Her trademark empathy on full display, Jacinda Ardern, the antipodean icon of female empowerment, recently delivered her farewell speech to the New Zealand Parliament.
The ex-Prime Minister announced her intention to resign in January, citing burnout as a key reason for her departure. At the time, Ardern said she had no plans other than to spend more time with family. Cue the hand-wringing from the third-wave feminists.
Ardern acknowledged that her partner Clarke Gayford and daughter Neve, who she gave birth to while in office, ‘sacrificed the most’, and that she did not have ‘enough left in the tank’ to fulfil the duties of another term in office. It appeared that all that time spent globetrotting advocating for globalist projects had finally taken a toll.
‘To Neve: Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke – let’s finally get married,’ she said.
These are not exactly the sentiments one would expect to hear from a modern career woman liberated from the patriarchal institutions of marriage and family.
A useful, if not particularly sharp, weapon, Arden was regularly held up in the spotlight – her youth, political style, and empathy a feel-good balm for her devoted followers on the left.
Politically, Ardern’s timing could not be more impeccable. After her five years in office and in an election year, New Zealand faces worsening cost-of-living pressures, a housing crisis, a failing economy, and, likely, a recession.
From a career perspective, Ardern hasn’t done too poorly either. She recently landed two cushy new appointments, the first as special envoy for the Christchurch Call and the second as trustee for Prince William’s Earthshot Prize. One wonders how she will be able to squeeze in more time with family as she takes on these two high-profile roles.
Ardern’s resignation raises important concerns about balancing career and caring duties in the 21st century. It begs the question: do women even want it all?
Today’s fashionable political and social messaging says yes – women can have it all, they should have it all and if they don’t have it all they are a failure.
This was in line with Ardern’s messaging at her farewell address: ‘I leave knowing I was the best mother I could be,’ she said. ‘You can be that person and be here.’
But most women disagree. Research indicates the majority prefer to be a homemaker and believe the role of the full-time mother is undervalued in society. In 2015, a Gallup poll found that 56 per cent of women with children under the age of 18 would prefer to stay home rather than seek paid employment.
These results reflected a major study released in 1999 by the British Cabinet Office’s Women’s Unit, which also found women felt that motherhood was undervalued, and it was often social pressure that drove them back to work once their children started school.
Even Ardern, the pin-up girl for female empowerment, has said she imagines her post-political future with a family focus, acknowledging the sacrifices her partner and child had to make for her career. Through this unlikeliest of proponents, we witness the clash between the priorities of political and inner-city elites and those of mainstream women.
While women have come a long way in the struggle for equality in society, it is clear the feminist movement in some areas has been completely hijacked by economic interests.
Bureaucrats in the Canberra bubble, for example, measure a woman’s success by her contribution to the national GDP. More generally, postmodern Western society seems to view success through a financial lens alone – to be employed is to be empowered. To be a mother is to be disenfranchised. Increasingly, motherhood is described as ‘unpaid caring’ and as a ‘penalty’.
Arguably, the pre-modern woman who worked in the family home was more liberated than the post-modern woman who is expected to hold down a job while also taking care of her family.
Life used to occur in the home. Here relationships were nurtured, skills passed down, stories shared, and children educated. It is only very recently in human history that these responsibilities have been outsourced to the state as harried parents rush off to work.
The home has become an ideal rather than a practical reality.
Women are now undergoing a process similar to that experienced by men when they were prised away from the home during the industrial revolution.
The key motivating factor in both cases is money. Men were needed to fill the factories and mines that sprung up in the mid-18th century. Women are now needed to address worker shortages exacerbated by a stagnating birth rate and an ageing population.
But it is disingenuous to sell this phenomenon as female empowerment. First-wave feminism advocated for choice. In contrast, third-wave feminism requires women to live within a rigid set of markers of success linked to career and lifestyle.
Women should be free to choose without the pressure of social and political messaging that promulgates the notion if you don’t want and have it all you are a failure.
We are all poorer for the West’s abandonment of the home as the centre point of human society.
The Howard Government was the last in Australia to offer genuine support to those women who wanted to stay home and raise a family. Significantly, Howard’s pro-family stance was influenced by Catherine Hakim’s Preference Theory and her paper Competing family models, competing social policies which called for flexible policy making.
Regrettably, today’s policies are anything but flexible. Those around childcare, while pushed under the guise of female empowerment, only support those women seeking a quick re-entry into the workforce post-childbirth. The stay-at-home mother wishing to devote themselves to family is forgotten.
Given her status as the embodiment of modern female empowerment, it is ironic that Jacinta Ardern’s exit from politics should remind us that such old-fashioned concepts as family and choice are the real determiners of women’s freedom.
This article was originally published in The Spectator Australia on or about 4 May 2023 and was written by the author in her capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.