19 January 2023

Has Jacinda Ardern let women down?


As a woman and a professional opinion-haver, I ought to have a strong view on Jacinda Ardern, who has resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand declaring she no longer has ‘enough in the tank’. Other top women have weighed in, with Angela Rayner describing her as ‘inspirational’ while Edwina Currie told Times Radio ‘it sends a message to women of her age.. that this is a bit beyond you.. She looks like a frail person, she doesn’t look as if she eats enough’.

There’s part of me that wants to sign up to Rayner’s ‘yasss kweeen!’ school of thought. Ardern was the second elected leader to give birth while in office, and as a fellow parent her struggle to balance such a demanding job with raising a small child is profoundly relatable. It’s also tempting to see the way she sought to make a virtue of ‘feminine’ qualities like empathy – demonstrated to the world by the real connection she found with the victims of the Christchurch terror attack – as an uplifting example of a woman succeeding because of her sex, rather than in spite of it. 

The only problem with this more emotive style of leadership is that it hasn’t proved very effective. Her ‘be kind’ philosophy is somewhat undermined by her illiberal and draconian response to the pandemic, turning a country of 5m people into an island prison. And for all the praise lavished on her abroad, at home she has faced riots in her capital and plunging poll ratings. Indeed, a cynic might say that Ardern has jumped before her people got the chance to give her a push.

But I can’t quite swallow Currie’s standpoint either. It takes strength and political nous to recognise when it’s time to go, and political culture the world over would surely be improved if leaders recognised when to stand aside gracefully rather than having to be dragged from office. It’s disappointing to see a woman so publicly give up on ‘having it all’, but on the other hand Prime Minister is not many people’s idea of a dream job. The problem for women is not how few of us there are at the very top of their profession, but how difficult it is to pursue a career at all at the same time as having a family.

If Ardern has eyed a lucrative future on the international liberal speaking circuit and liked what she’s seen, who can blame her? Politicians are human, as she’s so keen to stress, and what’s more human than being selfish?

So I am left both yearning for more female leaders to serve as examples to other women, at the same time as wishing the ones we had were better at their jobs.

Perhaps that’s as it should be though. Modern womanhood is beset by conflicts – between career and family, being empowered or being victims, being pretty or being serious (how telling that Currie felt the need to comment on Ardern’s weight). Maybe having contradictory feelings about Ardern’s resignation which, no doubt, she herself shares, is just part of the messy tapestry of feminine identity. Or maybe we just shouldn’t pretend the actions of one woman necessarily have some totemic meaning for all women everywhere – we wouldn’t if she was a man.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.