Two Top Female Leaders Resign Within Weeks of Each Other. Is the Culprit Domestic Unpopularity or the Patriarchy of Politics?

Photo Credit: Alamy (left); MSNBC (middle); Al Jazeera/Reuters (right)

By Molly Ruebe-Haig
Staff Writer

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation on January 18th 2023, the world was shocked. “I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility… I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she stated in an interview. Almost exactly a month later, Scottish National Party (SNP) Leader Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as party leader, explaining to the media that “the nature and form of modern political discourse means there is a much greater intensity— dare I say it, brutality— to being a politician than in years gone by.” For Ardern, it was her strict zero-COVID policy that put her on the global map, but caused huge backlash at home. For Sturgeon, it was her relentless pursuit of Scottish Independence despite continuous pushback from Westminster. The similarities here are undeniable: two female leaders famous for sticking to policies other politicians have been hesitant to support, stepping down for reasons of no longer being suitable for the job. However, Ardern and Sturgeon are not the only female leaders who face problems in office. For example, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is not as popular at home as she is internationally. The ultimate question is whether this is due to policy missteps or sexist condemnation of female leaders in office.

Upon her resignation, Ardern’s international supporters responded with cries of “but she was so popular!”. After taking office in 2017, Ardern quickly became known as one of the top female leaders in the modern world, alongside others such as Sanna Marin, Finnish Prime Minister; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Congressional Representative; and Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor. Ardern has frequented news outlets with shining stories of her compassion. Images of her donning a head covering flooded online platforms after the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shooting that killed 51— New Zealand’s largest mass shooting. Within a week, Ardern announced plans to ban semi-automatic weapons, and Parliament passed the subsequent legislation less than a month later. Her COVID crackdown early into the pandemic, closing borders completely to foreign nationals and tourists alike, gave New Zealand one of the lowest COVID death rates in the Western world. 

However, the same strict border policies caused a huge contraction of New Zealand’s vibrant tourist industry (one of its biggest GDP contributors behind agricultural practices) and stranded hundreds of foreign nationals and permanent residents outside of the country. Furthermore, while New Zealand’s COVID-death rate relative to population remained low, the vaccination rate of the country was also one of the lowest in the developed world in 2021. Moreover, The Three Waters project, which aims to consolidate the regulation of water provision into four main water services, has faced huge backlash nationwide because of the rights it takes away from local councils. Ardern also saw immense pushback from the public in 2021 after she proposed a $2.71 million NZD plan for a drug rehabilitation programme. The only catch? The programme was to be run by one of New Zealand’s most prominent gangs, the Mongrel Mob, with funding coming from a $2 million asset-seize targeting the gang. 

It is no surprise then that approval ratings for both the Labour Party and Ardern as Prime Minister have been downtrending since November 2021. Labour’s support has decreased from 41% at the end of 2021 to 33% one year later. Ardern’s approval ratings as the preferred Prime Minister have decreased by 10% over these 12 months as well.

Sturgeon faced similar disparities in support between the beginning of her tenure and the end. She is widely regarded as a key symbol of the Scottish independence movement, a distinguishing feature of British politics since the Brexit referendum was first proposed. Moreover, similar to Ardern, Sturgeon’s initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was met with widespread support from the Scottish public, especially in comparison to England, who was criticised for being too lenient during the early stages of the pandemic. 

But of course, like every other pandemic-era leader, voters soon became fed up with the incumbent’s COVID policies. Despite stricter masking policies, the per-capita death rate was reportedly higher in Scotland than in England in 2021. Sturgeon’s party base also took a hit due to conflict with the UK Parliament over Scotland’s new gender identity bill, which, if it had passed Westminster, would have allowed individuals to legally change their gender in Scotland on any legal document without having to submit to a medical examination. Unfortunately, Westminster refused to push this through. Sturgeon faced similar issues after UK Prime Minister Truss’ resignation in 2022 when she called for early elections in an attempt to gain SNP seats and boost independence calls. She asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the Scottish case on a second referendum, but failed on this account, delivering another fatal blow of instability to her platform. 

Despite these policy missteps, both leaders have faced sexist remarks from time to time that would never be asked of a male politician or leader. Ardern was continuously targeted by New Zealand tabloids for her looks and family life. For example, A New Zealand economist compared her to “lipstick on a pig”, and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson made abrasive comments about her teeth. Rumours of her husband’s alleged infidelity and drug abuse charges also spread like wildfire. Some may claim that all politicians, regardless of gender, have to deal with the entire world digging into their private lives. Donald Trump, former U.S. president, is famous for such investigations. However, and perhaps most tellingly, Ardern has faced hugely sexist lines of questioning from the media in press conferences as well.

In November of last year, Arden and Finnish Prime Minister Marin met to discuss diplomatic affairs, but instead of being asked about pressing issues like trade deals and the war in Ukraine, one reporter asked if they met “just because” of their age and gender similarities. CBS News’ Li Cohen suggested that “the question discounted the significant achievements both women have had in their countries.” 

Nicola Sturgeon has also faced intense scrutiny from official news publications and tabloids alike over trivial topics including her marriage, her being a “childless politician”, and her physical attractiveness. In an NPR news interview about Sturgeon’s resignation, a professor of politics at a prominent U.K. university stated that “[8 years is] about the shelf life for a politician.” But this comment is arguably targeted only towards women in politics, as said “shelf life” apparently does not apply to male politicians. Mitch McConnell has served as Republican Party Leader for twice as long, and has been a U.S. Senate representative for almost five times longer. Winston Churchill served the British government for almost 64 (non-consecutive) years. And according to House of Commons data, only 2 of the top 20 longest-serving Members of Parliament (MPs) as of the 2019 General Election were female. Sturgeon herself has made it clear that sexism in politics has become an even bigger issue in recent years, stating that it is “not getting better yet” and that “social media has made it worse.” This comes alongside a recent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations in Westminster, including those for multiple Scottish MPs. 

One question emerges: why aren’t male politicians ever asked similar questions about their age and gender? Because, like almost any other industry, men dominate positions of power; thus when a woman is in a position of political power, the media acts as though she is incapable of achieving milestones in trade, diplomacy, and fiscal policy.

The general public, fellow politicians, and media alike often take every opportunity to bring up female leaders’ missteps or question their ability to do their jobs simply because of their gender. Because of this, female politicians arguably face more intense obstacles during office. Not only are they required to deal with public and foreign policy issues, and altogether run a nation, but they are subjected to sexist media portrayal as if they are underqualified for the job. 

Condescending lines of questioning to do with their age, gender, or family life. Media hyperfixation on political issues that seem to only pertain to women. These pile on top of the insurmountable pressure one faces when being a global leader, let alone a young, female global leader. All the while, male politicians worldwide face charges of sexual assault, tax fraud, and even treason. But still they remain in power, or better yet, remain wealthy and in power. 

Both Ardern and Sturgeon stated that they no longer feel qualified to be a political leader, but you would never hear of a male politician stepping down for reasons of ‘inadequacy’. The world of politics makes women feel inferior and forces this feeling upon them until they accept it and resign. Thus, whilst downturns in public opinion may have placed pressure on Ardern and Sturgeon to resign, the patronising domination of men in politics and the media is not exempt from blame.

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