A television host’s question on motherhood to the new leader of New Zealand’s opposition Labour Party has prompted a row over gender roles in the country that was the first to give women the right to vote. Jacinda Ardern was elected head of Labour on Tuesday, and at 37 she is the youngest person, and second woman (Helen Clark, the first, was also a prime minister), to lead the party. The headlines about her so far have been enthusiastic. She’s being portrayed as “authentic,” “powerful, composed, and eloquent”—all traits she’ll need when New Zealand votes next month in parliamentary elections. Her party’s poor performance in the polls prompted Andrew Little, its leader, to step down. Ardern, who had been spoken of as a future party leader, ascended to the post almost immediately. But if persuading the electorate that Labour is worth voting for is one battle for Ardern, her other battle was persuading television panelists that her future plans for motherhood was irrelevant to her potential leadership of New Zealand. She and her partner, Clarke Gayford, don’t have children, and Ardern has previously discussed how wanting children has made her think about her professional choices. But the questions about parenthood began a few hours after her election Tuesday as Labour’s leader.
Ardern appeared on The Project, a current-affairs show, and among the questions she was asked was this one by Jesse Mulligan, one of the show’s hosts: “I’ve got a question and we’ve been discussing today whether or not I’m allowed to ask it,” Mulligan said, appearing hesitant, prompting laughter from his female co-host. “A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career, and continuing their career at a certain point in their lives, their late 30s. Is that a decision you feel you have to make or feel you’ve already made?”
Ardern replied with the poise expected of a leader of a political party.
“Thank you for reminding the New Zealand public about my age,” she said, eliciting laughter from the hosts and the audience. “I have no problem with you asking me that question because I have been very open about discussing that dilemma because I think probably lots of women face it. “For me, my position is no different to the woman who works three jobs, or who might be in a position where they are juggling lots of responsibilities.”