICO’s podcast Women Rule in February. Senate rules require senators to be physically present on the floor in order to vote for legislation.

The Senate also prohibits babies from the floor. This means that Duckworth will not be able to bring her newborn with her for important votes during the period of time when she is still breastfeeding.  

I mean, this is ridiculous. We’re in 2018 and we’re still dealing with this in the United States of America. We’re better than that,” Duckworth told CNN in March. “And, certainly, this speaks to the problems we have in this country with the need for family leave and certainly more family-friendly legislation in this country.”

In the event that Duckworth would not be able to make it to the floor for votes, the Illinois senator’s absence may present a problem for Democrats. Democrats and the two Independents who typically caucus with them hold 49 of the 100 seats in the Senate. This means that with 51 seats, Republican leadership can only afford one defection from legislation that they wish to pass—if all Democrats are present and united.

Across the Pacific, however, New Zealand’s MPs can already bring their children to Parliament with them. In a telling moment back in November, two Labour MPs nursed their newborns in Parliament as they listened to fellow Labour MP Jenny Salesa speak about a new paid parental leave bill. Speaker Trevor Mallard held Salesa’s baby while she spoke.

Ardern and Duckworth have both received largely positive reactions to their news, but their two cases highlight the differences between how female politicians are treated in their respective countries.

New Zealand is led by a woman who proudly declares her feminism and who will soon have a child while in office, with a man who she is not married to (and no one is marching in the streets about it). The U.S. is led by a man who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, and whose inauguration was met with massive, largely female-led protests across the country.

To be sure, New Zealand is not a bastion of perfect gender equality. And Ardern was still grilled about her family plans long before she announced her pregnancy, simply because she was a woman who had recently attained a powerful position in politics. Nevertheless, the fact that she is confident and joyful about being “Prime Minister AND a mum,” and the fact that her male partner will become a stay-at-home dad while she carries on with her career, sends a powerful message about what women can achieve in an accepting society.

As First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon tweeted in January: “Congrats to New Zealand’s PM @jacindaardern. This is first and foremost a personal moment for her – but it also helps demonstrate to young women that holding leadership positions needn’t be a barrier to having children (if you want to).”

Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy is first and foremost a personal matter for her. However, the circumstances under which women across the world give birth remain political, as do the ways in which childbirth impacts how people view women and their careers.  

As a part of their personal lives, I hope that Ardern’s child brings both her and her partner great joy. But I also hope that women around the world can look to Ardern and see the power of a strong woman who doesn’t let others limit her. Ardern may insist that she is not unique, but that just proves the point that her pregnancy packs a political punch. It represents what should be possible for any woman.

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