There is nothing that says that any woman who is successful in any sphere must support or fight for women’s rights and equality. However, I believe that when the sphere we are speaking of requires the forwarding of an agenda like a competition for political office does, a woman should clearly set out her agenda unambiguously. In establishing her core values and mission, a woman has two choices – allow people to either vote for her because she is a professional and good at her job without her gender coming into play at any level, or she embraces gender and womanhood as a part of the conversation about her service and asks for the support of people partly based on her inclusion into office being a part of a wider social justice agenda.
These two positions are not mutually exclusive or uncomplicated as human positions are always changing and evolving. However, I believe that people asking to be involved in leadership should be held to higher levels of consciousness and introspection. Gender, for sure, should not be seen as a convenience in public service. It should not be perceived that it is used to make a clearer path to office or election, then to be disregarded in high-level meetings or in the face of the patriarchal all boys club.
Any woman not called to fight for equal rights and equality for women gets no judgement from others who do. Advocacy is a personal choice and consciousness is a set of collective experiences and realities. Not all women experience life the same way and not all are exposed to victimization at the same levels. Not many things about humanity are simplistic. When professionals who are also willing to be advocates turn up, we are also eternally grateful to the women who imbue their national service with a willingness to serve women as an agenda item. In today’s column, I wish to give kudos to two such women.
Jacinda Ardern is the current prime minister of New Zealand. The thirty-seven-year-old has an impressive record of service in representation. She was the student representative on the Board of Trustees at Morrinsville College. Her substantive academic training is in communication and she worked in a number of political capacities both in New Zealand and England. In August 2017, Ardern became the Leader of the Opposition and after a campaign where donations to her party reached some of the highest levels seen, she became prime minister in October 2017.
Ardern revived the faith of New Zealanders in the Labour Party which had been floundering since defeat in 2017. It is also notable that Ardern’s rise to Leader of the Opposition was facilitated by Helen Clark, the first female ever to lead the New Zealand Labour Party. Ardern did not hide her position on problematic issues. While campaigning, she described herself as a feminist and broke with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – her family church – over her embrace of gay rights. Ardern lives with her partner Clarke Gayford, and in January the two announced their pregnancy.
They also announced intentions for Clarke to be a stay at home dad and for Ardern to be the primary bread winner of the household. Ardern became only the second leader in the world to give birth in office and her delivery in June was followed by sweeping changes to parental leave and financial benefits for families in New Zealand. Ardern named her daughter with one of the names chosen by indigenous people – another powerful and significant piece of advocacy.
Closer to home, Dr Sonia Browne, the first female Member of Parliament for St. Philip North made an unmasking contribution to the Barbados Parliament during Tuesday’s sitting. In the same week that we await a suitable outcome from the Royal Barbados Police Force on an alledged case of harassment involving two of its officers, Browne called out the practice of ‘wuk fuh wuk’ as one of the entrenched features of corruption in the Barbados political system.
Many people would say that Dr Browne did not make any grand statements about much during the recently held election campaign in Barbados. I would say that this was a very simplistic reading of the tsunami that unseated perceived heavyweight and incumbent, Michael Lashley in the rural riding. The first indication that Dr Browne was something unique was on her nomination night where she opted for a dress with hints of blue over the more expected choices of yellow or red. It was a signal that she was coming to politics on her own terms and that although she was willing to subject herself to a party whip, she was also retaining some individuality.
In the campaign, Sonia and her daughter could be seen very visibly as she canvassed and traversed the constituency. She made a decision not to leave her daughter with care but to actively mother as she was campaigning. Sonia is a single mother, and that was one of the things that resonated with the women in her constituency. She shattered the expectation that female politicians should be married and that motherhood was a hindrance to climbing the political ladder.
Browne also maintained a very dominant role in all areas of her campaign. It was not unusual to see her tinkering with a generator or some other hands-on task. Browne spoke to the ambiguous feelings she had about service and motherhood on her platforms. She may not have announced her feminism or womanism but her rhetoric certainly underlined that she understood and lived women’s struggles.
While the Parliamentary debate about integrity legislation focused on dollar amounts, Browne introduced the notion of transactional sex and the way that vulnerable women are exposed to it when seeking state intervention. This understanding of a practice that goes largely unchallenged because it is seen as culturally acceptable is a major development in terms of rewriting its perception in Barbados and the Caribbean.
Browne must now find support for her lobby among her Barbados Labour Party Members of Parliament and the non-governmental sector. These women were responsible for adjustments in history in their respective countries by their personal choices in their public roles. The global causes of women equality and rights are stronger for both. I send my heartfelt condolences and commiserations to the family and daughter of our latest female murder victim, Pauline Clarke.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women.