Should Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and mother of a new baby, rewrite the PM’s role to part-time?

I said yes, in an opinion piece in the NZ Herald on 21 July.

My goal was not to criticise her parenting arrangements, or to imply she should be lead parent, as one critic claimed.

Her daughter, Neve, is in great hands in the care of her dad, Clarke Gayford.

My goal was to challenge her to stand up for herself, and, by extension, all women.

I didn’t want to see the Prime Ministership squat in Jacinda’s life like an 800lb gorilla while she, a new mother, was expected to dance attendance on it, appeasing it with bananas.

Rather than sending her back to the kitchen, I was calling on her to bring the kitchen to work. I wanted her to make child care’s titanic presence felt by fitting the PM role around it. I wanted the gorilla to do some shifting around motherhood.

In the time she took back from the job, I envisioned that dad would continue to be lead parent so Jacinda could sleep, sleep and sleep; get on top of housework and errands; have at least a little time to eat and exercise; and spend a few wonderful moments with her new baby.

It seemed obvious to me that a part-time ‘feminised’ Prime Ministership was a superior one for a woman if it unlocks badly needed time to be a mother and run her home. For the great majority of women, it is a more empowering option, not a disempowering one. A super-full-time ‘masculinised’ PM timetable isn’t ’empowering’. It’s crippling. It’s inferior.

 

The Backlash

 

Predictably, there was opposition—not from men, but from women.

All the outrage came from feminists, who believe a female PM working part-time hours is ‘less than’ a male PM working full-time. That’s because they peg a woman’s worth to how well she can replicate a man’s life.

In their eyes, to acknowledge a woman as different to a man is automatically to insult her.

One female emailer labelled my call for a woman-inclusive Prime Ministership “bile”; another told me it was “distasteful.”

New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister (1997-1999), Dame Jenny Shipley, quoted in an accompanying article in the NZ Herald, seemed determined to shut down any suggestion that Jacinda be accommodated with a mother-friendly role.

Astonishingly, she said it was not about the hours worked.

Not about the hours? That will be news to mothers, especially mothers of babies and preschoolers, who meet the 24/7, 365-day-a year responsibility of caring for children and running a home. Some of those mothers might want to take a shot at politics, but Jenny Shipley says they are to be locked out except on a timetable and conditions designed for a man with a wife at home.

She said we should “respect Jacinda’s determination to lead and her choices.”

But that’s just the problem—to keep the role designed for a housework-free, child-free man is not to lead, it’s to follow men. And what choices? Thanks to the precedent set by Jenny Shipley, Jacinda currently has only one choice: to be a super-full-time PM. Having one ‘choice’ is no choice at all.

Of course, we should all want for Jacinda whatever she wants.

If Jacinda is genuinely happy as a full-time PM working traditionally ‘male’ hours, then we can all be happy for her.

However, that doesn’t mean we should be happy for ourselves, or for other women. As Jacinda herself said on her first day back at work on Thursday, she is no role model. She has made the point before that few women have the resources, staff and at-home dad to help them take on such a supersize endeavour.

Our feminist society doesn’t want whatever Jacinda wants. Our feminist society wants Jacinda to want what it wants—and that’s to kow-tow to the ‘male’ domain of politics by making the ‘female’ domain of motherhood disappear. To Jacinda the human being, the woman, the mother, they show little to no tolerance. To Jacinda the PM—that is, to the Jacinda who does what a man does—they are cheerleaders shaking the pom-poms.

I want Jacinda to defy those feminist misogynists. No matter how comfortable she may be as a full-time PM, we Western women are relying on her to fling open the doors of the workplace to accommodate the rest of us as mothers (and to a lesser degree, as housewives) with a boldly feminised system of part-time and flexible hours that is actively designed around child care and home-running; the ability to bring kids to our office without snide remarks from colleagues about how ‘unprofessional’ we are; reduced travel requirements; work-from-home protocols; and many other practices that could make mothers’ already difficult lives easier.

If she did so, her imprimatur on mother-inclusive work practices in the governmental domain would reverberate throughout the economy, not just in New Zealand, but across the world.

 

Mothers Do Not Suck – Or Do They?

 

Long before Jacinda assumed the Prime Ministership in October 2017, back in the 1980s and 90s, feminism’s most woman-rejecting, man-imitating women had floated to the top of the corporate and government hierarchy, where they played blind to the workload of mothering and running a home. They’re still there.

When Jacinda announced a surprise pregnancy in January 2018, it looked like that old tide of mother-denial might finally turn.

Let’s hope so.

As I noted in the NZ Herald, feminism has a long history of turning its back on mothers.

