Today’s post is sparked by an article in The Australian news site which discusses the rise in power of several childless women, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the first woman premier in Tasmania, Lara Giddings. None of them have children.
In her article “Berejiklian, Gillard, May, Merkel: power to childless women?” [link not available] author Caroline Overington notes that these women in power are always asked about their motherhood status. They are rarely mentioned without that word, childless, attached. Is it really relevant? When Merkel was running for chancellor, she got lots of flak for not having children. People asked: How can she understand the needs of parents and families if she has never given birth?
Do people judge the males in power by their parenting prowess? Sure, most of the men trot out their families on special occasions–note the constant presence of U.S. President Donald Trump’s offspring–but does it have any connection to their ability to govern? Still, can you think of any male world leader who does not have children?
All of these women have been publicly asked why they don’t have children. May has struggled with infertility, so it’s like that’s okay, she tried, it wasn’t her fault. In Australia, a former male senator commented that Gillard had kept herself “deliberately barren” while she pursued her career. Ouch.
Things don’t always turn out the way you plan, Berejiklian says, refusing to get more specific. “I hope that people judge me on my merits and what I can do.”
Women are still rare in high office. Overington contends that most women are occupied with childcare while the men, despite whatever moves toward equality have occurred, are freer to work their way to the top because they’ve got wives to deal with the kids.
You have to admit there’s some truth to that. Although we may not have done it, we can all see that childcare is and should be an intense round-the-clock occupation that doesn’t leave much time or energy for anything else, unless you can afford to pay someone to take care of the kids. It is easier to work at any career without having to worry about children. Most of us here would be willing to take on the challenge and some of us are already dealing with the responsibilities of parenthood through our stepchildren, but it’s hard.
To me, it seems like women in power will be criticized from both directions. If they have children, then they must be neglecting them. If they don’t, something must be wrong with them. Right?
If Hillary Clinton had won the U.S. presidency, she could please the pro-parenting crowd because she’s a mother and grandmother, but she was also free to do the job because her only child, daughter Chelsea, is a grown woman who not only can take care of herself but can campaign for her mom. Clinton did not become president, but it had nothing to do with whether or not she had children.
In the U.S., where our new president just took office 12 days ago, we have seen many recent pictures of politicians on stage with their spouses and their children. If I were running for office, I might be standing on that stage alone. What would people say about that? Does it matter?
So, what do you think? Does a woman need to be childless to rise to the top? Will she be forever disrespected if she doesn’t have children? Why is it so different for men? Or is it?
I’m full of questions today. Help me figure out some answers in the comments.
One thought on “Childless women in power face scrutiny”
I think there are examples of many women at the top (or trying to get to the top) both with and without children. Was it Sarah Palin in the US who had a large family, including a child with Downs I think, who in part tried to play the “I’m just a regular mum” card. I can’t recall other names but certainly I remember a high flying mum in the banking sector with a large family in the UK a few years back.
I think you are right that women in power can be judged either way, as neglectful mothers or something wrong with them for not having children. Maybe mums at the top can afford to buy in lots of childcare and domestic help, so they don’t have to be at home in time to cook dinner every night.
Turning it around, do others, or we ourselves, expect childless women to replace being a mum with something else of notable achievement? I don’t think I have done anything special that I couldn’t have done with children.