The question posed to the New Zealand PM shows how we judge female politicians on personal rather than policy decisions.
Decisions about whether, when and how to get married can be tricky. And for some feminists, figuring out how to engage with a historically patriarchal institution can be much more complicated than choosing a main course. But your decisions about matrimony are yours alone. You’re not a fundamentally better or worse feminist because you eschew getting married, take your partner’s name or get walked down the aisle by your father.
Despite this, however, many feminist women are still asked to defend their decisions around marriage – in a way that men who profess to believe in gender equality rarely are. For the latest example of this, we should look to the BBC’s recent interview with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern gave birth to a daughter, Neve Te Aroha, with her partner Clarke Gayford in June 2018, making her the second elected head of government ever to give birth while in office. The avowed feminist returned to work after six weeks of maternity leave, while Gayford stayed at home to care for Neve.
In her interview with the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire, Ardern discussed everything from Brexit to the murder of British backpacker Grace Millane. But at the end of the interview, Derbyshire threw the Kiwi PM a curveball question: is she planning to propose to Gayford?
Ardern laughed, apparently caught off guard. “No, I would not ask, no,” she replied.
“You’re a feminist?” Derbyshire pressed her.
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely I am a feminist,” Ardern said. She added jokingly that she wanted to put Gayford “through the pain and torture or having to agonise about that question himself”.
Derbyshire isn’t the first journalist to try to liven up a political interview with personal questions. But it’s worth remembering that Ardern is frequently asked questions about her relationship with her partner and her attitude towards motherhood in a way that seems distinctly gendered.
In 2017, the New Zealand PM was asked whether she planned to have a baby within seven hours of taking office, something she rightly shot down as “totally unacceptable”. She’s had to endure numerous sexist encounters since – so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the BBC interview has raised eyebrows in New Zealand.
“Certainly a lot of New Zealanders would see such probing of the prime minister about her relationship with her partner and her plans for marriage as being inappropriate,” New Zealand-based political commentator Bryce Edwards told The Guardian.
Here’s the thing: the New Zealand PM’s private relationship should not be framed as something with the ability to dent her feminist credentials. It’s perfectly plausible that Ardern isn’t fussed about marriage at all. But even if she is, there must be more significant ways to judge whether a head of government lives up to her stated belief in gender equality than whether or not she wants to get down on one knee to her partner, Monica Geller-style.
Ultimately, we should judge female politicians on their policy records – not whether or not they’ll propose.
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