Prime Ministers Can Do Anything! Jacinda’s pregnancy not only constitutes a bold redefinition of gender roles, but also a radical redefinition of representative democracy itself. Overnight the highest office in the land has been made both more representative of, and more relatable to, hundreds-of-thousands of female voters. Quite suddenly, the Prime Minister has become a person much more like themselves.
"JACINDA’S PREGNANT!" For once, the exclamation mark was merited. There isn’t much that takes us by surprise these days, but the announcement that the prime minister and her partner were having a baby caught New Zealanders off-guard in the nicest possible way.
For younger New Zealanders, the news brought confirmation that the torch really has been passed to a new generation of leaders. For Kiwis under 40, it offered proof that the difference between political life and normal life continues to narrow, and that the House of Representatives is, at last, living up to its name.
For older New Zealanders, especially those who came of age to the strains of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”, Jacinda’s announcement was a kind of vindication.
This was the generation, after all, who had heard the dominant political figure of their day, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, declare:
“Could we contemplate the situation where a woman getting equal pay is the bread-winner, and the husband stays at home and looks after the children? I don’t think we could.”
It was these same “Baby Boomers” who accepted, albeit reluctantly, the hard-nosed decision of their own generation’s pre-eminent politician, Helen Clark, to forego the experience of motherhood as the unavoidable price of achieving high public office.
These New Zealanders told their daughters that “Girls Can Do Anything!” – not as a description of the day-to-day realities of the 1980s and 90s, but as a statement of their abiding faith in feminism’s power to shape the future.
So, if a smile lingered on my lips all the way through last Friday, there was good reason. It lingered because I was thinking back to the time when, as a young married couple, we were refused a bank-loan because: “Your wife might get pregnant and have to give up her job – and how would you pay the mortgage then?” Or, recalling the expressions of scorn on the faces of “real” men when they discovered I was a stay-at-home dad, looking after our daughter while my bread-winning wife went back to work. Now, I could say to myself: “Those days are gone.”
How could anyone who had grown up amidst the debilitating sexism of “old” New Zealand not smile, and feel immense pride, when presented with two such brilliant role models as Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford?
There will be some, of course, who look at this couple and frown. The unreconstructed sexists will whip themselves into a froth of rage at Jacinda’s repudiation of traditional gender roles. They will not, however, be the only ones made uneasy by her announcement.
The more “normal” our Parliament becomes, the more its elitist lustre will fade. To those who regard the cultivation of that lustre as an important feature of our Westminster system of representative government, the maintenance of its specialness is no small matter. For traditionalists, investing Parliament with pomp, ceremony and just a whiff of mystery, is all part of separating its deliberations from the ordinary and the everyday. Its members are, after all, invested with the power to upend the lives of ordinary, everyday citizens. For those who believe in our system of “managed democracy”, preserving a certain measure of distance between the people and their representatives is vital.
Jacinda’s pregnancy, therefore, not only constitutes a bold redefinition of gender roles, but also a radical redefinition of representative democracy itself. Never before in New Zealand’s political history have women been able to contemplate a pregnant prime minister. Overnight the highest office in the land has been made both more representative of, and more relatable to, hundreds-of-thousands of female voters. Quite suddenly, the Prime Minister has become a person much more like themselves.
Certainly, there have been many politicians who entered Parliament with young families. Overwhelmingly, however, these were men, whose domestic and child-rearing arrangements, far from challenging “normal” gender roles, actually reinforced them. The handful of women MPs who decided to combine raising babies with raising points-of-order encountered an institution determinedly reluctant to make itself child-friendly.
Thankfully, those days, too, have gone. The image of Trevor Mallard dandling an infant on his knee while seated in the Speaker’s Chair served as a delightful precursor to Jacinda and Clarke’s announcement. His message: The House of Representatives has become a place for everyone; fathers, mothers, children; the People’s House.
What began as a remote chamber, filled with wealthy, privileged men, has progressively been forced to open its ornate doors: first to Maori, then to propertyless men; and, finally, to the majority of the human species. With every dilution of its elitism, the number of citizens who could reasonably aspire to “do anything” has expanded. From the tangata whenua, to the working-class, to the people who hold up half the sky.
So, yes, I’m smiling. Not just for Jacinda and Clarke – but for democracy!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 January 2018.