Shame on our misogyny: It’s no wonder Ardern was driven out

“Shame on our misogyny: It’s no wonder Ardern was driven from office”

Alison Mau



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Friends, if you have become used to using the name ‘‘Cindy’’ to describe the prime minister – you know, with that ever-so-slight hint of a sneer – it’s likely we’re not talking any more. Because you’re part of the problem. Many thousands of words have been written just in the past few days about the level of hatred Jacinda Ardern faced. Slurs directed at her appearance, her youth, her parenting, her relationship – these all bloomed like the corpse-flower into death and rape threats, calls for her public hanging, and harassment on the streets. Many commentators have said these attacks came from people who ‘‘hate women’’. I don’t think that’s true. They are sexist and misogynistic, for sure, but let’s not conflate the two. In her 2018 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Cornell philosopher Kate Mann has a different and more nuanced theory, which goes like this: If misogyny was a deep and entrenched hatred of all women, it would be rare. Instead, given women’s traditional roles as ‘‘providers of loving and seamless service’’, the hostility is directed at women who don’t toe that line. Misogyny is the policing of women who step out of line, and that means women who rise to positions of power that were until recently reserved for men. And there you have it. When I raised Ardern’s name as a potential Labour leader in 2016, my fellow radio political panellists laughed. Back then, Ardern was ‘‘too young’’ and ‘‘too inexperienced.’’ In the five years since she became prime minister, that discourse became an unwinnable see-saw. Too insubstantial. Too dictatorial. Too empathetic. Not empathetic enough. Too emotional. Even as she announced her resignation, the pack was howling about the emotion she struggled to contain. The common denominator being hate directed at her personally, rather than the actions of her government. As she resigned, Ardern avoiding naming the wave of abuse as a contributing factor. She has not talked about the toll these vile attacks have taken on her and her family – indeed, she cannot talk about the thing that often drives women from positions of public power. She can’t name the evil as she steps down because if she does, she loses. Her attackers would have whipped her for it. As Massey University School of Management senior lecturer Dr Suze Wilson put it, she could not admit to it, because it would have told the trolls they’d won. And the trolls do regularly win. In 2019, a report from a cross-party group of women MPs showed sexism and harassment was driving some women out of Parliament. On Friday, when National leader Christopher Luxon was asked in an RNZ interview whether women politicians get more abuse than men and said he’s ‘‘not sure’’, the hiss of the intake of breath from women all around the country was almost audible. His take is probably more disingenuous than clueless. Luxon works in the same place as male MPs such as Andrew Little and David Seymour, both of whom told me ahead of the 2020 election they were well aware of the difference. Seymour said: ‘‘I have noticed that women in politics get nastier and more personal – including more sexualised – abuse.’’ (Side-note: neither does Luxon’s claim that he’s not in the know because he ‘‘doesn’t spend his life on Twitter’’ stand up; although social media is a cesspit, some of the most dangerous threats Ardern received were via email.) Now we’re in an election year, women who might have put themselves forward as candidates may be having another more cautious think about what that means for themselves and their families. If this kind of vitriol has that effect, we’ve already lost. A study released last June by the American Political Science Review found greater representation by women MPs lowers the level of partisan hostility towards those parties. Just as some corporates refuse to help their bottom line by hiring more women executives or board members, in an era where partisan hostility has reached truly frightening levels, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. So no, the personal threats to Ardern – which have tripled since 2020 – were not made by people who just hate women. Rather, it’s about control. As Kate Mann says in her book, when people are attached to positions they believe are their birthright, there is backlash. ‘‘What would need to change is for men in positions of power to accept that women can surpass them without having wronged them.’’