Former NZ Prime Minister (1999-2008), Helen Clark, in an article in The Guardian on 21 June, the day Neve was born, recapped it when she wrote:

“Arrangements were made for Ardern to work until very close to the birth, and then for the deputy prime minister to act in her place while she takes some six weeks maternity leave – although no one really believes that Ardern will be far from her phone! After that, Gayford takes over as primary carer for the foreseeable future.”

Six weeks after having a baby, the average mother is frazzled beyond imagination, tormented by sleeplessness, ravaged by the baby’s crying, barely able to sit down to a decent meal, bereft of exercise, and plunged to a nadir by the obliteration of her time.

The burden is even greater for new mothers. That first child is a cosmic shock. A mother transitions from a person in possession of her own life, to someone who lives in a permanent state of renunciation in order to give a new little person their life.

Helen Clark’s mocking implication is that any new mother who can’t do all this and take phone calls about affairs of state too is a loser.

Anyone can see the heinous misogyny in that attitude.

That misogyny was unintentionally reflected in the NZ Herald’s accompanying Editorial which argued it was “retrograde” to suggest a new mother might need the PM’s role to shift around her. The notion that to accommodate women’s staggering burden of child care is to go ‘backwards’ and that to wall it out is doing her a favour is straight from the feminist playbook.

To the masculinist brand of feminism that we live with today, womanhood is a state of shame to be transcended by the saving grace of a man-identical career. Instead of sneering at the oppression that limited women to roles as housewives and mothers, feminists sneered at the housewife and mother herself.

This self-rejection plays out as a subservient insistence that only women willing, able or craven enough to work to a man’s timetable and conditions are a man’s equal.  

And with its subsequent refusal to admit women to the ‘male’ domain of business and government on terms designed for the housewives and mothers that women also are, feminism became an own goal.

 

Part-time PM – Is It Possible?

 

Can a country be run part-time? Maybe.

The business of administering New Zealand is divided across about 36,000 civil servants and politicians. If they all work 40 hours a week, that is 1.44 million hours that go into running the country every week.

Yet the Prime Minister only puts in, say, 80 hours – a mere 1/18,000th of the total.

Can we not make just one more division in those 1.44 million hours, by shaving off some time from the PM’s role, to allow mothers to lead their country?

I suggested that Jacinda pull the job back to around 25 to 30 hours. The difference between a full-time PM’s 80 hours and a part-time PM’s 30 is 50 hours per week. That is 1/28,800th of the hours spent running the country each week.

Can we really not dispense with those hours from the PM’s job?

A democratic government is made up of the innovation and hard work of a great many people, drawing on input from the public service, academics, scientists, business professionals, institutions, charities, and the public. The PM alone may come up with hardly any ideas at all.

The Prime Minister’s department is perhaps better described as a marshalling yard for all that policy, and a conduit for communicating that policy to Parliament and the public.

If the job is more about coordinating policies and people, and conveying the nation’s decisions to the public, does it really need to be an 80-hour-per-week gig? Couldn’t that be done by a mother working, say, five six-hour days?

After all, when a male PM is asleep for eight hours, and having at least some evenings and weekend time off, no one asks “Who’s flying the plane?” Do any of us really know what our Prime Ministers are doing at any given moment, and do we really believe that everything they are doing can be done by no one else but them?

Objectors can claim that the PM’s role is too important to be shrunk, and they may well be right.

However, how is it that the role is not too important to shrink into one man’s life?

In theory, the job could take anything from just over zero hours to an almost infinite number of hours.

Yet by magical convenience, it appears the PM can do the job in the 80 or so hours that are a natural fit into one man’s week (when we excuse him from meeting his ‘equal’ half-share of domestic work and parenting).

My Kiwi neighbor in Sydney, Australia, had no issues with the idea of a part-time PM.

“Why not have two co-PMs?” she suggested, noting that her former employer, a large American corporation, has co-Vice Presidents of large departments.

 

A Woman’s Kind of PM

 

To female voters, a part-time PM has more time to be a mother, and so to know what mothers are going through. That might easily make her a better PM in their eyes.

What sleep-deprived mother wouldn’t want a leader who knows what it is like to be stuck in traffic at 11:30am with a squalling baby and an 18-month-old who has catastrophically vomited in the car-seat, and to have to get home to get baby breastfed and down, and crying toddler bathed and changed, and lunch made for herself and toddler, and toddler fed and got down for a nap with three stories and lots of shoulder-patting, and to rinse the toddler’s clothes and bathroom floor, and to wash the car-seat and shampoo the back seat of the car – all by 12:30pm or the toddler won’t go down, and that means a hellish afternoon without a nap for herself and a further 36 hours of grumpy toddler?

