Parenthood And Politics: The Social And Political Symbolism Of Jacinda Ardern’s Maternity

On June 21, 2018, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a baby girl, Neve. Arden has become one of two women who have given birth whilst in positions of national leadership, and her maternity is highly significant as a symbol of political progress and acceptance, as well as establishing new parameters for what being a woman in politics entails. Moreover, through in challenging social norms, Ardern’s maternity also promotes the empowerment of both women and men.

To first appreciate the significance of Ardern’s pregnancy and birth within contemporary politics, it’s necessary to reflect upon the experiences of past Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. As described by BBC News, after falling pregnant in 1990, Bhutto hid her pregnancy and returned to work as soon as she was permitted. In personal papers, Bhutto described her maternity as a “defining moment … proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions.” Whilst Bhutto’s experience was indeed empowering, its symbolism was undermined through political responses. Specifically, Bhutto was condemned as ‘greedy’ by opposition leaders, who criticised her desire for ‘motherhood, domesticity and glamour’ as a constraint upon her capacity to lead the state. Essentially, Bhutto’s maternity was exploited within politics and established as a weakness.

Alternatively, Ardern’s maternity, and its welcomed reception within politics, is indicative of a moment of progression. No longer is a defining feature of humanity considered a limitation, nor an experience that can be exploited. Whilst the different political climates of Bhutto and Ardern influenced their ability to publicise, or hide, their pregnancies and parenthood, Ardern’s maternity is nevertheless symbolic of social progress within the political realm.

Ardern’s maternity is further imbued with significance for broader society, as the ‘roles’ adopted by both her and her partner Clarke Gayford challenge traditional stereotypes of parenthood. Specifically, as Ardern plans to return to the position of Prime Minister after six weeks, with Gayford assuming primary child-care responsibilities. Through subverting conventions of a ‘stay-at-home-mum’ and ‘working-father,’ Ardern encourages the feminist ideologies of freedom, equality, and choice amongst sexes. That is, Ardern’s return to her position is demonstrative of how work and motherhood function cohesively, if necessary and desired, and indeed must be accepted and praised within 21st century society.

This notion was encapsulated in the statements of a former head of the U.N. Development Programme, who noted that the Ardern’s maternity established new parameters for social behaviors. Fundamentally, ‘the example Ardern is setting is an affirmation that [young women] can have … choices.’ Additionally, the example set by Gayford provides ‘young men … a powerful message that they too can exercise choice.’ Essentially, Ardern’s maternity has reinforced the notion that societal expectations and stereotypes are not boundaries, and must not limit the abilities or choices of an individual. Such a concept is core to the empowerment of young women and men, therefor promoting the feminist ideals of equality.

Fundamentally, whilst a strong and effective leader pre-parenthood, Ardern’s maternity allows her to more distinctly contribute to a tradition whereby womanhood and mother-hood is celebrated as an asset, and not opposed as a ‘hindrance.’ Indeed, the establishment of ‘unconventional’ relationships between politics and parenthood are core to promoting freedom of choice, individual empowerment, and equality.

Emily Forrester


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