Do you want the heartwarming version of this story, or the chilling one? National Correspondent Michelle Duff explores the Prime Minister’s legacy and what she faced in office.
Jacinda Ardern, the youngest woman Prime Minister and the second to have a baby while in office, has broken global glass ceilings and shown a generation that leading with kindness and empathy can equate to strength.
She’s broken stereotypes and deliberately created space in what is still a man’s world; expressing breast milk during an interview, taking her daughter to the UN, routinely nailing disrespectful and sexist questions.
“I’m not the first woman to multitask,” she said, announcing the news of her pregnancy three months after her meteoric rise to PM in October 2017.
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“I’m pregnant, not incapacitated.”
[Jabcinda Ardern is a plastic, lying, arrogant, repulsive cockroach. Comparing her to a pig is an insult to all pigs – Telegram users, 2021 and 2022]
She blazed a trail for young women, promoting inclusivity and acceptance at a time Trump talked of grabbing ‘em by the p…..
She was a solid leader through a time of unprecedented non-wartime crisis, including a white supremacist terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption, and a global pandemic during which strict lockdown measures ensured New Zealand has one of the lowest death rates in the world.
“She’s shown how leadership can be feminine but still be effective. We are mothers, we are empathetic, and we don’t have to act like men and just that permission to be a woman – in whatever way you are a woman – and being a leader, Jacinda has proven that,” says Te Kaunihera Wahine o Aotearoa/National Council of Women NZ president Suzanne Manning.
[Ding, dong, the witch is gone. Let’s make a citizen’s arrest, burn her on the parliament lawns – sign outside Labour caucus retreat, post on far-right network Counterspin’s Telegram channel, January 2023]
On Thursday, Ardern announced her resignation.
“I am entering now my sixth year in office, and for each of those years, I have given my absolute all,” she said. Her job was fulfilling and a privilege, but it had been challenging.
“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.”
[Good f..king riddance, evil cow – Telegram user Susan, January 2023]
Here is a picture of Ardern and her fiance Clarke Gayford with their newborn daughter in late 2018. She is wrapped in a patchwork quilt. Each square was lovingly knitted by primary school-aged children.
And here is a sample of keywords the team at the Disinformation Project use to monitor misogyny across Telegram and other social media platforms in 2023, frequented by hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders. Number one is c..t.
15. kill them
17. necks snap
Sliding scale of abuse
This is not about the valid criticism of policy changes Ardern’s Government has ushered in – and those it has failed to enact, or that have been slowed by the Covid 19-response.
The stagnation of progress on issues from housing to the cost of living has dented her popularity as a leader since her “stardust” days, where she turned a seemingly unwinnable election into stand-alone Labour success.
It has not been a transformational two terms of Government – even though polls suggest she is still the most popular choice of leader, with 29% preferring her.
This is about blaming Ardern for everything , for targeting her based on her gender, for threatening her safety and that of her family with a sliding scale of vile toxic abuse that begins with “Cindy” and ends with threats of rape, torture and murder.
This is about the open and virulent misogyny Ardern and other female politicians and public figures are now commonly and increasingly subject to, the kind that Director-General of Security for NZSIS Rebecca Kitteridge said would have been “unthinkable” several years ago, fuelled by a vocal conspiracy ecosystem.
When I wrote Jacinda Ardern: The Story Behind an Extraordinary Leader in 2019, exploring Ardern’s rise and what it meant for feminism, I outlined some of the sexism she’d faced. She’d been told she was a “pretty communist”, to “Zip it, sweetie”, had her competency for the job questioned, her youth derided, been drilled on family plans.
Former prime minister Helen Clark told me it was far beyond what she had ever experienced.
How quaint this seems, six years later. Ardern did not say so, but some believe that open, dripping hatred and credible death and rape threats are partly the reason behind her early retirement as PM.
A smaller world
We don’t know exactly what influenced Ardern’s decision. But we do know that, for her, occupying the public sphere was increasingly difficult.