Even if the top job of PM cannot be reworked to a part-time shape, other roles in government need to be.

Backbenchers currently do about 60 hours per week, say, putting Parliamentary seats out of reach for many women. Why not tailor those seats to 25 hours per week? Or have dual-occupancy seats that allow one mother to do the school hours shift in the electorate office, and a child-free woman (or man) to take on early mornings, afternoons, school holidays and Parliamentary sittings?

Cabinet Ministries in New Zealand already have Associate Ministers with delegated areas of authority—one Associate Minister might be responsible for mental health services in the Health ministry, for example, while another oversees a change to vaccines legislation.

Could we not parcel out a greater number of Ministry responsibilities in smaller chunks to accommodate women? How is it that we resist breaking down Cabinet portfolios into blocks of hours performable by women with children to care for? But no matter how grand and complex the portfolio, society miraculously concludes that one man can handle it?

It goes without saying that the nation’s welfare must not be compromised by a part-time leadership. Even with a lot of goodwill, a part-time Prime Ministership might not be doable without harming a country’s wellbeing. If that’s the case, then part-time PMs are out of the question.

But the reason our Western societies did not forge part-time Prime Ministerships for women should not be because we wouldn’t try.

 

A Truly ‘Gender-Equal’ World Welcomes Women

 

The woman-denying masculinism that feminism degenerated into in the 1980s is why feminist ‘leaders’ like Helen Clark are the problem, not the solution.

“New Zealand will continue to be a leader in the full inclusion of women in all spheres of its society,” she wrote in her Guardian piece.

Really? Does New Zealand run a school hours economy parallel to the main economy to afford mothers time to grapple round-the-clock babycare, wrangle toddlers, get older kids to and from school and activities, cook dinner, run the house, be home in school holidays, and enter the workplace on a timetable as ‘equally’ manageable to her as her husband’s 40-hour timetable is to him? Because it should.

Does it offer parents unpaid sick kids’ leave, beyond the national five days’ paid adult sick leave? It should.

Can every expectant woman negotiate light duties to cover morning sickness, fatigue, the assorted ailments that come and go with pregnancy, and the physical restrictions of the bump? She should have the right to ask, even if an employer can’t always oblige.

Does New Zealand have a women’s advisory panel attached to every government department to give ordinary mothers and home-makers (not just femocrats) a say on policy, without the need to enter Parliament on the all-consuming timetable designed for a man? If not, why not?

These are rights and structures women the world over, not just in New Zealand, should be able to expect.

Thanks to lack of leadership by female patriarchs like Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley, they don’t have them.

 

A Full-on Feminised World

 

A society that blanks mothers and home-makers is not one that ‘fully’ includes women, but one that fully excludes them. If they take a 9-to-5 job, they are fully excluded from their ability to tend to their family and domestic work most of the week.

If they can’t or won’t work 9-to-5, they are fully shut out of the workplace. Unless they can find jobs actively designed around women, that is—not easy to locate in a feminist society.

So hostile is the workplace to mothers, that I know of one mother in Sydney who didn’t dare tell her law firm employer that she even had children. That was in 2005, after feminism had had 40 years to bring in change.

In a truly gender-equal world, a woman’s unpaid work—not just her man-identical paid work—is given its equally due status.

Instead of rendering her a ‘liability’ at work, as it does in this feminist era, her unpaid work outside the workplace is admired and incorporated inside the workplace, as much as it practicably can be within the constraints of the job.

To craft a society that is built around all that a woman does and brings to the world as a mother and home-maker is not “bile,” as my critic alleged.

It is to treat a woman as the dynamic, beautiful, authoritative, autonomous, intelligent, high-contributing and fully legitimate human being she is. With or without a career.

Every female leader has not just the opportunity, but a duty, to build that society. If they don’t, they’re no leader.

A part-time Prime Ministership may seem radical, but the day will come when it will seem routine to make at least some  re-working of the role to open it to women with children.

After all, mothers have a right to take part in their own government. A mother should not have to de-motherise to lead her own nation.


Natalie Ritchie is a mother of two teenage boys, and was most recently features editor of Australia’s biggest parenting magazine, CHILD. Her book, Roar Like A Woman: How Feminists Think Women Suck and Men Rock went on sale 5 June, 2018. Download the free Intro here. 

Image Credit (in order of appearance):
Photo by Sonja Langford, Kevin Bhagat, Tanaphong Toochinda, Marcelo Silva
All at Unsplash

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