In the past week a fair bit of media surrounding a very talented woman rising the political ranks has filled my news feed.
I am of course referring to Jacinda Ardern. Two articles in particular caught my eye, ‘Ardern emerges as Key’s natural successor’ and another that actually had ‘Pretty Vacant’ in its URL ('Vote for me, I'm one of the cool kids' – the Ardern appeal').
The first article was more subtle than the second as it criticised the prime minister's political style in linking it to Ardern. It was written by Matthew Hooton and it raised some valid points about the direction of politics, points that I not only see his point of view on but can even agree with at times. The thing that didn't sit fair was it labelled Ardern as part of the problem as though she's at the same starting block as John Key. She's not.
The second article took it a step further and finished reminding readers that they must not forget John Key won his electorate. There was no mention that Key's prime ministerial parliamentary apprenticeship was the shortest since David Lange.
So to begin where one article left off, let me clarify something quickly. Key’s electorate is Helensville, a safe National seat and in fact he is the only MP Helensville has ever had. Ardern’s electorate is Auckland Central and she was not the Labour MP that lost that seat; Judith Tizard lost Auckland Central. Nikki Kaye, the current National MP in the seat, is not steaming home with the votes. It is indeed a very un-safe seat for National depending on whether the opposition parties ever properly work together.
Kaye may have a 600-vote majority on Ardern but Adern plus the Green candidate had more than a 2000 vote majority on her. I have no desire to have the pitting of woman against woman become the theme here. I champion both Nikki and Jacinda, because politics is not easy. They are both strong individuals to be commended. I must, however, note that only one MP who stands in the Auckland Central electorate has broken into the preferred prime-minister polling.
Would we tolerate Key's hijinks from a female PM?
Something these articles have done is get me thinking, which indeed is usually the purpose of opinion pieces. I have found myself wanting to ask, what if John Key was a 'pretty little thing' as only we women are usually labelled, how would we view him as a leader?
Would his blatant gaffes and frequent shortcomings be so tolerated?
If John Key were a fan-girl of the All Blacks as opposed to his current fan-boy status would you be so forgiving?
If a female prime minister fawned over Richie McCaw, would you be cool with that?
If as a woman Key failed to remember where he stood in regards to the Springbok tour riots, would we view her the way as you do him? Would you trust that woman?
If as a woman Key chose to cuddle a puppy outside Parliament and posted the shot to social media instead of honouring Pike River families with the respect of meeting them when they travelled to Parliament, would you think of that woman as caring about the people?
If the prime minister as a woman flip flopped on promises and answered the hard questions with generalist 'she’ll be right' waffle that has become a Key trade mark would this woman ever be thought competent enough to have made it into the prime minister's office? Would this woman even survive a term let alone three terms?
Let’s be clear here, that woman would be attacked. John Key would not survive as a woman, he would be held with contempt – as an example of female incompetence. 'She" would be labelled all manner of things and those things would go up in levels of demeaning depending on how attractive he was. You see, it appears in New Zealand while we have smashed through many glass ceilings, being pretty or attractive to any degree is not the same as it is for a man who is thought of as handsome or attractive. If John Key were indeed a woman, would the media report his 'sexiest politician' ranking with the same gravitas?
Lack of media savviness?
Commentators are quick to criticise Jacinda Ardern’s media savviness in mainstream media – including her appearance on the cover of Next, a publication geared toward career and life balance, and inspiring women to the level John Key has risen to.
Key donned a shirt he did not earn for a rugby publication. I don't even care that he's targeted such media, good on him. It's media-savvy and helps him connect with the general public.
What I care about is the fact Ardern is labelled a show pony when she does a single cover. I happen to think a woman of her age juggling what she does is interesting. I want to hear about her journey, not years after she's made it as Helen Clark was relegated to, but while it is happening. I'm equally interested in other women pursuing goals and chasing dreams.
A man's world
When you turn the tables, you begin to see the irony of the criticisms and comparisons levelled at Jacinda Ardern by men who are really in no position to lay claim to a true understanding of the degree of talent she has had to possess to get thus far.
They are men in a man's world standing on the sidelines watching a woman line up in a male-dominated race where the deck is already stacked against her. Flaunting the blatant nerve to claim she does not deserve her place on the starting block. Then patting each other on the back and backing each other up.
