Women suffer guilt, abuse and disapproval. No wonder Jacinda Ardern is knackered | Jess Phillips

We worry about our families, ourselves, the threats and society’s expectations. When it leads to burnout, can anyone be surprised?

Jacinda Ardern has no gas left in the tank to continue as the prime minister of New Zealand. Her resignation speech was the sort of rare and dignified moment that we have come to expect from her, as a woman who presented the world with the kind of leadership that uniquely leant on her emotional intelligence. I’ll miss her tone and grace. She leaves a legacy she can be proud of.

I have been thinking about what burned the fuel that she relied on to govern.

Firstly I have no doubt that she felt the constant guilt that pretty much every woman in the world feels the moment they evacuate their womb of a child. Even the Mary Poppins-style perfect, Instagram-polished mothers of the world fret that something they do will harm their child in some way. I asked my husband, who has always been our son’s primary carer, if he ever felt guilty for missing a school play or staying late at work. He looked at me baffled; the concept was lost on him. He just thinks, “I had to go to work,” and that’s the beginning and end of that moral maze for him. For me, there is a constant torture and self-loathing about how my choices might affect them. No matter how I try to push away the societal grooming, it is always there. For Ardern there will have been column inches aplenty to keep the torture prickling her skin.

This is not to say that most working women don’t just push through this: they do so every single day in every single workforce in the country. It just burns up fuel, fuel that others don’t need to spend. It is tiring and saps our bandwidth.

The pressure pushed on to working women is tiring enough without it being amped up by being a public woman – and the worst of all offences, to some, a political woman. The thing that burns my fuel to the point of a flashing emergency light and a blaring alarm is the abuse and threat of violence that has become par for the course for political women. Jacinda Ardern will have suffered this mercilessly. Today, colleagues and admirers discussed the extent to which that constant threat of abuse contributed to her burnout.

Those threats came from many sources, too: people who hate progressive women and believe they are damning masculinity; anti-vaxxers outraged by her tough Covid stance; those with a general loathing of all politicians.

Combine the two fuel burners and what you end up with is the terrible guilt, fear and shame that decisions you have made in your career, or your political stances (no matter how much you believe in them), put your children, loved ones and employees in danger.

Moments before I started writing this, I spoke to a woman who works for me who told me she wouldn’t be in work on a particular day because she had to give evidence in court after an incident in my office. She was not the target: it was me. When my children at school have to answer questions from their classmates about stances I have taken, or are told hateful and untrue things that have been published about me, or when they act hyper-vigilantly in public crowds, aware of the threat to us, my heart breaks and more fuel burns up.

No doubt this is something all men and women in political life experience. However, studies show that the level of violence – often sexualised violence – and the threat that female politicians face is incomparable. I am used to it. I wish I wasn’t; but I also wish I was a size 10. But I will also never get used to the effect it has on other people; it is so very tiring. It’s just something else I have to consider on top of worrying about policy and details, and fallout, and loyalties. It burns fuel.

What can we do about it? Like Jacinda, I believe the answer is being honest about the fact that politics is an emotional not a bureaucratic game. And constantly pushing for a more empathetic political environment, which will be brought about by having more female leaders and politicians, not fewer.

I am not so idealistic as to think politics is going to change its stripes in my time. But we must build the structures into our politics and our media that damn and criminalise the perpetrators of this abuse, and those who make massive profits from spreading it. We must create support structures female politicians and activists can lean on without being seen negatively or as weak.

Alas, even as I pen my suggestions for change, I know that it is women who will have to do the labour to achieve it, just like we always do. This work takes more fuel – fuel others don’t have to use up in the pursuit of a political life. No wonder Jacinda’s knackered.

• Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

• This article was amended on 22 January 2023 to correct a lent/leant homophone.


Jess Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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