Politics

An incomplete account of the sexism in Jacinda Ardern’s first 24 hours as Labour leader

It’s 24 hours since Jacinda Ardern assumed leadership of the Labour Party. Maddie Holden looks back at the waves of sexism that elicited from opposition MPs, media and others.

If you have so much as a passing interest in the movements of New Zealand politics, you’ll be aware by now that Andrew Little has stepped down as leader of the Labour Party and that Jacinda Ardern quickly assumed the role. She’s been a familiar face since her election to parliament in 2008, but as the new leader of the opposition, Ardern is being treated to a heightened level of media coverage. All to be expected.

Ardern on the AM Show

It’s also to be expected that some of that coverage will be sexist, because, after all, Ardern is a woman in the public eye. And, on that front, established news media, fellow politicians and individual punters have all risen to the occasion. Ardern’s first day as leader has been a parade of sexism, of both the overt and more subtle varieties.

Mere hours after stepping up to the plate, Ardern appeared on TV3’s The Project, where she was asked by host Jesse Mulligan whether she felt she had to make a decision between continuing to progress her career or having babies.

Ardern took the question in stride and answered it honestly and in good faith, saying that she’s “been really open about that dilemma” before, and acknowledging that it’s an issue many women face. While Mulligan surely did not intend to ask a sexist question, the query was jaw-droppingly ill-advised: as many commenters rightly pointed out, no one asks this question of male politicians and there’s a clear double standard at play – an observation that should be well understood by now, especially for a presenter on a savvy current affairs show.

However, the situation got much, much worse when AM Show host Mark Richardson insisted the country actually had the right to know Ardern’s baby plans, and that employers “need to know” the same of their employees. While continuing to remain affable about the question being directed to her personally, she fired back that it was “totally unacceptable” for Richardson to suggest other women should have to reveal their pregnancy plans to employers, and for employers to decide whether or not to hire them accordingly.

So, on day one of Ardern’s leadership, instead of focusing on Labour’s policies or her leadership strategy, we are instead reopening a retrograde debate about whether all women should have to reveal the plan for their uteruses to people who may employ them, and whether discrimination on that basis is acceptable.

Mark Richardson says what the 50s have all been thinking

In case it’s not obvious, asking Ardern about her plans to have children implicitly reinforces the sexist notion that a woman’s primary role is motherhood, no matter how accomplished she is in other areas. It also feeds into an existing obsession with the personal lives of female politicians in particular – remember how often Helen Clark’s childlessness was used as a barb against her, supposedly rendering her unfit for everything from legislating about child welfare to understanding the plight of “ordinary” (read: parenting) New Zealanders?

There’s more. Continuing with the theme of obsessing over her personal life, Ardern has also been treated to bizarre coverage about how proud her appointment made her mum. Immediately after the news broke, Laurell Ardern was contacted by RNZ to discuss her feelings about her daughter’s new position, which were predictably positive. It’s hard to imagine anybody ringing Bill English’s dad after he assumed the role of Prime Minister to find out if he was proud of him – this seems to be the kind of infantilising treatment the media reserves for young women.

The NZ Herald also saw yesterday’s event as a fitting moment to re-share a gushing 2016 article in which Clarke Gayford discusses meeting Adern and entering into a romantic relationship with her. There has been renewed, gossipy interest in the couple’s relationship since the announcement – and, again, this is quite unlike the serious political coverage usually afforded to male politicians.

There has also been a chorus of criticism that Ardern is too young and inexperienced for the role. This isn’t sexist in and of itself, and it’s valid to question the level of experience of a new leader. However, if you peer ever so slightly below the surface, you’ll see that this criticism is being applied in a gendered way: the “inexperienced” label is being selectively applied to Ardern because she is a young woman, whereas men with with similar levels of experience – or less – avoid the same description. This was most starkly illustrated in the case of ACT MP David Seymour, who, as David Tong pointed out on Twitter, is three years younger than Ardern and has six years less Parliamentary experience than she does, but who felt confident describing her in this way anyway.

ZB overlord and minute man Mike Hosking also weighed in with some criticism of his own in this vein, accusing Ardern of having a “credibility issue” and “never running anything”, and adding that she isn’t “relatable to middle New Zealand”. By this we can assume Hosking means relatable to middle-aged, middle-class white men like himself, who he apparently deems the appropriate face of New Zealand politics, despite representing a narrow slice of the electorate’s demographics. Again, it’s not a boldly sexist comment, but the gendered assumptions don’t take long to rise to the surface: it’s clear that Hosking would prefer his politicians on the older, more male side.

Finally, there’s been a renewed focus on Ardern’s looks following yesterday’s announcement. It’s a theme which has existed at least since her run for Auckland Central against National MP Nikki Kaye (a competition which was itself characterised by sexist “catfight” and “battle of the babes” framing): Jacinda has the looks, or she doesn’t, or she’s only being elected because of the punters who think she does.

It should go without saying that Ardern’s looks are irrelevant to her qualifications as Labour leader, but it’s depressingly common for female politicians – indeed, any women in the public eye – to have their appearance relentlessly scrutinised in a way that men in similar positions don’t face. It’s also condescending to assume that Ardern reached the position she’s in because of a “pretty face”, rather than her hard work and professional qualifications.

 

Not all of the coverage of Ardern has been objectionable, and many publications have treated her ascent to the role with the consideration and respect it is due. However, after 24 hours as leader of the Labour Party, it’s clear that Ardern will face sexist coverage from thoughtless pundits and lazy media outlets who trade in microaggressions and dog-whistles, and they should continue to be called out for this. For the sake of the political discourse in this country and all the women living in it, Ardern needs to be treated with the same level of respect afforded to her male colleagues, and it needs to happen now.


READ MORE OF THE SPINOFF’S COVERAGE OF LITTLE’S RESIGNATION AND ARDERN’S ELEVATION


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