opinion

"It's time to stop asking female politicians why they don't have children."

You may not know Nicola Sturgeon. She’s an extremely accomplished human being. Currently the First Minister of Scotland, she took the leadership position when Alex Salmond resigned after the defeat of the “Yes” campaign referendum, which fought for Scottish independence.

Sturgeon joins the legion of women throughout the world who’ve had to clean up political messes their predecessors (coincidentally, men) have made. It’s an esteemed and rather small club which includes Theresa May and Julia Gillard.

Despite her successes, Sturgeon was compelled to reveal in last weekend’s Sunday Times that she had a miscarriage at age 40.

Interviewed by Mandy Rhodes for a book on Scottish National Party Leaders, Sturgeon — who is described by the author as “intensely private” — said she suffered a miscarriage in 2011 on the anniversary of the 1971 Ibrox football disaster, where 66 people were killed in an inexplicable stampede.

It was a day when Sturgeon should have been resting at home; instead she stoically attended the event to commemorate the anniversary, grimacing in pain. It was her public duty.

Rhodes asked her if she would’ve accomplished all she did if she hadn’t had a miscarriage. Sturgeon’s reply was refreshingly honest:

“If the miscarriage hadn’t happened, would I be sitting here as first minister right now? It’s an unanswerable question. I just don’t know… I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know the answer. I’d like to think yes, because I could have shown that having a child wasn’t a barrier to all of this, but in truth I don’t know. Having a baby might have so fundamentally changed our lives that things would have taken a different path, but if somebody gave me the choice now to turn back the clock 20 years and say you can choose to start to think about this much earlier and have children, I’d take that. But if the price of that was not doing what I’ve gone on to do, I wouldn’t accept that, no.”

The response to Sturgeon’s ‘reveal’ was overwhelmingly supportive. She was applauded for what Quartz writer Cassie Weber called starting “a conversation that’s rarely had by women in public forums.” Namely, the topic of children (or lack thereof).

In a Twitter post, Sturgeon outlined why she decided to come out in such a public fashion about her “childless” situation.

“By allowing my own experience to be reported I hope, perhaps ironically, that I might contribute in a small way to a future climate in which these matters are respected as entirely persona l— rather than pored over and speculated about as they are now,” Sturgeon writes.

Here in Australia, Julia Gillard would know about that speculation all too well. Our first female Prime Minister was mercilessly questioned about her “choice” to remain child-free, (and marriage-free to boot.) The very idea of a childless politician is something to fear. Unless they fit into that image of my spinster aunt, who keeps to herself and owns lots of cats, the idea of a lone woman in a powerful position is frankly, terrifying to many.

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By offering herself up as media fodder for such an intensely personal experience, Sturgeon has become the sacrificial lamb in a conversation that has yet to reach Kardashian status — that is, peak saturation. It is an admirable move, considering male politicians have to deal with these kinds of probing questions all the time (said no male pollie ever).

In an ironic twist, the Sunday Times was in turn slammed for its coverage of female pollies. Dubbed the “sidebar of childless politicians”, the accompanying graphic of women sans children ruffled the feathers of many punters.

A Times spokesperson admitted that they may not have handled the coverage too well.

“We felt our piece highlighted sympathetically the treatment of women politicians and the subject of miscarriage but on reflection we could have presented the sidebar more sensitively,” they told The Guardian.

It is telling of the inherent hidden biases that lurk beneath the surface, even in an article written to champion women’s causes.

In a world where much of the political sphere is dominated by men, Sturgeon has taken the bold move to crack open the dialogue regarding women in leadership positions with a taboo topic: miscarriage. People just don’t talk about it because a) it’s a very private matter and b) it makes people feel uncomfortable.

By revealing her personal experience with miscarriage, Sturgeon is subliminally calling out all the haters who question her ‘choice’ to be child-free. She’s liberated herself from the scrutiny, but in doing so, has lost a part of her privacy.

It’s a high price to pay, but one I feel, will be worth it in the long run.

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