the age of Arden

the age of Arden
image by dall.e 2

Roughly two weeks ago, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern announced her decision to step down from office. Ardern’s resignation was met with both criticism and praise, with some detailing it as a blow to the progressive movement and others commending her as a beacon of political maturity.  

While I agree that indeed, Ardern’s choice to voluntarily step down was an act of strength, I propose that her resignation may be ill-employed to reaffirm views that women cannot simultaneously juggle family life and politics.

Jacinda Ardern was first introduced to me in a “Women and Leadership” course, in which my professor eagerly pointed out that, at 37, Ardern had become the youngest head of state in recent history. Within the five years of her time in office, Ardern gracefully handled the White Island eruption, the Christchurch Massacre, and like most heads of state in the last three years, the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Her administration also dealt with a significant housing shortage, multiple climate crises, and ever-increasing inequalities in New Zealand – all these had effects that Ardern confronted with remarkable efficiency compared to former PMs of the country. This explains why some believe that Jacinda Ardern is “New Zealand’s most important post-War Prime Minister”.

Yet… I wonder whether there may be more to this acclamation. Is it possible that, because Jacinda Ardern is a woman, less was expected of her, and therefore it was easier for her to impress those closely following her work?

Certainly not. Thinking so would be stripping former Prime Minister Ardern of the praises she rightfully earned through her meticulously calculated policy implementation as well as her kind demeanour. I don’t think Ardern did an excellent job at being Prime Minister *despite* of being a woman, much less… *because* she is a woman. I think it simply has nothing to do with her gender.

Of course, the expectation here is that I might want to compare Ardern’s administration with former female prime ministers of New Zealand, Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley. But I won’t. After all, Ardern’s journey to the position, while in position, and as she exited the position is much more complex, and consequently, richer.

For instance, to my delight, Ardern had her only child, Neve, while in Office in 2018. When I first learned of this, I felt… excited. Not for her (although I wished her well), but rather for myself because somehow, that was confirmation for me that someday, I too, could be a mother and a political figure. So in some sense, the news of Ardern’s pregnancy was like a spell that cast away my long-held belief that motherhood and “serious roles” were mutually exclusive.

Her pregnancy was personal and so is her resignation.  

In the speech she gave on the 19th of January this year, she says, “And so to Neve, Mama’s looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clark, let’s finally get married”. I wondered, when I first heard these words, “What message does this send to young women who, like me, are aspiring to be both mothers and politicians?”

Her resignation speech, as heartwarming as it was, had an underlying tone of sacrifice. That when she felt she “no longer ha[d] enough in the tank to do [the PM position] justice”, she chose motherhood. And as endearing as that is… again, I am worried that this may send the wrong message to sceptics.

Now, I am not saying she should have neglected Neve and used her baby formula to fill up the tank. What I am saying is that Ardern’s resignation is a big carrot dangling in front of people looking to justify that women have an “innate” desire to be mothers. That women cannot be trusted to see their leadership terms through, therefore should not be elected in the first place.  

I am reminded here of Liz Truss, former UK Prime Minister, who resigned after only seven weeks of serving her nation. Although she resigned for different reasons, because there is an underrepresentation of women in top political positions, women’s resignation stories gain much attention and can easily be misconstrued together to build up a falsely-informed narrative; that women cannot handle political responsibility.

Speaking of responsibility, in the same speech, Jacinda Ardern says, “I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility”. Yet… whether it is being a shoe shiner or Cinderella’s mouse-turned-horse, every role comes with responsibility, regardless of privilege.

But she continues, “The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and when you are not.” Truss said something similar in her resignation speech, “I recognized though, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party”.

To me, these statements are evidence that the UK and NZ have had the luck of having leaders who are self-aware enough to know when it’s time to go. Here stand two leaders with the humility and the courage necessary to admit that there is someone better for the job. And for that… they should be commended. Not because they are women and somehow, their behaviour proves that all women are not egotistic like some people are beginning to claim, but rather because they are setting the example for future leaders, regardless of their gender.