It’s an unwritten rule in the parliamentary gallery that Ardern’s security isn’t discussed. The media don’t report on it, and her office and the police won’t talk about it. While this makes sense, it has also had the effect of shielding the public from the dangerous reality. The stories joking about her “hipster” bodyguard or the “security uncles” protecting her during a walk on Wellington’s waterfront have gone.
With the significant beefing up of armed security in the past couple of years, most notably since the parliamentary protest, Ardern’s world has become much smaller and hostile. At routine visits, such as to one Christchurch school, her van is chased by protesters shouting “traitor” and other insults.
Anti-government protesters heckle Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her visit to Tuahiwi School near Christchurch.
Among the deluge of social media posts and media about Ardern’s resignation, some praise her for taking care of herself and her family, having the strength to recognise she is running on empty and call it; a “yaasss, Queen” move in a year when work-life balances are being re-evaluated the world over.
Others deride Ardern for not being able to handle the pressure, or celebrate her early retirement.
On Radio New Zealand, opposition leader Christopher Luxon is asked by host Guyon Espiner if he is subject to abuse. ”I know I am, I’m sure I am, but the reality is I handle it and I don’t live my life on Twitter.”
Is it worse for women? “I’m not sure about that…there is just deep polarisation of political views.”
Elsewhere, there is overt denial of gendered abuse. At Shooters Saloon Bar & Hotel in Auckland, a crudely drawn sign announcing a “Red Witch Leaving Party” appears on a fence.
Asked if it is sexist, owner Shayne LaRosa tells Stuff: “It has nothing to do with that. I mean it’s debatable for a start whether she is a woman. It’s nothing to do with her sex…she needs to be tried for the crimes against New Zealand people.”
Violence that begins online sparks kinetic action. Eight men have appeared before the courts for threatening Ardern since 2019. Threats against her have tripled in this time.
Massey University school of management senior lecturer Suze Wilson said gender was absolutely part in what she’s faced.
“If she’d been the same but a man the reaction would have been different. Ardern being a woman leader, being a young woman, being a woman who had a child in office out of wedlock, the particular style of leadership she practised – all of this has been good, a progressive push.
“So what we are seeing is the backlash, it’s just that it’s taken a particularly violent turn here in a way that really poses a threat to democracy.”
Wilson applauded what she sees as Ardern’s bravery in resigning.
“Any woman who finds herself subject to abuse is entitled to do what she needs to do to get on with her life, and we should unequivocally respect and support that. Good on her.”
New Zealand’s Prime Ministers have been notoriously accessible, perhaps best illustrated by a public barbecue hosted on Waitangi Day, where the PM is behind the grill.
Ardern’s safety was impossible to guarantee this year, and the barbecue looked likely to be canceled. Insiders say Ardern’s security breathed a sigh of relief when her wedding to Gayford was called off last year, ostensibly due to a shift in Covid alert levels.
“Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time,” Ardern said, in her speech. “And for me, it’s time.”
Despair and hope
For those invested in gender equality, there is despair. Where Ardern’s election felt like a step forward for progress, her resignation was deflating. What woman would want to stand for a leadership role that opens them to such abuse, let alone literal danger?
“We’ve heard of many women who did not stand for local body elections last year because of the emotional and personal cost of being targeted for abuse. That is happening,” Manning, from the council of women, says.
But Manning also has hope. Her organisation has been around for 120 years, and this is not its first backlash.
“Jacinda was herself, she brought herself to the table, and that will have a ripple effect for a lot of other women who struggled to fit into a mould that didn’t work for them. Yes there has been backlash, but society changes incrementally, not all at once.
“We are never going to be quiet, that is never going to happen.”
In my book, riffing on the “They are us” mantra Ardern offered the Muslim community after the March 15 terrorist attacks, I wrote: “We, as a nation, created the conditions for Ardern to win. We voted her into office, and we’ll decide whether she stays. She is us.”
The moment was bigger than one woman.
This one is, too. History will judge what it says.
Additional reporting by Mildred Armah.
Correction: Clarke Gayford is Jacinda Ardern’s fiance, not yet her husband. Story updated January 21, 7.42am.
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