Even worse, they lay claim to knowing exactly how much work she's put in and what she has sacrificed to even get to the race track. A section of men in certain society have done this for years. The shocking thing about this is that even in 2015 they still feel so very comfortable doing it in a manner that can only be described as heckling.
If you look beyond Jacinda Ardern in politics, you find that while the heckling levelled at her is of the ‘show pony’ and ‘pretty little thing’ lightweight variety, there are indeed many women who deserve more praise than is afforded to them.
Let me flip the switch on one example. If we had a man in Parliament who had studied for a law degree fulltime while also becoming a solo parent to a new baby, would we admire the never-ending passion he had for child welfare? If that same man had then had a successful commercial law career with a big firm before entering Parliament to become an MP, would you find that man admirable for his stance on not pulling the study ladder up on others, the very ladder that had helped him climb to where he was. Would he not be championed as a man of the people?
There is no man to my knowledge in Parliament who has built his political career under such circumstances, but there is to my knowledge a woman. Her name is Metiria Turei.
The heckling of choice levelled at Turei just these last couple of weeks is that she doesn’t look as 'commercial’ as her male counterpart, James Shaw. Not so long ago it was her choice of jackets. It would seem that women in the political arena just can’t win. Either way, they are too much of one thing, or not enough of the other.
Not John Key's successor
To bring the suggestion I am endeavouring to make to the forefront; Jacinda Ardern is not John Key’s successor. To claim so is a blatant mockery of her achievement. There is no old boys' club to give her a pass to the starting block.
She has worked bloody hard to get to where she is today and she has done it as a woman dealing with consistent heckling regarding the packaging her brain has come in. That's an achievement that the men on the sidelines will never be able to grasp.
Her critics are correct. She is indeed a career politician whose entire career is geared toward Parliament. If she were a man, she would be commended for going after what she wanted and grabbing hold of every opportunity with open arms.
She’s not though, is she? She like me has breasts that aren’t of the male middle age spread variety; the variety that make men wonder how on earth the 'pretty little thing' climbed the mountain under her own steam. She is all woman. A tough cookie, smart as hell but alas a woman. So the only thing left to really be done is for the women, in fact not even just the women, men too who value what is fair, to please make your way to the sidelines. I am often left lamenting that it seems more men stand up for our female leaders than women. We are half the population. It is up to us as women to stand toe to toe with the hecklers, to shout our cheers louder than the heckling. No matter what side of the fence politically you view yourself as sitting, we women must cheer each other on.
Don’t do it for left or right, do it for yourself. Do it for the women who put up the fight that affords us today some room to cast our votes to whatever part of the fence we wish to cast them. Men did not hand us those rights. The women before us took them with the kind of hard work and suffering that the average man of those times did not have to deal with to get their vote. If Jacinda Ardern or for that matter any woman is going to pursue higher office, you can bet it will not be handed to her, it will be taken. Just as it is taken by men. We each earn our climb up the mountain, we put one foot in front of the other and we climb. There is no magic helicopter on this climb dolled out to a 'pretty little thing' no matter what those on the sidelines may claim.
Bigger than politics
This issue is, however, bigger than politics. Lately we have seen a backlash against many women in New Zealand standing up for themselves when objectified. It just so happens politics is the field casting the most light on the issue as I write this. Which has got me thinking about Judith Collins, an email and a certain minister with his Saudi sheep bribes.
Possibly next week I will write about my opinion of Murray McCully as a woman. It would, however, be a stretch to imagine a woman doing anything so very silly, let alone being allowed to walk away scotfree. In fact, if McCully were a woman, he would have his voice muted and be relegated to repeating the line, 'I agree with whatever the prime minister thinks and does'. McCully would be told to take a breather. So, we shall see.
Here's to the women embracing leadership. Here's to the voices of both the men and fellow women cheering them on from the sidelines. There is great strength in femininity – do not allow the 'pretty little thing' or 'lightweight' jibes to convince you otherwise. The most powerful thing about a woman is that she could be leading a pack of wolves and not be noticed. The wolves may think they are leading but they are indeed being lead. Keep making your way to the race track and know that as each of us line up to whatever starting block it is we have chosen, just in doing so it gives those that will come after us the permission to do so as well.
Pearl Going is an Auckland-based media publicist.
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